I don’t know about you, (and I have probably said this before!) but I love food. I’m much more likely to put a few more hours in at the gym than pass on a piece of pie or a glass of wine (That’s a savory pie, usually of the meat and veggie variety….none of this sweet pie rubbish! :D)
If I’m really honest, I don’t exercise just because I enjoy it, but to balance out my food (and wine) intake and keep me in shape. Like most of us, I’m a recreational exerciser – I’m definitely not going to be breaking any world records any time soon! But, for women participating in high level sport with significant training demands, balancing sports nutrition recommendations with body composition goals can be a tricky business.
I don’t think it would come as a surprise to many that inadequate nutritional intake is more common in female athletes than male athletes. It’s no wonder really; the ever present media pressure on women to have the ‘perfect body’ (whatever that is) is everywhere these days. Combine that with the pressure of achieving the right aesthetic for elite level sport and it’s not surprising that female athletes may feel the heat.
In the quest for improved performance, some athletes can take to extreme dieting measures to reshape their bodies and achieve what they perceive as the ‘perfect’ sporting physique. Unfortunately, high training demands mean higher nutritional requirements and following an overly-restrictive diet plan can have a negative impact on the body’s ability to train, recover and perform in competition.
On top of its impact on sporting performance, insufficient energy availability in female athletes is also associated with adverse health consequences, namely menstrual dysfunction and loss of bone density. These three conditions occur together on a spectrum of severity from ‘healthy’ (optimal bone mass, healthy menstrual cycle and adequate energy intake) to ‘disease’ (eating disorders, amenorrhea and osteoporosis) in what is described as the Female Athlete Triad.
The Female Athlete Triad Continuum
Signs of the triad may not occur simultaneously and can progress at different rates, but women whose health status falls somewhere on the scale risk progression towards the ‘disease’ end of the spectrum.
So, who’s at risk?
It’s thought that those who participate in aesthetic sports which have a high emphasis on weight and appearance are at a higher risk of developing these conditions compared to other athletes. That said, if you participate in a sport which dramatically drives up your energy requirements, an inadequate energy intake may not be a conscious decision. Stress, travel and a busy lifestyle can all interfere with eating patterns and so it is important that both athletes and coaches are aware of the signs and prevent its progression, even if there does not appear to be a pattern of disordered eating.
What are the common signs of the Female Athlete Triad?
Common signs include:
- Constantly feeling tired or fatigued
- Irregular or absent menstrual cycles
- Recurrent injuries or stress fractures
- Cold hands or feet
- A restricted diet (often with a desired goal of losing weight to improve performance)
- Difficulty sleeping
- Preoccupation with being ‘thin’ or weight loss
How you can combat the triad?
- Consult a registered sports dietitian to help you design a nutritional plan which is specific to your individual sporting needs and body composition goals
- Adapt your intake to match your requirements – this can be through a decrease in activity or an increase in intake
- Monitor and keep a note of your menstrual cycle so you can identify any changes
- Consult a doctor if you are experiencing any irregularities with your period or suffer from recurrent injury or stress fractures
- Speak up! If you have any issues or worries, speak to your coach, doctor, family or whomever you feel comfortable
More information and support for athletes, coaches and health professionals can be found at the femaleathletetriad.org website here.
Note: This blog post is adapted from a piece I wrote for Sports International Magazine. I’ll be writing about Chocolate Milk as a sports drink in their next issue.
Author: Helen West