The Female(?) Athlete Triad - Part III/III: Road to Recovery! Step #2 = Accept There is No Magic Macronutrient Ratio

No need to raid another tomb, Lara, the quest for the one and only ideal macronutrient composition that will yield optimal results for the rest of your life ends here (img courtesy of Paramount)!
I am not planning to bore you with a longish summary of the previous installment(s) of this series, here. Still, I don't want to head on to the 2nd step of the "Road to Recovery", which is going to deal with the quest for the "optimal" macronutrient ratio, without a brief reminder of the central role of nutrient availability in both the etiology, as well as the recovery from the athlete triad - or, as Dr. Zanker from the Carnegie Research Institute at the Leeds Metropolitan University in the United Kingdom puts it, the simple fact that the "exercise associated reproductive dysfunction in women is attributable to deficits of readily available energy" (Zanker. 2006)

In a couple of more general remarks some of you have recently (not without good reason, by the way) criticized my excessive and in parts random use of mark-ups like bold print or underlining. In the introductory paragraph to today's post the word "readily" is however so important that the underlining is obligatory.

Your hypothalamus does not like to wait, therefore "readily" is the keyword, here!

It is after all the lack of appropriate readily available energy, primarily in the form of circulating glucose, liver glycogen, and adipose tissue triacylglycerol that precedes the low plasma insulin concentration and reductions in total body fat content and corresponding disturbance of leptin secretion, ghrelin, cortisol, thyroid and of course luteinizing hormone (see data in figure 1; the absolute levels from the healthy group may also serve as a reference to compare your own labwork to; mind the units!).
Figure 1: Hormonal and glucose metabolism (* indicates 24h values) of women with functional hypothalamic amenorrhea (not necessarily exercise induced) expressed relative to values in eumenorrheic control; values above the bars indicate the total values of the respective markers in healthy controls and may provide you with some orientation, when you are looking at your own bloodwork (data based on Loughlin. 1998)
In order to avoid / counter the reproductive and associated problems and break out of the vicious circle of the athlete's triad, Zanker proposes the following three steps (based on Zanker. 2006; yet with a couple of additions from my side): 
  • Avoid abrupt and rapid weight loss and maintain an “adequate” body fat content, which may be individually specific, but coincides with regular reproductive function.
  • Consume adequate amounts of energy to fuel your increased metabolic demands; never go below your resting energy expenditure, regardless of whether you  want to or even have to lose weight.
  • Make sure you get an adequate amount of carbohydrates either on a continuous (low GI carbs with every meal) or in a cyclic manner as part of a low(er)* carbohydrate diet with a baseline intake of 90-120g/day and additional carbs after every workout.
    *compared to the RDA of ~60% carbs
"Carbohydrates? But aren't those just making you fat?" With this very question that's now probably on the mind of one or two (or three ;-) of you, we did eventually arrive at the topic of this episode of the Athlete's Triad Series:
Is there a ideal macronutrient ratio that will prevent the onset
and help you get rid of the athlete's triad?
To be honest, I don't know the answer to this question... and although I had almost typed the word "yet" win the place where you now see the "..." , I must admit that I am not even sure if there actually is a definitive answer to this question. What I do have to offer, though, is a couple of things to keep in mind, when it comes to the macronutrient make-up of your diet.
  1. There is no such thing as a "bad" nutrient. There are about as many good arguments to vilify the overconsumption of protein, as there are arguments against the usual scapegoats, carbohydrates and fats.
  2. Glucose and saturated fats can be essential, too. Just because your body can produce carbs and saturated fats on its own, this does not mean that you do not have to, let alone should not eat them.
  3. The optimal macronutrient ratio will change over time - just like and in response to the way your physique, conditioning, lifestyle, training and general stress levels  will be changing. This implies that diet X, which may have worked magically for you, when you got rid of slabs of body fat is now that you are finally in the "normal range", let alone already so lean that your body's alarm bells are constantly ringing, hampering your progress.
And even if the previous comments on the importance of readily available energy and glycogen repletion would suggest that carbohydrates should make up the lion's share of the diet of any athlete trying to recover from the triad (or not to fall victim to it), an extreme high carbohydrate alone is neither guaranteed to solve the problem nor is it a sustainable way of eating you could stick to once you've "carbed" yourself out of the dark hole you have been digging over the past months.

Readily available energy? Does that mean I have to eat sugar all day?

