Filed under: Athletes
The Female Athlete Triad is a health condition that commonly affects physically active girls, teens, and women, especially those involved in activities that have a heavy emphasis on weight and physical appearance. It’s characterized by energy deficiency, amenorrhea (menstrual disturbances), and osteoporosis (bone loss), which can leave you tired, anxious, and unmotivated—an equation for poor performance. It can also put you at risk for serious health problems such as muscle loss, dehydration, and stress fractures.
Female service members can be at risk for developing the Triad if they don’t get enough calories (underfueling) and if training is too intense. But you can prevent it easily by focusing on your overall health and nutrition rather than your weight and by following these tips:
- Eat when you’re hungry and include a variety of nutrient-rich foods such as lean sources of protein—lean fish, poultry, beans, nuts, and low-fat dairy products—along with whole grains, fruits, and vegetables. Skipping meals and snacks or severely restricting your food intake will keep you from getting enough calories and other important nutrients such as protein, vitamins, and minerals.
- Eat a recovery snack that consists of carbs and protein after your workout. Carbs are your body’s primary fuel source to keep you energized, and you need protein to build and repair your muscles.
- Talk to a registered dietitian (RD) for an individual nutrition plan. An RD who specializes in sports nutrition can help you choose the best foods and the right amounts to optimize your performance.
Remember, food is the fuel that helps you to perform at your best. For more, read this handout from the Female Athlete Triad Coalition.
If you limit carbohydrates and underfuel your body, your performance may suffer. Carbs feed the working muscles and help maintain blood sugar. In addition, carbs help you recover after a difficult workout or mission.
Underfueling by limiting carbohydrates can be intentional—when limiting calories, avoiding gluten, or losing weight. Or you may be limiting carbs unintentionally if you are unsure how many carbs to eat or if you’re are skipping meals or snacks due to limited time or money. And female warriors are more susceptible to under-fueling.
So what type of carbs should you be eating? Properly fuel your body by filling your plate two-thirds to three-fourths with carbs such as fruit, vegetables, whole grains, beans, and dairy. Choose a variety of fruit and vegetables to maximize vitamins, minerals, and fiber. Whole-grain breads, grains, and pastas provide more performance-boosting nutrients than white-flour and refined versions. Low-fat dairy products contribute carbs along with protein and calcium.
Carbohydrate needs differ depending your activity, type of exercise, and intensity, and your calorie needs and may change from day to day. For more information on carbohydrate needs before, during, and after activities, see HPRC’s An Athlete's Guide to Everyday Nutrient Timing.
Keep on eye on your weight and performance to help you determine if you’re taking in too few carbs. If you’re losing weight without trying or find yourself having trouble performing at your best, you may be underfueling. For more personalized recommendations on carbohydrate intake, visit a registered dietitian.
Are your high-school students gearing up to play a team sport? You might want to consider the pre-participation screening requirements and what’s on the horizon for future changes. The electrocardiogram—a test used to examine electrical impulses of the heart—has been used as a screening tool to identify cardiac problems. At the American Medical Society’s annual meeting, Dr. Francis O’Connor (Medical Director for the Consortium for Health and Military Performance, HPRC’s parent organization) recently presented an evaluation of recent recommendations from the European Society of Cardiology for physicians interpreting ECG test results of athletes. The accuracy of the interpretation is under scrutiny, as the results of ECGs can be tricky to interpret.
In the United States, athletes aren’t required to have an ECG screening prior to sports participation—but that might change in the future if it’s deemed that accurate readings of such screenings are reliable and might identify underlying heart abnormalities. For now, however, Dr. O’Connor noted, “identifying abnormal from normal is not as easy as it may seem.”