Developing Innovative Products For Women Athletes

December 1, 2003

11 Min Read
Developing Innovative Products For Women Athletes

Why are there few dietary supplement product lines positioned for women athletes on the health food and mass-market store shelves? Judi Quilici-Timmcke, MS, digs for answers

It is known that women purchase more supplements than men and that many women train regularly. There may be relatively few elite women athletes, but there are many weekend warriors who have a desire to be lean with increased muscle mass and enhanced energy levels. This may be a great opportunity for companies to capture a large market of athletic women whose nutritional needs are not being addressed.

Of note to product developers is the fact that women athletes, compared to less-active females, have greater caloric and nutrient needs depending on their physical workload, intensity and duration of training per week. Of note to marketers is that a woman athlete does not have to compete professionally to be put into this category for products.

Who would the ?woman athlete? product line be for? Those who invest a great deal of time and physical effort into a schedule packed with running, swimming, skiing, cycling, aerobic classes or other workouts at a health club on a regular basis. Or she may be the weekend warrior who prepares for marathons or 10K races on the weekends. Whoever and wherever she is, she needs more nutrients than the average woman to be healthy and to reach her highest athletic potential.

Marketing Madness
Developing these products is not difficult, but, similar to developing other product lines, the challenge is writing compliant marketing copy. The marketing department?s desire should be to inform its woman athlete customers that they have a potential risk for nutrient deficiency. The key is to inform them of the role and function of the ingredients in the body and, in the US, to express it in compliant language to satisfy Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Federal Trade Commission (FTC) regulations with appropriate structure/function claims.

Why A Women?s Line?
Women athletes have needs that differ from male athletes because of hormones, body frame, differences in nutrient stores and other physiological factors. For example, women have greater iron requirements because men store more and women lose it through blood loss during menstruation. Male athletes have also been shown to consume or exceed the Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDA) for vitamins and minerals, whereas women athletes consume only 60 to 65 per cent of the RDA.1 There are other reasons why a woman athlete?s product line is necessary.

Amenorrhea: Women who engage in intensive training or competition may experience hormonal imbalances involving painful menstrual cycles, PMS and amenorrhea, a condition where there is absence of a menstrual period. It may be related to weight loss and/or reduced body fat. This condition can increase bone loss, leading to osteoporosis and also an increased risk of cardiovascular disease. It is common in women who are runners, gymnasts, body builders and dancers. It is also observed more in vegetarian athletes than nonvegetarian. The American Dietetic Association recommends that these women should increase their calorie and fat intake, while reducing the consumption of fibre and reducing intense training.2

Nutrient deficiencies: Many athletic women follow weight-loss programmes and have a goal to increase lean muscle mass. By restricting calories, they may reduce their intake of protein, vitamins and minerals, which can cause deficiencies and may pose problems to their trained bodies.

Women athletes require more protein than sedentary women. Protein formulas made into small snacks are perfect for women athletes who are on the go and watching calories. They also work for those who need the necessary protein for muscle building and repair of tissue and to prevent hypoglycemia. Although various protein powders used in formulation already contain calcium and other nutrients, adding more calcium and minerals can be more beneficial and help the woman athlete achieve the level of nutrients needed.

Whey and soy protein are both useful forms although there is not much research data with women athletes. However, soy protein-containing isoflavones have been studied in women and have been shown to promote bone health and reduce menopausal symptoms.

Anaemia: Women athletes strive to increase their muscle power and level of endurance during their workouts. Iron, an essential mineral lacking in the diets of many women athletes, helps to deliver oxygen to the brain and the muscles and to help manufacture cellular energy.

The depletion of iron in tissues has been shown to diminish endurance and increase muscle fatigue.3 This can also lead to a greater susceptibility to infections and colds. Mental function, learning and work performance may also be impaired when iron is low. Food and supplements manufacturers can help women athletes improve their performance and their health by manufacturing iron-fortified products.

Adding iron to foods and supplements has historically been difficult because of the taste, colour and the fact that it may cause irritation to the stomach. However, new advances in formulation have led to the innovation of a new product, uniquely manufactured to fortify foods, beverages, powders and supplements, called SunActive Fe, which is supposed to prevent these issues.

Bone Loss: A number of nutrients can be considered for a formula to address bone density. These include magnesium, boron, manganese, zinc, vitamin D and vitamin K. Calcium, a mineral lacking in most women?s diets, is at the top of the list.

  • Useful forms of calcium
    Calcium citrate
    Calcium citrate malateCalcium to support bone health is a necessity for a woman athlete?s line of products. The diet doesn?t usually include the recommended daily levels of calcium. Therefore, a protein powder, multiple vitamin/mineral or a bone support formula can provide the extra calcium needed to maintain healthy bones and prevent bone loss.
    The form of calcium used in product formulation should be evaluated and should be selected for its bioavailability. Although studies demonstrated that calcium carbonate could reduce PMS symptoms at 1,200mg/day, other forms are more bioavailable. Among these are calcium citrate, bisglycinocalcium and calcium citrate malate.4

  • Magnesium may not be consumed enough in the diets of women because of calorie restriction. Although a little more expensive, the addition of magnesium in the form of citrate or an amino acid chelate may be more bioavailable than magnesium oxide.5

  • Boron has been identified in human clinical studies as an important mineral to help reduce calcium loss in bone mass.6

  • Vitamin D assists the absorption of calcium and supports bone health.

