Proper Nutrition and Energy Optimization for the Female Athlete

by Reilly Brown, RD/Sports Nutritionist >> Request an Appointment

The Female Athlete Triad, now classified as Relative Energy Deficiency Syndrome (RED-S), is a very serious health condition in which an athlete experiences a negative energy balance due to either energy restriction, increased energy expenditure or a combination of both. (Originally thought to only affect females, energy imbalance and deficiency can affect male athletes as well.) You can read more about the signs and symptoms of the Female Athlete Triad/RED-S here.

RED-S often stems from the mistaken belief that reducing body weight or restricting fuel intake will increase athletic performance. Body composition is an important component excel in sport, but research supports a proper fueling plan over an energy restricted diet. A nutrition plan to optimize athletic performance incorporates a balanced breakfast, fruit and vegetable consumption, moderate to high carbohydrate intake and an emphasis on protein.

Prevention and early detection of RED-S are key. Athletes are commonly misinformed about nutrition due to incorrect information from coaches, parents and teammates. Pressure from these entities can lead to energy reduction which can then trigger unhealthy restrictive behaviors and disordered eating. Acquiring accurate knowledge of nutrition and fueling for performance is the first step to preventing RED-S.

Disordered eating is often associated with RED-S. When this is present, the fist goal of treatment is to address and preserve the athlete’s mental health and well-being. If an eating disorder is suspected, referral to a physician is necessary. A multi-disciplinary team approach is found to be most effective at treating RED-S, including consultation with a physician, a psychiatrist, a registered dietitian and a physical therapist. For adolescents, parents should also be involved in the treatment plan.

Meeting with a registered dietitian to discuss proper fueling will not only help prevent RED-S, but will also help an athlete recover if an energy deficiency is present. Though all athletes are different and nutrition plans should be individualized, here are a few general fueling tips to get you started if you believe you are suffering from RED-S.

  • Gradually to add energy-dense food (avocado, peanut butter, olive oil) into your meals.
  • Be careful with the amount of food you add back in. Adding food back too quickly can cause an electrolyte imbalance in your body.
  • Aim to consume 3 meals and 2-3 snacks per day.
  • Build a performance plate: ½ plate of carbohydrates, ¼ plate of vegetables/fruit and ¼ plate of protein.
  • Fuel after your workout with a 3:1 ratio of carbohydrates to protein to promote the building and maintenance of lean body mass.
  • Aim for 2-3 servings of fruits and 4-5 servings of vegetables per day.

If you believe that you (or a teammate) is fueling incorrectly, feel free to reach out to Reilly to schedule a free 15-minute nutrition consultation to remedy this. Please request an appointment here. (Select ‘Nutrition’ under Preferred Location.)

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