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Many Young Female Athletes Are Malnourished

Some athletic teen girls aren’t getting enough to eat.

(Pete Saloutos/Image Source/Corbis)
smithsonian.com

Eating well and enough is important for any growing teenager, but scientists are finding that many young female athletes aren’t getting enough food to fuel their active bodies. Whether they show signs of an eating disorder or not, many of these young women are essentially malnourished.

“Female athlete triad syndrome” comes from not eating enough food and can irreparably damage the health of teenaged girls. With symptoms like irregular menstruation, low energy and low bone density, affected girls can experience health problems stemming from the syndrome for the rest of their lives, Patti Neighmond reports for NPR.

"[Any bone density] lost before [age 25] then cannot be regained,” orthopaedic surgeon Dr. Elizabeth Matzkin tells Ashley Welch for CBS News. “Since females over the age of 25 have often reached maximal bone mineral density, they are now tasked with maintaining what they've accrued."

In a new study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, Matzkin found that female athlete triad syndrome can trigger a cascade of related health problems. If a young woman isn’t eating enough food to replace the calories burned during exercise, her lack of energy can cause irregular menstrual cycles, which in turn causes her bones to decrease in density, putting her at risk for fractures, broken bones and eventually osteoporosis. But while doctors have in the past only monitored girls showing symptoms of possible eating disorders for the syndrome, Matzkin says it can affect young women no matter how healthy they appear.

"These athletes can come in any shape, form or weight. It's not just that typical ballerina physique that we're looking out for anymore,” Matzkin tells Neighmond.

Matzkin’s study indicates that many more young women may be at risk for female athlete triad syndrome. Last year, a medical commission formed by the International Olympic Committee established a program to identify athletes at risk for female athlete triad syndrome as well as a proposal to broaden the research to investigate how young men might be affected by the condition as well.

To combat the effects of the syndrome, young women need to be educated on how many calories they need to take in in order to replace what is burned during regular exercise. As Jessica Buschmann, a registered dietitian at Nationwide Children's Hospital in Columbus, Ohio tells Neighmond, athletic teen girls might need to eat as many as 3,500 calories a day as opposed to the 2,400 calories recommended by the National Institutes of Health.

By teaching young women more about what their bodies need to stay strong and healthy, they can both excel at their sport and avoid injuring themselves down the line.

About Danny Lewis

Danny Lewis is a multimedia journalist working in print, radio, and illustration. He focuses on stories with a health/science bent and has reported some of his favorite pieces from the prow of a canoe. Danny is based in Brooklyn, NY.

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