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Are you under-eating? Well, knock it off!

by Denis Faye - The Nutrition Nerd | September 22, 2015

mary_lou_retton_wheaties_boxNPR ran a segment recently on how many young female athletes tend to undereat, which can result in female athlete triad syndrome: irregular menstruation, low energy, and weak bones. 

The piece focuses on the bone thing, which is understandable. People build stronger bones until their mid-twenties and then it’s all downhill, especially for women because of hormonal changes. So if you’re not getting the nutrients you need up until that point, your bones will never get as strong as they should have.

The solution is, of course, to eat a healthier diet, but more importantly, eat a bigger healthier diet. Frankly, this applies to any malnourished athlete, regardless of age or gender, but it’s obviously slightly harder for young women to wrap their heads around this, thanks in part to the body image issues society dumps on them.

article-0-13C43D25000005DC-186_964x538To put this into perspective, here’s a photo essay from the Daily Mail showing what Olympic athletes eat. One of the women was on a limited time 1,500 calorie diet, but the other two, wrestler Elif Jale Yesilirmak and runner Merve Aydin, snarfed down 3,000 calories a day. And these are not large ladies.

Waxing on about pigging out might seem strange coming from a guy who earns his crust designing low-calorie weight-loss programs, but it isn’t. Most of the world at this point could stand to lose weight. Obesity rates continue to climb, so encouraging weight loss is a good thing in most cases. The trick is in knowing when not to encourage it.

Beachbody nutrition plans run a range from extreme to just common sense, but they all tend to include some sort of “How do I know if I’m under-eating?” section, which I’m going to share with you right now. Yep. Nothing to buy. Just keep reading. (This is why I don’t work in the marketing department.)

  1. Low energy. The other two parts of female athlete triad syndrome, irregular menstruation and weak bones, are also sure signs, but usually lethargy comes along before your femur snaps like a twig. Even when you’re eating at a deficit, nutrition and exercise are supposed to make you feel awesome–exhausted and sore, but awesome. If you feel “meh”, then something’s probably wrong.
  2. Headaches. The brain is fueled by glucose (sugar). Not getting glucose? Guess who starts complaining?
  3. Sleeplessness. In times of stress, which excessive dieting certainly is, your sympathetic, “fight or flight” nervous system can override your parasympathetic “rest and digest” nervous system. It seems contradictory to the low energy thing, but it is what it is. Deal with it.
  4. Plateaus. Your body really likes adipose tissue. It’s an emergency fuel source, so when you start dropping the stuff, your hormones may shift your metabolism around to ebb that loss. The 25¢ term for this is “adaptive thermogenesis“. You can tackle adaptive thermogenesis a few ways. Athletes focused on weight loss will often “re-feed” which means temporarily increasing calories above what you’re burning then resuming the deficit to create a zig-zag pattern in your caloric intake. This can work, but another simpler-yet-effective solution–which I’ve seen work hundreds of times–is to just increase your over-all calories in general in 300 calorie increments until weight loss and/or performance gains resume.

Oddly enough, hunger does not make my list, mostly because we’re always hungry. It’s not a special component of starving. It’s more of a motivator to give the body what it’s used to. When it comes to eating, your body has a mandate to consume as much as it can, so if it thinks you can get more, it’s going to signal your brain to do that.

The idea of under-eating in athletes seems counterintuitive. After all, you have to feed the machine, right?. Yet, whenever one of my Big Orange Cycling teammates come to me for nutritional advice, usually the first thing I do is make them eat more and subsequently their performance skyrockets. Maybe the psychological gratification of feeling like a sleek, sexy racing beast overwhelms the physiological drive to fuel up. Either way, simply “listening to your body” might not be good enough. It’s more important to look for the signs mentioned above and honor them before things take an ugly turn.

In other words, sometimes, second helping are a good thing–or maybe even thirds.

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