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WHY FEMALE ATHLETES NEED CARBS

They play an important role in keeping hormones balanced.

Despite being much maligned over the years, carbs are not the enemy. For athletes, skimping on the macronutrient can sabotage health and performance—especially for females. Here, how to incorporate them into a well-balanced diet.

Low-carb diets wreak havoc on hormones.

Women's bodies are more sensitive to limiting carbs or calories, says Brian St. Pierre, RD, CSCS, director of performance nutrition at Precision Nutrition based in Scarborough, Maine. As a result, energy imbalances such as irregular menstrual cycles, lethargy, and bone loss can arise if you're not getting enough calories.

Under-eating can temporarily slow certain components of your metabolic rate because your brain senses how many calories are going out and coming in and tries to match that, St. Pierre explains. The right amount of fuel is crucial for fitness and metabolism, and carbs are an important part of the equation. Active women should eat four to six handfuls of carbs (whole grains, potatoes, beans and legumes, and fruit) a day, St. Pierre says.

Carbohydrates aid in recovery.

A lot of trainers and dietitians emphasize the importance of eating protein after intense workouts, but carbs, which replace muscle glycogen lost during exercise, should be part of those post-exercise snacks, too. Carbs are key in helping your body meet training demands and recover effectively, according to the authors of a recent study published in the journal Nutrients. Someone looking to gain muscle should take in 30 to 45 grams of carbs per hour of training, says St. Pierre.