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Good nutrition is good advice for active women, teenage girls

​​​​​​​​Men and women are different. So it would stand to reason that their bodies may respond differently to high levels of exercise. 

girls playing soccerWomen and young girls can develop what is known as the female athlete triad. Healthful eating is essential to avoiding this syndrome.

"The female athlete triad revolves around disordered eating connected to irregular periods and poor bone health," said Family Medicine and Sports Medicine Physician Cristin Newkirk, M.D.​, Marshfield Clinic Wausau Center. "It starts with nutrition. Our bodies need adequate calories from healthy foods to replace the muscle and nutrients broken down during practice and competition."

Improved nutrition can lead to better performance during a workout and competition.

"Sometimes athletes go from school, to practice and competition and may be tempted to skip meals or snacks to save time," said Dr. Newkirk. "Early effects are fatigue, but later effects can include irregular periods and stress fractures. Good nutrition protects your body now and in the future."

Proper nutrition helps the brain signal the ovaries to produce estrogen, a hormone that is a big factor in bone density. Irregular periods mean less estrogen is being released, and poor bone health can develop at a much younger age.

"I shouldn't see decreased bone density, or osteopenia, in runners or other athletes participating in impact sports," Dr. Newkirk said. "It's really important for young women going through puberty in their teens and early 20s to build up their bone health. These are the bone-forming years and the time to build up that bone health for the rest of their lives."

If a teenage girl or woman is at risk for female athlete triad, she already may be experiencing some symptoms and signs, such as:

  • Weight loss
  • No periods or irregular periods
  • Fatigue and decreased ability to concentrate
  • Stress fractures (fractures that occur even if a person hasn't had a significant injury
  • Muscle injuries

Boys too can have a form of the triad, particularly if they are in a sport such as wrestling, where they compete for a weight class, Dr. Newkirk said. "Sports that are more body conscious may also provide some pressure and promote thinness."

Advice for women and girls to help avoid the female athlete triad and stay in top physical condition includes:

  • Keep track of your periods
  • Don't skip meals or snacks
  • Visit a dietitian or nutritionist who works with young athletes
  • Take care of yourself

"Proper nutrition helps you perform better," said Dr. Newkirk. "For some, this is a shift in past thinking about bodies and body types. But more women are playing in sports now than ever before. We've learned that a balanced, healthy lifestyle includes exercise and eating right."