When I was in high school, one of my best friends was a long-distance runner and a dancer. After only a few months of training, I knew something was wrong. She changed her diet to one of protein and almost no other calories. She was obsessed with exercise leading to a loss of many of her friends. Later on she lost a lot of weight and, to me, instead of becoming healthier she appeared to look pretty unhealthy.
What I didn’t know then was that my friend may have suffered from the “female athlete triad”. It is a three-part syndrome that affects the health and performance of female athletes and includes osteoporosis, disordered eating and menstrual disorders. Each of these are inter-related and inter-play. Together they can cause serious illness or death.
Writing in a review in British Medical Journal, Dr. Karen Birch explains that the syndrome can be caused by pressures psychological and physiological associated with a sports requirements to perform optimally, which can lead to a perception of needing a “low body mass, result of high-volume training” (1).
Being somewhat controversial, at least one medical researcher has called for abandonment of the syndrome. Dr. Michael Cullen of the British Association of Sport and Exercise Medicine points out that the term “blurs the concepts of a true eating disorder with that of a driven athlete who is simply ignorant of nutritional demands” and that osteoporosis in atheletes is rare (2).
Despite whether a syndrome should be recognized or not, clinicians should continue to recognize which women are most at risk, which are teen girls and female athletes of many kinds, especially where body image counts: gymnasts, figure skaters, ballerinas, swimmers, endurance runners, and so on (3).
The first signs of the female athlete triad may be low-calorie dieting or exercising to excess or obsession (3). The low-calcium diet contributes to low bone density. If amenorrhea results, it may be linked to decreased estrogen levels (3). It has also been my experience that smoking usually is another sign of an eating disorder among teens. The reasons why is because the teens see it as an effective method to control appetite and weight (4). Unfortunately, for a teen suffering already from female athlete triad, smoking can cause an exacerbated loss of bone (5 & 6). The impact of female athlete triad can lead to infertility and stress fractures in the future (1).
1. Birch K. Female athlete triad. ABC of sports and exercise medicine. British Medical Journal. Available at: http://www.bmj.com/cgi/content/extract/330/7485/244.
2. Cullen M. et al. 10 Feb 2005. The Female Athlete Triad. Available at: al.http://www.bmj.com/cgi/content/extract/330/7485/244.
3. WebMD. The Female Athlete Triad. Available at: http://www.webmd.com/a-to-z-guides/female-athlete-triad.
5. Gropper SS, Smith JL, Groff JL. Advanced Nutrition and Human Metabolism. Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth, 2009.