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Female Triad Athlete Syndrome: The False Picture of Health

The pervasive imagery of severely underweight models and popular celebrities has received a fair share of serious discussion regarding how ongoing and extensive media saturation of these “role models” affects individuals at risk of developing eating disorders.  Many studies on media influence and eating disorders reveal an intimate connection between how social groups change their attitudes and opinions of what constitutes an “ideal body” following prolonged exposure to televised media.  Consequently, there is enormous pressure among peer groups, especially amongst pre-adolescent and adolescent girls to emulate the physical appearance of celebrity icons.  However, while it is seemingly simple to identify rail-thin models and dangerously skinny actors as evidence of unhealthy examples of weight management, there is another set of admired famous figures that bears serious scrutiny: athletes.

Woman RunningAt first glance, it is difficult to imagine what could be wrong with individuals attempting to develop athletic, apparently fit physiques.  After all, the growing promotion of healthful behavior along with the development of a positive body image and sensible relationship with food rather than dieting or achieving a certain weight goal would appear to go along with an athletic lifestyle.  However, among many active women there is a danger that can initially be easy to overlook.  Many female athletes appear to represent the very picture of heath but the image is deceptive.  Underneath an exterior that suggests these women are at the top of their game, there is often an underlying battle involving severe calorie restriction and excessive, even obsessive exercise regimens.

Often this behavior is written off as just part of the pursuit of excellence but the truth is young women engaging in this behavior are putting themselves in great danger not only in the present but down the road as well.  Defined as Female Athlete Triad Syndrome, young female athletes threaten their overall health through a combination of three conditions:

  • Eating disorders such as anorexia or bulimia or calorie-restrictive  behavior
  • Cessation or infrequency of menstruation (amenhorrea)
  • Osteoporosis (thinning of the bones)

Although this syndrome typically affects elite female athletes, experts estimate that as much as 5% of the general population of active women is affected as well.  Among young women involved in competitive sports such as gymnastics, dance, and ice-skating the potential of developing unhealthful weigh management behaviors has shown signs of steady increase.  Those especially at risk are young women in sports or competitive activities in which maintaining a particular weight is integral to successful participation.  Additionally, the pressure of peers and overly ambitious parents or trainers can severely impact the behavior of impressionable young women.

Symptoms of Female Athlete Triad Syndrome include: fatigue, anemia, loss of menstruation, stress fractures and symptoms common amongst eating disordered individuals.  As with any eating disorder, it is important that this syndrome be addressed as soon as it has been detected. Those suffering with an emotional disorder with combined physiological issues benefit greatly from early intervention that addresses all aspects of the condition.  A personalized, multi-disciplinary approach to treatment offers the greatest hope for lasting recovery for those battling with eating disorders.