To Thrive, Many Young Female Athletes Need A Lot More Food : Shots - Health News Doctors and parents often miss the signs of female athlete triad syndrome — low energy, low bone density and irregular menstruation in an otherwise healthy-looking girl or teen.
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To Thrive, Many Young Female Athletes Need A Lot More Food

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To Thrive, Many Young Female Athletes Need A Lot More Food

To Thrive, Many Young Female Athletes Need A Lot More Food

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Renee Montagne is back at NPR West. Renee, welcome back.


Thank you, Steve. I'm all rested up and here to tell you about an evolving health problem for girls. It's a subject of today's health segment. Girls can play demanding sports in a way that past generations never could. The trouble comes when girls embrace sports like soccer, basketball or track which consume lots of energy, but they don't eat enough. NPR's Patti Neighmond reports.

PATTI NEIGHMOND, BYLINE: It's called female athlete triad syndrome. Symptoms include irregular menstrual cycles, low energy and low bone density. Orthopedic surgeon Elizabeth Matzkin with Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston says girls who get it are essentially malnourished.

ELIZABETH MATZKIN: We used to think that it had to be that anorexic, bulimic, very skinny female that was going to have these triad symptoms, but we clearly know now that these athletes can come in any shape, form - any weight. It's not that typical ballerina physique that we're looking out for anymore.

NEIGHMOND: She says doctors often don't recognize the problem in their seemingly healthy, young, active patients, and athletes themselves often don't know they're at risk.

JESSICA BUSCHMANN: I'm so happy you're home from Michigan. How was your first year?

REGAN DETWEILER: My first year was great, it was a little crazy.

NEIGHMOND: 19-year-old Regan Detweiler meets with dietitian Jessica Buschmann at Nationwide Children's Hospital in Columbus, OH. Regan first came here about two years ago during her junior year in high school. She was a top athlete in track and cross-country, training year-round and running every day. She also adhered to a rigid, low-carb diet.

DETWEILER: I had a very, very unhealthy relationship with carbs at the time.

NEIGHMOND: Breakfast was coffee and yogurt. At lunch, Regan indulged in a sandwich, but....

DETWEILER: I was not eating the crust. I was eating as little of that peanut butter sandwich as I could possibly eat while still saying that I had a sandwich for lunch.

NEIGHMOND: Regan was hungry most of the day. She had her period only once every six months. Then, she had two stress fractures, and doctors ordered a bone density scan.

DETWEILER: I was on the very, very, very lowest end of having a normal bone density.

NEIGHMOND: Surgeon Matzkin says that's worrisome because there's literally a count-down to how many years women have to build strong bones.

MATZKIN: We can really only build it up till about the age of 25.

NEIGHMOND: After that, women in particular because of female hormones lose bone density bit-by-bit every year.

MATZKIN: If you can start at a higher level, then you're going to do better off than those of us who haven't maximized our bone density.

NEIGHMOND: Young athletes who change their diet can rebuild bone, but Matzkin says they'll never get back to where they might've been had they not lost it in the first place.

BUSCHMANN: I have to ask, of course, how is the food?

DETWEILER: The food was good.

NEIGHMOND: Dietitian Buschmann says some patients require as many as 3,500 calories a day, which can be a scary number for many girls worried about body image. So Buschmann is careful choosing her words when she counsels her patients.

BUSCHMANN: You need X number of calories in a day, but from now on, I'm going to say energy or fuel because that's truly what it is. It's energy for your muscles - is fuel for your muscles, as well your brain to make sure that you're physically and mentally strong enough and have enough stamina to optimize your workouts and training plan.

NEIGHMOND: Regan embraced Buschmann's diet plan - three solid meals a day, plus three snacks. She gained a little weight, but not much. Mostly, she says, she just felt good.

DETWEILER: I had actually the most successful season my senior year cross-country season.

NEIGHMOND: As for those lunchtime peanut butter sandwiches, Regan kept eating them, but added the crust.

DETWEILER: Which was great (laughter).

NEIGHMOND: Today at 19 and a sophomore in college, Regan eats a healthy diet. Surgeon Matzkin says a diet filled with fruits, vegetables, protein, calcium and vitamin D is what it takes for young female athletes to build crucial bone. Patti Neighmond, NPR News.

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