Female Athlete Triad Syndrome

source: ThinkStock photos via Tri County Health Dept

source: ThinkStock photos via Tri County Health Dept

Does your teen athlete eat enough to protect against the Female Athlete Triad Syndrome?

Our work in nutrition is often focused on overeating and obesity related disease prevention. And while malnutrition and undereating can often be overlooked, these issues have the potential to be just as harmful. One such issue often presents itself in young women and teen girls as the Female Athlete Triad Syndrome.

Young women, especially athletes, are compelled (by society, family, peers, and coaches) to maintain a thin figure. The drive to maintain a healthy looking body may have unhealthy consequences especially for perfectionist, highly-motivated or pressured female teen athletes. With back-to-school time and sports season upon us, we need to keep a watchful eye on our daughters and their attitudes toward food, body image, and the desire to be the best. Female athlete triad syndrome is characterized by three components: low caloric intake, amenorrhea – irregular menstruation, and osteoporosis – low bone density. Many teens can be under the false impression that being as thin as possible will make them a better athlete but reality is quite the contrary. Not consuming enough calories can lead to diminished performance while regaining and maintaining the appropriate weight by consuming more food (and the right foods) can lead to more energy to train, compete, and speed recovery which can equal top performance.

If you’re concerned for a friend or daughter, the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) offers a list of signs to look for. A few of those are:

  • avoidance of meals,
  • secretly eating,
  • bad breath and sore throat from repeated vomiting,
  • not beginning menstruation by age 16, absence of menstruation for at least three months, and
  • stress fractures.

The sports most often associated with the syndrome are activities that place high importance on being thin, such as swimming, running, and gymnastics.

Preventing and treating the syndrome has to be a group effort supported by coaches, families, peers, and health professionals. This can include communicating with your daughter’s coach and understanding her tactics in motivation and her ideas around creating a healthy player. Aggressive and persistent coaches may be resistant to your concerns and may continue fostering an unhealthy athletic environment. Be aware of your daughter’s school’s policies and make yourself known to her coach and administrators. Prepare meals and eat together as a family to ensure your child receives all the required nutrients and associates eating with positive things like socializing with family. Talk with your daughter about a healthy body image and realistic expectations for herself on and off the playing field. Also important are encouraging your daughter to talk about her experiences with teammates or friends, and getting her pediatrician involved.

To understand how many calories an athlete may need, the USDA offers a calorie calculator that accounts for physical activity. While the information provided is beneficial, it may seem overwhelming and overly scientific. It is most important to get well balanced meals by eating a variety of food every day including fresh fruits and vegetables, lean dairy products and meats, and healthy fats. Daily recommendations for fruits, vegetables, grains, protein, and dairy for all ages can be found at MyPlate.gov. An important component to eating well and especially concerning the Female Athlete Triad Syndrome is getting enough vitamin D and calcium as these two important nutrients help build strong bones. Our bodies have a deadline for storing calcium (up to about age 30) and growing teens (age 9-18) need the highest amount of calcium during the life span.

If you need help addressing this and other issues with your daughter, the US Department of Health and Human Services created a website tailored to teenage girls offering information about nutrition, fitness, bullying, and much more.

Listen to NPR’s Morning Edition story on the subject for a personal account of a college age teen struggling with Female Athlete Syndrome.

Copyright: All content © 2010-2019 Nutrition Strategy Advisors LLC. Photographs © Donna P Feldman, unless otherwise attributed. Reproduction or use without permission is prohibited.