Figure 2: Cortisol (left) and testosterone (right) levels in healthy men after 10 days on high protein vs. high carbohydrate diets (based on Anderson. 1987). Tegelman et al. report similar results from Swedish elite male Ice Hockey players after a reduction of fat and an increase in carbs (Tegelman. 2007)
On the one hand, we've known for over two decades that a high carbohydrate diet based on bread, vegetables, fruit, juices, pastry, and candy having a protein / carb / fat ratio of 10% / 70% / 20% will result in lower cortisol and higher testosterone levels (in men) than a high protein diet with a protein / carb / fat ratio of 44% / 35% / 21% that's based on lots of meat, fish, poultry, egg whites, and a liquid dietary supplement protein supplement (Anderson. 1987; see figure 2). On the other hand, a closer analysis of the data I compiled based on the tabular overview of pertinent studies on amenorrheic from the review by Manore (see figure 3 in the last installment) suggests that advantage of carbohydrates depends on the deepness of the whole you already dug (the deeper the more advantageous) and your willingness / ability to cover or even surpass your daily energy requirements (the more you eat on a daily basis and in at least three square meals spread equally across the day, the less you will depend on the readily available energy from carbs).

Against that background, the high carbohydrate intake (62% of total energy from carbohydrates; nutrient ratio in grams 16% protein, 71% carbs, 14% fats) was probably necessary for the women in the eumenorrheic group with an energy intake of slightly less than 30g/kg body weight (figure 3, R5).
Figure 3: Macronutrient compositions (in kcal!) of amenorrheic and eumenorrheic women from 15 different studies (based on an overview in Manore. 2002)
For the eumenorrheic female athletes who were at, or way above the average mean energy intake of 35g/kg body weight, the "high" carbohydrate intake of 265g/day probably wasn't detrimental. On the other hand, it appears questionable, whether an increase in protein intake from 1.2g protein per kg of body weight to 1.5-2.0g/kg and a corresponding protein to carbohydrate ratio of 25% / 62% would not have been more facilitative to their goals (specifically if those include strength training). The same goes for both, the replacement of yet another part of the carbohydrate ration with an isocaloric amount of fats and the overall role of fats in the etiology of and the recovery from the athlete's triad.

The fat-phobia still loomed large, when the majority of studies was conducted

Part of the problem of reconciling theoretical considerations, such as the "availability advantage" of carbohydrates and the scarce and almost exclusively observational data based on which I compiled the overview in figure 3 of this, as well as the last installment of this series, is that eating patterns of both the eumenorrheic, as well as the amennorheic athletes was geared towards the dietary paradigm of the day. With "the day" being the late 1980s and 1990s, i.e. those years in which the fat-phobia literally climaxed, it should be obvious that the baseline diet was low in fat and high in carbs.

Against that background it should also be clear that anyone trying to "cut calories" would reduce the amount of fats, the "bad energy dense heart killers" and keep the intake of carbohydrates constant (=high). This is probably also, the reason that the ostensible disproportionate lack of fats in the diets of the amenorrheic women vanished, once I weighted the data with the number of participants.
Figure 4: Total dietary intake of protein, carbohydrates and fats (in g; left) and differences between women with and without regular menses (right); data expressed either as simple group averages or weighed for the number of study participants (same sources as figure 3)
The picture that emerges after this adjustment has been done (figure 4, right, light bars) is clear and stands in line with my initial remarks on the primary of readily available energy in the form of circulating glucose, liver glycogen, and adipose tissue triacylglycerol, of which at least the former are way more readily derived from carbohydrates than fats.

And even the triacylglycers do, as the name implies, require a certain amount of glucose for the glycerol backbone (could be produced in the liver from amino acids and/or fats, though) and a minimal amount insulin to be stored in the fat cells (can be secreted in response to high amounts of protein and fat, as well, though).

So no fats? Just carbs and some protein?

Yet though carbohydrates have the availability bonus and proteins are necessary to maintain, better even build muscle mass, you would be ill-advised to steer clear of all dietary fats and, even more so the many good foods that contain them. Not so much because of the "essential" polyunsaturated fatty acid, though. According to a study by Tomten and Høstmark the dietary intake of PUFAs in 20 female runners with regular (n=10) and irregular (n=10) menses (LH levels of 7.6 vs. 2.9 IU/l!) was not statistically different. The intake saturated fats (-28%) and even more the intake of MUFAs (-38%), on the other hand was (Tomten. 2009) and the corresponding total fat-intake of 1.1g/kg body weight was obviously not sufficient to maintain optimal hormonal levels in the presence of a training volume of 7.5h per week.

