Intuitive Eating for the Female Athlete

Intuitive eating for the female athlete

Singling out the LADIES this week to talk about intuitive eating in the face of one of my favorite topics - low energy availability in female athletes! Now before you opt out because a.) you're a guy or b.) you aren't an "athlete", know this: there is a lot of overlap here between the effects of low energy availability on women and men. Also, in today's fitness fanatic, weekend warrior culture the line between athlete and everyday Jane gets blurred, a lot. In other words, you might find a nugget here that's worth your time.

I get fired up about this topic for a few reasons. First off, I'm inspired to share by my own experiences with low energy availability as a collegiate athlete and beyond.  Secondly, I'm constantly encountering adult women who struggle with the ramifications of under fueling and overexercising. Athlete or not, these women typically have a couple things in common: they are frustrated that their weight won't budge no matter how hard they work, they have a belief that there is just "something wrong" with them, and finally, they think that all of the resultant health issues of under-fueling are either completely unrelated to their food intake or just the norm.

There is this huge misconception out there that "as long as you are maintaining or gaining weight, you are taking in enough energy." Forget the fact that you don't have a period anymore, you have terrible digestive health, low energy, poor mood, decreased sleep quality and maybe even poor bone density. Forget the fact that you can't make it through a whole week or even a day's worth of workouts like you used to. And what about that nagging cold that never seems to go away? There's no way it's related to under-eating if the number on the scale hasn't budged....right?

PSA: You CAN chronically under-fuel and STILL maintain your bodyweight. Our bodies are smart. We were designed to adapt and conserve, and sometimes that means stealing energy from certain body systems - like your reproductive system for example - in order to fuel a workout.

It's so, so common for female athletes and workout enthusiasts to have irregular or completely absent menstrual cycles. A lot of athletes just accept this as par for the course, but they shouldn't. No, irregular periods are a warning sign that the body is not receiving enough energy to carry out it's normal functions. When this is the case, recovery and overall health are negatively affected and performance and quality of life are sure to take a hit. We used to only be concerned with the complete absence of menstruation in athletes in the context of anorexia and osteoporosis, but then we go smart. We realized we needed to take a look at the at the downward trend that led to these conditions. We had to look at the full spectrum of inadequate nutrition in female athletes.

ahhh the "graysuit" -  just a  fond memory of my chiche wardrobe as a college  athlete

ahhh the "graysuit" -  just a  fond memory of my chiche wardrobe as a college  athlete

Enter the concept of energy availability. I know I've been throwing that term around a lot here. Let me finally get around to defining it. Energy Availability (EA) is the amount of energy left over or available for your body's normal functions  (i.e. reproduction, digestion, immune function, muscle repair, etc.) after the energy expended for exercise is subtracted from the total energy consumed from food.

If you're a math person, EA is your total daily energy (food/calorie) intake minus the amount of energy you burn during exercise activities. Even though I kind of hate talking about calories, I'll give you an example so you can better understand:

Let's say Sally eats 2000 calories, but burns 750 calories working out. She would have 1250 calories left to use to fuel the normal functions of her body. Now take this 1250 calories and divide it by Sally's fat free mass (FFM) in kg and you have EA. Why do we do this step? Because FFM (muscle, bone, organ tissue) requires more energy than fat tissue - the more FFM you have, the more energy required to keep all body systems running properly. So in this example, what is Sally's FFM? Well, if we assume Sally is 60 kg and 24% body fat, that means she has 51.6 kg FFM (86% of her total bodyweight). Therefore her EA would be 24.2 kcal/kg FFM/day. Optimal health is associated with EAs of 40 - 45 kcal/kg FFM/day in athletes.

Confused yet? Don't worry, the numbers aren't super important for this post - just know that Sally has a low energy availability and that can cause some issues, including missed or completely absent periods, poor bone density, poor performance, increased risk of injury, poor mood, etc.  So where's the good news for Sally?

The good news is that Sally and other women with this issue can increase the food they consume, and thereby increase energy availability. This restoration of energy availability often leads to the return of a normal menstrual cycle without medication (woot woot). Possibly even more exciting, intuitive eating, in combination with some strategic pre and post workout fueling, can help female athletes meet their energy requirements without calculating a dang thing (yay, because I'm sure your brain is fried from all that math up above)!

Here's the how and why:

  1.  Our energy needs are constantly changing. Workouts differ in intensity and duration every single day. If that isn't enough, let's consider some of the countless other factors that affect energy requirements: hot and cold weather, anxiety, stress, lack or sleep, certain medications, caffeine intake, injury, sickness, I could go on... The point is we are not able to calculate exactly how much energy we need on a given day, but our bodies know. Intuitive eating focuses on honoring your cravings, eating when hungry and stoping when full.  Athletes who give themselves permission to eat in this way are more likely to meet energy needs instead of stopping early based on a "prescribed plan".
  2. One caveat that is important for college/elite athletes with large energy requirements to consider is meal and snack timing / spacing throughout the day. Sometimes eating to hunger can feel like an out of control experience for athletes who aren't fueling adequately over the course of the day. Because these athletes have such an energy debt built up by meal time, they're more likely to eat until uncomfortable to meet energy needs. This can be avoided with a little planning. Try eating a meal or snack at least every 3 to 4 hours throughout the day. On top of this, utilize pre and post workout snacks to help meet energy needs. Using these strategies will make it easier to eat based off hunger and satiety without the all-encompassing HANGER monster taking over.

  3. Switch your focus from weight loss to energy, health and performance. Focusing on weight loss has this nasty way of making us more dissatisfied with ourselves. It tricks us into believing that self-abuse is just a way of life and what do we get for it? Nothing. Concerted efforts at energy restriction do not work long term, and often they just result in weight regain and psychological unrest. Instead, focus on fueling regularly to have more energy. Focus on performing your best whether it's in your sport at work or as a mom.  Confidence, strength and energy, these are healthy, obsession with weight and food, these are not.

The truth is that low energy availability and its resulting health effects might be "the norm" among active women, but it certainly isn't normal and it's not the abundant life you were meant to lead.