Our culture has us to believe that many of us are eating too much and should work towards eating less, exercising more and fit our bodies into this cookie cutter shape. The reality is, most of what the popular media is sharing is leading to issues of low energy availability, over-exercising and possible disordered eating patterns. In high performance sports environments, athletes can have a lack of understanding of how much energy their body needs or are not fueling appropriately around training times. Whatever the reason is, low energy availability or “a mismatch between an athlete’s energy intake (diet) and the energy expended during exercise” (Mountjoy et al. 2018), is leaving individuals with not enough energy required to support optimal health and performance. This low energy availability in combination with other physiological outcomes is also known as Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport or RED-S. These issues are becoming increasingly common, yet there is still a lack of understanding or awareness around it, especially for males.
Here is what happens to performance when RED-S is present or there is low energy availability.
Physiologically there are many signs that this low energy availability may be an issue. The responses that occur in the body include (but are not limited to):
- a loss of menstrual function, no period or lack of period at 15 years of age or older
- changes in hormones, hormone function such as alterations in thyroid function or sex-hormones
- stress fractures and reduced bone strength
- slowing of the metabolism or resting metabolic rate
- recurring or frequent viral infections
- digestive upset such as constipation and bloating
There are many other signs of RED-s, but this shows you how the body is affected both in the short term but some can be of the long term. Again, I want to emphasize this is not always an eating disorder or disordered eating; that is a limited view and many athletes or individuals affected by RED-S have a very normal or healthy eating pattern yet are still not eating enough for their training. The first step to alleviating the issue, is the awareness of what is going on. We often do not understand our bodies energy needs and many people are not intentionally under fueling for the activity they are doing. I have personally had RED-S. There were moments I know I intentionally did not eat as much as I knew I needed (a story that will be shared in detail on my podcast) but much of the time I simply did not understand how much energy my body needed. I often missed out on a good recovery because I just did not know or instead of snacky snacks before bed, having a quality snack that included protein. I also didn’t understand that my lack of training response or frequent viral infections was because of not eating enough. Everyone has a different experience; my experience is just one example.
Next steps: Now that we are aware of RED-S, some simple next steps are:
- Always have a pre-workout meal and/or snack. If you are working out in the morning, have a quick, easy to digest snack before- high in carbs with a little bit of protein. If you are training after work, do not forget to have an afternoon snack that will provide you the energy you need for that training after a day’s work. The amount and the timing will change but start with ensuring you always have something in your body before your workout; your body needs the energy!
- Recovery!! Never skip a recovery snack! I cannot emphasize this enough. Recovery will provide your body with the energy and nutrients it needs to re-energize and repair the damage you caused by training and build up that muscle we work so hard on. Recovery includes a ratio of 3 carbohydrates to 1 protein or 0.2-0.4g/kg protein and 1-1.2g/kg of carbohydrates within 15-30 minutes.
- Have a snack or a meal every 3-4 hours throughout the day. This snack should include a source of protein to ensure you have it available for constant recovery and a carbohydrate for the energy. Spreading protein intake throughout the day is important. We want it to be available throughout the day for recovery, but we also want to make sure we are including enough carbs and fats at each meal and not overconsuming protein in one sitting.
- A sample of meal and protein timing looks like this:
|Breakfast: protein, grain, fruit||25 g protein|
|AM Snack: CHO + Protein||10g protein|
|Lunch: Protein, grain, veg/fruit||25g protein|
|Post workout <1 hr + Carb||25g protein|
|Supper: Protein, grain, veg||25g protein|
|Before bed: CHO + Protein||10g protein|
This sounds simple, but these 3 things will make a HUGE difference. The issue of RED-s is complex and the steps to prevent it and recover from it can be difficult on your own. It is important to seek support from a Registered Dietitian who can make a plan that meets your individual needs, training plan and health. Having that RD work with you and your team (trainer, coach, etc) will help get you on the track to better performance and better health.
DO NOT let diet culture fool you into thinking that we are all eating too much…. The issue of not eating enough is much more common in my office! Eat, Live, Train…..!