What about vegetarianism? I know a few of you won't like this, but unless you are at least ovo-lacto vegetarian, i.e. a person who eats dairy and eggs, you are going to have a hard time fueling your athletic endeavors appropriately. After all, vegetarianism is associated with hormonal and menstrual abnormalities even in the non-athletic population, when they are dieting (Pirke. 1986). If you combine a mild energy deficit, as it is often seen in vegetarian, let alone vegan athletes, simply because it's harder for them to cover their energy and specifically protein and fat requirements without guzzling omega-6 oils and soy shakes all day (both not advisable, by the way), it is actually not surprising that Benson et al. mention vegetarianism right along low calorie intakes, nutritional inadequacies and low body fat stores as one of the main contributers to the (female) athlete triad (Benson. 1996).
Now you can certainly argue that all this comes down to the energy density and the correspondingly lower overall energy intake and could have been compensated for, if the women with menstrual irregularities had simply eaten more carbohydrates. In view of the fact that they didn't do so, I can hardly refute this argument. On the other hand, we have seen in the previous installment that an overexpression of GH and ghrelin is in as much part of the problem as too little insulin and a pathologically high insulin sensitivity. And some more fat in the diet (alongside carbs / not as the sole energy source!) couId in fact come handy to get that back in check.

Moreover, having a carb to fat ratio of ~2:1 (in energy equivalents) and a baseline fat intake in the range  of 80-100g (total) as the female runners with regular menses in the Tomton sudy had, has the beauty of never having to throw away the egg yolks, being able to get your share of fatty fish, full fat dairy, Kerrygold butter, virgin coconut and olive oil and beef or better calf liver as well as nuts once in a while. This in turn will allow you not just to stay sane and flexible with your diet, but also to satisfy your need for all those vital micronutrients you won't find in any of E-number laden fat-reduced garbage from the "low fat" shelves at the supermarket.

You see, in the end it all comes back eating simply more of the usual suspects, many people would probably file under "a paleo diet with lots of (safe) starches & fruit to fuel the energetic demands of a hard working athlete", these days.

If we think of the hypothetical daily energy requirement of 2000kcal/day which is often used as a reference for the nutrition information on those products of which you are going to buy less in the future (most real foods don't have nutritional information printed on them, you know ;-), the corresponding "numbers" could be anywhere on a continuum
  • from 110g protein / 190g carbs / 100g fats, for someone without an endurance component in his workouts*, 
  • to 100g protein / 240g carbs / 80g fats for someone who has a major endurance component and / or follows a high volume lifting routine*
    *pre- and post workout nutrition are not included, here!
This approach would ensure that you get enough protein, appropriate amounts of readily available energy, mainly in the form of safe starches and fruit, quasi unlimited amounts of vegetables and so much fat that you don't have to resort to the devastating "chicken breast, rice and broccoli diet", which will only worsen your situation.

  • Anderson KE, Rosner W, Khan MS, New MI, Pang SY, Wissel PS, Kappas A. Diet-hormone interactions: protein/carbohydrate ratio alters reciprocally the plasma levels of testosterone and cortisol and their respective binding globulins in man. Life Sci. 1987 May 4;40(18):1761-8.
  • Benson JE, Engelbert-Fenton KA, Eisenman PA. Nutritional aspects of amenorrhea in the female athlete triad. Int J Sport Nutr. 1996 Jun;6(2):134-45.
  • Laughlin GA, Dominguez CE, Yen SS. Nutritional and endocrine-metabolic aberrations in women with functional hypothalamic amenorrhea. J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 1998 Jan;83(1):25-32.
  • Manore MM. Dietary recommendations and athletic menstrual dysfunction. Sports Med. 2002;32(14):887-901.
  • Pirke KM, Schweiger U, Laessle R, Dickhaut B, Schweiger M, Waechtler M. Dieting influences the menstrual cycle: vegetarian versus nonvegetarian diet. Fertil Steril. 1986 Dec;46(6):1083-8.
  • Tegelman R, Aberg T, Pousette A, Carlström K. Effects of a diet regimen on pituitary and steroid hormones in male ice hockey players. Int J Sports Med. 1992 Jul;13(5):424-30.
  • Tomten SE, Høstmark AT. Serum vitamin E concentration and osmotic fragility in female long-distance runners. J Sports Sci. 2009 Jan 1;27(1):69-76.
  • Zanker CL. Regulation of reproductive function in athletic women: an investigation of the roles of energy availability and body composition. Br J Sports Med. 2006 Jun;40(6):489-90; discussion 490.
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