Eating Disorders & The Female Athlete Triad

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The Female Athlete Triad refers to three interrelated health problems seen in females. These problems include: low energy availability, menstrual disorders, and weak bones. In the extreme, these problems may be expressed as eating disorders, amenorrhea (loss of menstrual periods), and osteoporosis (an increased risk of fractures).

What are the risk factors for developing the Triad?

Any factor that increases energy expenditure or reduces energy intake would be considered a risk factor. These include factors such as: prolonged exercise training to develop greater endurance or to promote weight loss; dieting to lose weight or fat for participation in sports that require a thin body or weight classes, to improve performance, or to improve appearance in revealing uniforms (e.g., swimsuits or bikinis); perfectionist personality traits; decreased eating with family and friends; and the attitude that amenorrhea, excessive exercise, and weight loss are “normal” or even “desired” characteristics of “good athletes.” Because some of these risk factors are inherent in athletics and necessary for athletic success, the identification of low energy availability as a problem is more difficult in the athletic environment. This further increases the athlete’s risk of developing the Female Athlete Triad.

What are the signs of the Triad?

In general, adolescents should be gaining, not losing, lean body mass during their teenage years. Except when losing body fat under the supervision of a healthcare professional, athletes should eat more, not less, than their sedentary peers. Therefore, disordered eating ? restrictive dieting, binge eating, induced vomiting, and excessive use of laxatives ? and prolonged exercise are prominent signs of low energy availability. Physical signs of the Triad include noticeable weight loss, cold hands and feet, dry skin, hair loss, absent or irregular menstrual periods, increased rate of injury, delayed healing time for injuries, and stress fractures. Emotional signs include mood changes, decreased ability to concentrate, and depression.

What are the consequences of the Triad?

The Triad can harm every aspect of life. Nutrient deficiencies and fluid/electrolyte imbalance can lead to impaired performance growth and mental functioning as well as an increased risk of fractures and other injuries. Long-term consequences may include loss of reproductive function and serious medical conditions such as dehydration and starvation. In some cases, this condition has resulted in death.

Want to find out how to treat the Triad or prevent it? Read the full article as it appears on the Female Athlete Triad Coalition website.

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