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Female Athlete Triad: Is Your Daughter at Risk?

The female athlete triad is a combination of 3 conditions seen in young, athletic women caused by an imbalance in the energy consumed and the energy expended. The female athlete triad includes eating problems, menstrual irregularities and weak bones.

3 Medical Conditions of the Female Athlete Triad

Consuming too few calories: disordered eating

Your athlete may be eating enough calories for a non-athlete, but not enough to meet the demands of her sport. When her food intake is less than what she needs for exercise, growth and development, a condition called disordered eating occurs. The athlete will not have enough energy to perform and this can cause an increased risk of injury or illness. In some cases disordered eating can slow growth and development.

Absence of menstruation

When your female athlete does not eat enough calories, her menstrual periods may become irregular or stop all together.

Weak bones

If she does not eat enough calories and has menstrual problems, her bones may not develop the normal amount of strength. The peak period for building bones is from puberty through age 20. This energy deficiency puts her at risk of stress fractures and compression fractures of the spine.

What causes the female athlete triad?

A lack of energy is at the heart of the condition. Your athlete may not realize how much energy she is expending. In some cases, she may try to lose too much weight or lose it quickly in order to look or perform better. By not giving her body enough fuel, your athlete will actually have less power, less muscle strength and less stamina.

How can I protect my athlete?

Monitor your athlete’s consumption. Most athletes need a minimum of 2,000 to 2,400 calories per day. Fat, protein and carbohydrates need to be part of the meal plan. If she has irregular periods, be sure she eats at least 5 servings of calcium-rich foods per day. Examples are milk, yogurt, or 1 ounce of cheese.

Do some sports put female athletes more at risk?

Disordered eating can happen to athletes of any sport, however, some sports which emphasize leanness pose a higher risk of developing female athlete triad. These sports include gymnastics, dance, figure skating and long distance running.

If your daughter stops having menstrual periods, see your child’s physician for an evaluation. Part of a sports physical health screening for your female athlete will include questions related to the female athlete triad. 

Sports provide many benefits to female athletes. Exercise, working with a team and a sense of accomplishment are important for all young women. As a parent, you can help make sports participation a great experience for your female athlete.  

Karen K. Meyer, MD

Methodist Physicians Clinic HealthWest

Dr. Meyer answers your questions about child development and parenting. Dr. Meyer decided to become a doctor when she was in school and learned about the body's systems and the miracle of how they all work together. She likes talking to children and helping them feel better. Dr. Meyer believes that children are not little adults and they need to be treated in a way that will help them understand why they aren't feeling well and what they can do to get better. She also works to build tru ...

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