Many do — limiting performance and potentially harming overall health.
While exercise is good for you, if you do not eat enough to fuel the exercise, your health may be at risk. Nicole Springle is a Registered Dietitian and Sports Nutritionist at Cleveland Clinic Canada who specializes in helping runners enhance their athletic performance. We discussed the serious issue of active people under-eating.
Jennifer Brenton: What do runners need to know about nutrition to run well and stay healthy overall?
Nicole Springle: Without a good training diet, your race day nutrition isn’t going to make much of a difference. I see too many runners concerned about what to eat the day before a race, without taking the time to invest in a healthy diet leading up the event. Here are my top nutrition and hydration tips to ensure that a runner’s training diet prepares them properly for the best race they can run:
JB: How do I know if I suffer from the “Female Triad”? What can be done to prevent it?
NS: Not supplying the body with enough overall calories for daily activities plus exercise creates an energy drain, which results in problems in both overall health and performance for athletes. In women, this condition is known as the female athlete triad. It has three components: energy availability, menstrual function and bone health. Athletes suffering from the triad may experience problems in any one of these three areas, but all are related to not taking in enough calories.
Low-energy intake can result in loss of muscle mass, menstrual dysfunction, loss or failure to gain bone density, and increased risk of fatigue, injury and illness. Research with female athletes who were amenorrheic, meaning they lost their menstrual function for three months or more, showed that simply adding enough calories to meet energy needs resulted in the return of menstruation.
Increasing energy intake will also lead to improvements in overall nutritional status, energy, and performance. Low energy availability is not always the result of actively restricting food intake. Many women simply don’t realize that they are not eating enough to sustain their energy needs. It can happen in recreationally active women and is not restricted solely to those involved in high-level athletics.
Prevention of the triad involves fuelling the body with enough calories for exercise. Women should focus on eating frequent balanced meals and snacks throughout the day, but should also be aware that hunger doesn’t always increase with higher training volumes. Know the symptoms associated with the triad and respond by increasing food intake as needed.
Women can watch for the following risk factors, but the presence of one of these markers may not be enough to indicate low energy availability. [The points starred (*) indicate that an individual with any one of these symptoms should follow up with a qualified health professional such as a sports medicine doctor or a registered dietitian specializing in sport nutrition.]
While the symptoms of the female athlete triad apply specifically to women, research indicates that 83% of male athletes are dissatisfied with their weight. More research is being done to explore the effects of low energy availability in males. Eating disorders and disordered eating are becoming a growing concern for males as well as females.
JB: If we are not in training — exercising moderately for 60 minutes per day — do we need a special nutrition plan?
NS: The same recommendations given above in question 1 apply for someone who is exercising moderately or training for a race. Portion size and attention to exact carbohydrate and protein amounts increase for individuals wanting to fine tune their diet for competition. But all active individuals require a balanced healthy diet to perform at their best.
JB: How can mindful eating relate to sports nutrition?
NS: Mindful eating encompasses listening to your body and responding appropriately to the signals that it gives you. Athletes and active individuals need to respond to hunger signals, but also should pay attention to additional signs like recovery time, aches and muscle pain, fatigue, improvements in strength and endurance, sleep patterns and overall energy or fatigue. I always tell my athletes to look at food as their fuel for exercise. If they are not responding to their hunger or aren’t eating the right foods, they could be jeopardizing their health and not getting the full benefits of their workouts.
JB: To start eating healthier right now, what would you recommend we do?
NS: Fruits and vegetables are always at the top of my list when it comes to optimizing your diet. They’re nature’s perfect food for athletes! Getting the seven to 10 recommended servings can be challenging, but its well worth the effort.