Too few calories plus intense workouts are setting women up for Female Athlete Triad and other health risks, according to a new study
Eating too much is a common worry for health-conscious women (wait, there are how many calories in that latte?), but new research says you may be not be eating enough, especially if you work out.
Too few calories combined with heavy workouts is becoming a common problem among young women, says the study, published in The Journal of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. And the health consequences can be devastating. Anyone who's hit the gym on an empty stomach knows that a lack of food can make you feel a little light-headed, but chronically depriving your body of vital nutrients can set you up for something far worse than wooziness—a condition called Female Athlete Triad, said Elizabeth Matzkin, M.D., and lead author of the new study. If you're wonder WTF Is Female Athlete Triad, it's a syndrome characterized by irregular menstruation, low energy, and low bone density. And she said they're seeing this condition more and more.
In the past, female athlete triad was associated primarily with eating disorders or super-skinny pro athletes who worked out hours every day. However, Matzkin wrote that the syndrome affects a wide range of women, including recreational athletes and gym-goers. "These [women] can come in any shape, form, or weight. It's not just that typical ballerina physique that we're looking out for anymore," she said.
At first, people suffering may just feel tired, take longer to recover after workouts, or feel hungry all the time. But left unchecked, Female Athlete Triad can put you at risk for stress fractures, infertility, depression, and osteoporosis. Put simply: If you're not eating enough to support your workouts, you'll be undernourished and your health will suffer, no matter how "healthy" you look. (Are you guilty of one of these 14 Excuses Women Make for Not Eating Healthy?)
So how many calories should active girls be eating? Caloric needs are all relative to your individual body and what type of exercise you're doing, says Bert Mandelbaum, M.D., a sports medicine specialist at Santa Monica Orthopaedic and Sports Medicine Group in Santa Monica, CA. "The answer isn't a specific number, but about achieving that balance between caloric intake and calories burned," he explains. While there are calorie calculators that will give you a rough estimate based on your gender, height, weight, and activity level, Mandelbaum says a more accurate way to tell is to wear a heart rate monitor during exercise to know exactly how many calories you've burned. (Most monitors have a function that calculates total calorie burn based on your heart rate and factors you input like your age, weight and gender.) He also recommends active women take a calcium plus vitamin D supplement with at least 1,500 mg of calcium daily to help protect your bones, like Puritan's Pride ($16 for 3; puritan.com). (And stock up on these 11 All-Natural, Instant Energy Boosters.)