Olympic Athlete and the Female Athlete Triad

Female Athlete Running

Contributor: Crystal Karges, MS, RDN, IBCLC, Director of Content and Social Media at Eating Disorder Hope/Addiction Hope

With the Rio 2016 summer Olympics behind us, we can reflect on the moments that remind us why we love these games. Athletes who have dedicated tremendous time and effort into perfecting their sport and the sheer passion that is observed in play is nothing short of inspirational. If even for the briefest moment of time, we are united as we cheer for the athletes we love and who represent us as a nation.

Unless you have been an Olympic athlete yourself, we likely understand very little of what is involved when it comes to training for these sports on this type of competitive level.

Olympic athletes are involved with such a high degree of competition, carefully calculated training plans are the needed strategy to excel and perfect the sport itself. There is also an added element of performance anxiety, with an emphasis on perfection in order to rise about the rest. For some athletes who may be susceptible to developing an eating disorder, this type of environment can be triggering and/or lead to behaviors that compromise an athlete’s overall health and wellness.

Understanding Disordered Eating Among Athletes

For an Olympic athlete who is training for the games, there are likely strict regiments in place when it comes to nutrition and training. Many Olympic athletes have trainers in place who recommend diets plans along with training schedules that athletes are advised on. Other athletes, depending on the sport, may face additional scrutiny when it comes to how and what they eat, how much they weigh, body composition and more. This can be disastrous for the athlete who may already face biological predisposition to an eating disorder.

Out of rigid food and eating guidelines can come a chaotic relationship with food, Female athletewhere foods are often seen in a light of “good” and “bad”, guilt is experienced when eating certain foods, or there is a need to somehow compensate for eating foods that may be cast aside as “Bad”. Some athletes may find themselves following a strict eating protocol during the week and allowed a “cheat day” on the weekend, which may create binging type behaviors due to feelings of deprivation around food during the week.

Other athletes may begin compromising their health by further restricting or limiting entire food groups, such as carbohydrates and fats, or not allowing themselves to enjoy foods that they previously found pleasurable and enjoyable. While these behaviors may seem justifiable in the name of Olympic training, this can lead an athlete down a catastrophic path when it comes to their own health and wellness.

The Female Athlete Triad

Female athletes in competitive sport are at increased risk for developing the female athlete triad. The female athlete triad is characterized by the combination of three conditions, including:

• Amenorrhea, or the disruption of normal menstruationYoung Woman Running along Mountain Path
• An energy deficit, which is influenced by excessive exercise, unhealthy eating habits, or the combination of both
• Osteoporosis, or the weakening of bones due to the loss of bone density and improper bone formation.

The combination of these above conditions can be extremely debilitating for an athlete, both during her competitive career and for her long term health. A female athlete who may have developed the female athlete triad may not necessarily have an eating disorder, such as anorexia or bulimia nervosa, though these conditions may very well be present as well.

The female athlete triad can result from many different factors. For example, a woman who is competing at the Olympic level may implement drastic changes in her training schedule, which may involve excessive exercise/training or extreme changes with eating behaviors. If energy intake is not sufficient to meet energy expenditure, this results in many compromised systems in the body, include disruption of normal reproductive health, bone health, and more.

Seeking Out Help

If you or a loved one is a female athlete training at a competitive level, be aware of the various changes that may be occurring while training. If there is any compromise in health, it is important to seek out help immediately. Talk with someone you trust who can provide you with guidance through these delicate issues, like a specialized athletic trainer, physician, dietitian, counselor, family member and more.

Community Discussion – Share your thoughts here!

What are signs and symptoms that a female athlete may be dealing with the female athlete triad?

Crystal Headshot 2About the Author: Crystal is a Masters-level Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN) with a specialty focus in eating disorders, maternal/child health and wellness, and intuitive eating. Combining clinical experience with a love of social media and writing, Crystal serves as the Special Projects Coordinator for Eating Disorder Hope/Addiction Hope, where her passion to help others find recovery and healing is integrated into each part of her work.

As a Certified Intuitive Eating Counselor, Crystal has dedicated her career to helping others establish a healthy relationship with food and body through her work with EDH/AH and nutrition private practice.

The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.

We at Eating Disorder Hope understand that eating disorders result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an eating disorder, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.

Last Updated & Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on September 4, 2016
Published on EatingDisorderHope.com