The responsibility to ensure our young athletes are healthy is a shared responsibility among parents, coaches, and the athletes. There is a syndrome that up until recently, I was not aware of. Among our young female athletes is a condition called Female Athlete Triad. It is a group of interrelated conditions. These athletes are driven to not only succeed but to excel in competition and in so doing may engage in extreme training and dieting.
Athlete Triad is commonly seen in sports and the creative arts namely: running; aerobics; figure skating; ballet; gymnastics.
An athlete has female athlete triad if she has all of the following:
- Disordered eating: anorexia, purging, induced vomiting
- Amenorrhea: little or no menses
- Osteoporosis: low bone mass density
The three conditions are interrelated for the following reason: the athlete exercises excessively while her body is experiencing an energy deficit. Expressed another way, the energy output is greater than the caloric intake. Not only is the caloric intake insufficient, but there is also malnutrition due to the disordered eating.
Adolescent athletes are usually under pressure to be thin and so engage in compulsive dieting and exercising. The teenage athlete is still growing and the bone density is compromised if there are deficiencies in the diet namely protein, vitamins and calcium.
There are warning signs that coaches, parents, and guardians should be aware of and they are:
- Rapid weight loss or marked leanness
- The athlete obsesses over her weight, body image and food.
- She may be secretive with what she does eat and avoids eating with team mates
- Her weight fluctuates
Over time she will develop the following symptoms:
- yellowing of the skin
- stress fractures
- dental caries
Prevention and Treatment
- Compulsive dieting can be prevented or minimized by supporting the athlete to eat healthy, build self-esteem, and a training routine which is safe. A sport nutritionist can review the diet of the athlete and recommend an optimum dietary program.
- Weak bones and fractures can be prevented with a well-balanced diet. Fruits and vegetables rich in calcium and vitamin D are important to the athlete. The training routine of the athlete must be total with a combination of aerobics and strength training.
- Menstrual dysfunction can be prevented and corrected by moderating the exercise/training, healthy eating and maintaining a healthy weight.
- Teenagers involved in competitive sports or the performing arts (dancing) should have an ongoing assessment done by the team doctor and physical therapist. The assessment includes the Physical Assessment Readiness Questionnaire as well as the physical evaluation of the athlete.
- Eating disorders and harmful behaviors are difficult to assess and treat. The earlier the diagnosis and treatment the better the outcome for recovery. The nutritionist is a valuable member of the training team who will ensure that the athlete has a balanced diet. Psychotherapy may also be needed for athletes with severe eating disorders.
Now we are aware of the risky behavior and the potential complications, let us all be more understanding and supportive of our young female athletes.