  • Vitamin K is necessary for the utilisation of calcium and is used by the body to help promote blood clotting.7 Vitamin K has been shown to be useful in supporting bone health in women athletes with amenorrhea.8

  • Colostrum is another compound that may be used in a product formula. The University of Delaware demonstrated that colostrum at levels of 20g/day in powder form increases bone-free lean body mass in male and female athletes.9

Oxidative Stress To Muscles
Antioxidants are important for the average person, but athletes have greater physical demands and a greater amount of oxidative damage to muscle tissues. Research has demonstrated that there is an increased demand on specific muscle groups because of the amount of muscle tissue breakdown from power workouts.10

Vitamin E has been shown to be useful to quench free radicals and also help to reduce breast tenderness associated with hormonal dysfunction. Performing aerobic activity can be quite painful for women with fibrocystic disease. There has been some indication in the scientific literature that vitamin E may be helpful to relieve symptoms.11,12,13 Natural vitamin E may be preferred in product development because it has been shown to be more bioavailable.14 Vitamin C is a useful antioxidant for quenching free radicals. Research performed on both women and men has indicated that a depletion of vitamin C diminished work efficiency after a submaximal exercise workload.15,16

A multi-vitamin product for women athletes in a capsule, tablet or powder is vital to their overall health and performance. These vitamins and minerals mentioned herein can be included.

Sports Drinks
It has been observed that women athletes have a greater risk for hyponatremia, or low blood-sodium levels. Hyponatremia has also caused a number of deaths in marathon runners and triathletes.15 Therefore, water is not enough for long-distance aerobic activities. An isotonic sports drink should be developed and included in this line of products.

A small amount of sodium citrate can be used along with a form of potassium. Sodium-containing sports drinks should be used for athletes who are exercising more than an hour at a given time. It is used to improve the taste of the product and encourage athletes to drink.15 The amount of carbohydrates in a sports drink should be about four to eight per cent of the total concentration.15

Lack Of Fibre
Fibre is another nutrient that is lacking in many women athletes? diets. The average woman should consume around 25 to 35 grams of fibre per day. Adding at least a few grams of a soluble fibre would be beneficial to their gastrointestinal health. Although women with amenorrhea are discouraged from consuming too much, this could be an important formula to add to a line for women athletes.

This is just an overview with some suggestions for product development departments. Companies should consider either adding a few products to address the women athletes or develop a product line exclusively for them. There are a good number of women in the marketplace who are eager to buy, are well deserving and could richly benefit from such a line. The levels of each nutrient should be investigated further, be within safe limits and substantiation should be retrieved on each function to be prepared for FDA/FTC issues.

Judi Quilici-Timmcke, MS, is President of Q-Tech Services Inc, a product formulator in the dietary supplements industry. She previously was VP of Product Development and Research for Weider Nutrition-Specialty Market.
Respond: [email protected]


1. Lukaski HC. Micronutrients (magnesium, zinc, and copper): are mineral supplements needed for athletes. Int J Spts Nutr 1995;5(S74-S83).

2. American Dietetic Association (ADA). Vegetarian Diets ? ADA position. J Am Diet Assoc 1997;97:1317-21.

3. Brutsaert TD, et al. Iron supplementation improves progressive fatigue resistance during dynamic knee extensor exercise in iron-depleted, nonanemic women. Am J Clin Nutr 2003;77:441-8.

4. Heaney RP, et al. Absorbability of calcium sources: the limited role of solubility. Calcific Tissue Int 1990;46:300-4.

5. Lindberg JS, et al. Magnesium bioavailability from magnesium citrate and magnesium oxide. J Am Coll Nutr 1990;9(1):48-55.

6. Meacham SL, et al. Effects of boron supplementation on bone mineral density and dietary, blood, and urinary calcium, phoshorus, magnesium, and boron in female athletes. Environ Health Perspect 1994;102(Suppl 7):79-82.

7. Shils ME, et al. Modern Nutrition in Health and Disease. 8th Edition eds., Lea & Febiger, Malvern, PA. 1994.

8. Craciun AM, et al. Improved bone metabolism in female elite athletes after vitamin K supplementation. Int J Spts Med 1998;19:479-84.

9. Antonio J, et al. The effects of bovine colostrum supplementation on body composition and exercise performance in active men and women. Nutrit 2001;17:243-7.

10. Dekkers JC, et al. The role of antioxidant vitamins and enzymes in the prevention of exercise-induced muscle damage. Sports Med 1996;21(3):213-38.

11. Abrams AA. Use of vitamin E in chronic cystic mastitis. N Engl J Med 1965;272(20):1080-1.

12. London RS, et al. Endocrine parameters and alpha-tocopherol therapy of patients with mammary dysplasia. Cancer Res 1981;41:3811-3.

13. Gonzalez ER. Vitamin E relieves most cystic breast disease; may alter lipids, hormones. JAMA 1980;244(10):1077-9.

14. Acuff RV, et al. Relative bioavailability of RRR- and all-rac-alpha-tocopheryl acetate in humans: studies using deuterated compounds. Am J Clin Nutr 1994;60(3):397-402.

15. Johnston CS, et al. Substrate utilization and work efficiency during submaximal exercise in vitamin C depleted-repleted adults. Int J Vit Nutr Res 1999;69(1):41-4.

16. American Dietetic Association and the College of Sports Medicine. Nutrition and Athletic Performance. Med Sci Spts Ex 2000;32:2130-45.

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