As summer approaches, many people are cutting back on their meals and hitting the gym to get the perfect beach body. However, this can sometimes lead to unhealthy dieting and excessive exercise to achieve quick results.
The pressure to be thin is even more pronounced with female athletes, who mistakenly believe that leanness will enhance sport performance. This can lead to a syndrome known as female athlete triad, which is characterized by low energy availability due to disordered eating, irregular or absent menstrual cycles (amenorrhea), and decreased bone mineral density (osteoporosis). Although discussions about the female athlete triad have remained outside of mainstream media, studies show that at least one to two symptoms are present with a majority of female athletes: disordered eating behavior and amenorrhea are present in 15 to 62 percent of female college athletes and 3.4 to 66 percent of female athletes, respectively.
The first symptom of the female athlete triad is disordered eating, which often leads to low energy availability. This behavior is often caused by a number of factors, mainly the belief that being thin is the ideal body in both society and sports. The female athlete does both extreme dieting and exercise, which is problematic because the high amount of energy required by sports exceeds the low caloric intake necessary to lose weight. Some may diet incorrectly by severely restricting food intake, self-induced vomiting, and constantly fasting, resulting in low energy availability.
Without enough energy, the female athlete’s menstrual cycles are disrupted. Amenorrhea is the second symptom and occurs due to disordered eating behavior and excessive exercise. Dietary restrictions and excessive exercise decrease estrogen output, which is the hormone required to regulate menstrual cycles.
Low estrogen levels also cause a decrease in bone mineral density, the final symptom of the female athlete triad, by increasing the amount of osteoclasts in the body. Osteoclasts are cells that break down bone to regulate levels of calcium in the body. When there are too much, as in the case with the female athlete triad, bone breaks down faster than it is created and results in low mineral density and increased risk of injury.
All these symptoms may be fatal and have severe consequences in the female athlete’s future, including infertility, depression, increased risk of injury, cardiovascular disease, and starvation. Anyone may be affected, but those that do sports that emphasize leanness, such as swimming, gymnastics, and ballet, are at a higher risk. However, the female athlete triad can be treated with proper nutrition and less emphasis on achieving an unrealistically low body weight. The combined effort of female athletes, family and friends, coaches, and healthcare professionals are important in treating the syndrome: athletes themselves understand their own bodies, family and friends can provide psychological support, and coaches and healthcare professionals can give sports-related and nutritional guidance.
Along with treatment, it is important to take preventative measures for the female athlete triad. This can be prevented by teaching healthy eating habits as well as decreasing the pressure of both coaches and society on achieving low body weight. The International Olympic Committee statement on the female athlete triad states that “activities that place pressure on athletes to lose weight” should be avoided and athletes, parents, and coaches should remain vigilant on the signs of female athlete triad and to seek medical attention if the symptoms are present. Communication and awareness of the female athlete triad between all parties are important in preventing the syndrome.
Although the female athlete triad is common among female athletes, it is important to understand the proper amount of food and exercise needed before undertaking the fitness journey for the summer beach body. There are different body types and it’s important not to be thin, but to be the healthiest version that a person can be.
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