Great Body, Nightmare In The Head
Most women would consider it a dream come true if they became so incredibly thin that they were not only looking lean, but also were “rewarded” with a lack of monthly periods. While missing the monthly inconvenience certainly has benefits, the truth of the matter is that this is a tall tale sign of a concerning health issue called the female athlete triad.
This condition is surprisingly all too common, especially in sports or other activities such as dancing that encourage low body fat levels. The triad is a combination of disordered eating habits, amenorrhea (irregular or missing periods), and osteoporosis. You can experience one or all of the phases of this triad.
The female athlete triad usually occurs with those exercising excessively while at the same time having disordered eating habits, such as excessively low fat intake, or even anorexia and/or bulimia. This results in a very low body weight and decreased estrogen levels, where periods are irregular or missed completely. Low estrogen levels and poor eating habits can lead to osteoporosis, which makes bones much more brittle and subject to breaking.
While this is more commonly seen in pre-teen and teenage girls during the prime bone-building years, I have seen it in women in their 20s that are participating in high-level sports who are intensely over training, which is a classic warning sign of the triad. Unfortunately, the bone density lost can often not be regained, and will prove to be a thorn in their side for a lifetime.
Now, don’t freak out when you or your daughter misses a period, as there are other possible causes, but here are some things to be on the lookout for with the triad:
- an obsession with exercising.
- never wanting to take a break from an exercise program, or giving the body a rest.
- irregular or missing periods
- disordered eating such as not eating in front of others, extremely strict eating habits such as a focus on low calorie and fat free foods, or going to the bathroom after eating (to purge).
- psychological signs include low self-esteem, depression, a high amount of self-criticism, or talking about body weight frequently.
- physical signs of stress such as being cold all the time, or having problems sleeping.
To avoid the female athlete triad, engage in realistic exercise programs and eat a sensible balanced diet that meets the calcium requirements for your age. Calcium is found in dairy products such as milk, cheese, yogurt, and ice cream. Many cereals and orange juices are also calcium fortified. If you don’t get enough from food, simply pop a calcium supplement.
Even when trained professionals see this syndrome in a woman, they can often be very defensive and try to avoid the topic when confronted with it. Remember that an eating disorder is a medical condition that can be tough to break, and equally tough for the person to admit to. Be supportive, but do not rule out professional help. At Sensible Fitness we have both dieticians and an eating behaviorist that I can refer you to, if you need guidance.