The female athlete triad is a medical term that refers to three separate health conditions occurring at the same time in female athletes. The three conditions are:
Caloric Energy Deficit – Typically dancers are conscious of the food they eat. They worry about ingesting too many calories and gaining weight. The problem with this logic is that calories also supply dancers with the energy they need to perform in class, rehearsals and on stage. By reducing their caloric intake, dancers often end up burning more calories than they eat and create an energy deficit.
Irregular Menstrual Cycles – Many dancers experience irregular cycles or may find that their periods stop completely. The purpose of periods is to support the life of a developing baby. If the body does not have enough fat or is not at a healthy weight that could sustain both the body and a developing fetus, periods will stop. Dancers who are below a healthy body weight and/or lack body fat may experience irregular cycles or an absence of a cycle.
Osteoporosis – Irregular or absent menstrual cycles cause low levels of estrogen in the body. Our bodies need estrogen to be able to properly absorb and use calcium, which is necessary for bone growth. If our estrogen levels are low, calcium is not absorbed and bone growth in hindered. The lack of bone growth leads to osteoporosis. Osteoporosis is a decrease in bone density which results in weakened bones that can break easily and may result in stress fractures in dancers.
When all three of these factors combine, they create a weakened state and a very unhealthy dancer.
Knowing how to eat healthy is a key element in avoiding the female athlete triad. Dancers need to remember that they expend a lot of energy on a daily basis and that the food we eat is the fuel that powers our bodies. According to USDA Dietary Guidelines for Americans, active teen females should consume between 2200-2400 calories per day. It is extremely important that these calories be healthy calories that will provide dancers with enough energy to get through their long days of classes and rehearsals and enough protein to keep their muscles healthy.
Learning about nutrition and what to eat before and after class and rehearsals is extremely important. It is also important that dancers who experience irregular or an absence of menstrual cycles speak with their health professionals to avoid sliding down the slippery slope of injury.