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The Female Athlete Triad: The Dangers of Disordered Eating and Excess Exercise

The Female Athlete Triad: The Dangers of Disordered Eating and Excess Exercise
The Female Athlete Triad: The Dangers of Disordered Eating and Excess Exercise

The Female Athlete Triad is a combination of illnesses that can seriously endanger athletically-driven girls or women who feel intense societal pressure to stay thin. The triad’s three interrelated conditions—disordered eating, menstrual dysfunction and premature osteoporosis—occur when a girl or woman takes dieting and exercise to an extreme. Women can develop one, two or all three components of the triad, and they all can seriously hinder athletic performance and damage long-term health.

The conditions of the triad are:

  • Disordered eating: Encompasses a range of poor eating behaviors, including binge eating and crash diets.
  • Menstrual dysfunction: Occurs due to low calorie intake, poor nutrition, emotional and physical stress and excess exercise. These factors can cause menstruation to become irregular or even to cease.
  • Premature osteoporosis: A lack of menstrual periods can cause low bone mass and weaken the skeleton, making bones vulnerable to breaks.

Disordered eating is one of the most common ways athletes abuse their bodies. It is especially common in women who compete in sports that emphasize a lean physique, like ballet, gymnastics or running. It can also occur in any athlete (male or female) who competes in weight class sports, such as wrestling.

The term “disordered eating” encompasses a range of unhealthy eating habits, from binge eating to reduced calorie intake to self-induced vomiting to the use of diet pills. Rigorous athletic training that takes place without sufficient nutrition will prevent the body from performing at its peak, or even close to it. It can even cause long-term damage to your body and health.

The physical impact of disordered eating, in addition to emotional stress and excess exercise, can cause regular menstruation to cease. This cessation can also cause premature osteoporosis, which is characterized by lowered bone density that weakens the skeleton and leaves it vulnerable to breakage. The absence of a menstrual cycle for more than three months can be a sign that an athlete is training too hard and should lower the frequency and intensity of their exercise routines.

Young female athletes who have one or more of the Female Athlete Triad conditions may not acknowledge the harm their extreme behavior has on their health. They may hide or deny their behavior due to embarrassment or shame. They may not even view their behavior as unhealthy, since they feel pressure to excel athletically and maintain a slender figure. All female athletes should watch for the Female Athlete Triad in their own lives and in the lives of their fellow athletes.

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