You’re a certifiable exercise freak: your body is constantly working everyday, and paired with a low-calorie diet, you’re shedding weight like a dieting superstar. Unfortunately, you haven’t had a period in months — but that’s okay, right?
Wrong. Although being period-free may seem like a blessing, prolonged period loss can lead to a condition called secondary amenorrhea, which can increase your risk for osteoporosis. It can also impact your fertility: most women with secondary amenorrhea have trouble getting pregnant.
Worried you could be next? Here’s what you need to know about preventing this serious condition.
How Dieters Can Prevent Amenorrhea
As you may have guessed, amenorrhea is directly related to your lifestyle. Women who engage in excessive exercise, have low body fat, or lose too much weight at once can develop this condition. Extreme dieters are more likely to have amenorrhea than people who eat a sensible, healthy diet.
To prevent amenorrhea, here’s what you need to avoid:
- Reducing your body fat below 17 percent. Dieters who fall below this body fat percentage are more likely to develop amenorrhea.
- Overexercising. Overexercise will burn off too many calories to sustain healthy reproductive functioning.
- Losing too much weight at once. A low caloric intake can cause a woman to lose her period.
- Having a low body weight for your height and bone structure. Generally speaking, dieters who maintain a low body weight are not eating enough, which will result in period loss.
If you want to prevent amenorrhea, avoid going too extreme with your diet. Depleting your calories through diet or exercise can both result in period loss, but the main factor that triggers amenorrhea here is poor energy availability — essentially not enough calories to support a healthy, functioning reproductive system.
The science: Although some women believe exercise alone is enough to trigger amenorrhea, scientific evidence shows that this isn’t necessary true. According to a 1997 study reported by the Journal of Applied Physiology, women who restricted their caloric intake had lower luteinizing hormone (LH) pulsatility compared to women who simply overexercised. Luteinizing hormone, or LH, is the hormone responsible for triggering ovulation.. While excessive exercise can certainly contribute to period loss, exercise alone isn’t enough to trigger it — poor caloric balance is the determinant factor here.
Dieters can avoid having poor caloric balance in three ways:
1. Avoiding extreme calorie restrictions. The lower your calories are, the less energy you have. Remember, calories are energy, regardless of where it comes from. To prevent period loss, do not engage in very low calorie diets (VLCDs), or diets recommending a daily intake of 800 calories or less.
Also, avoid eating no less than 20 percent less than your maintenance intake, or the intake needed to maintain your current weight. For example, a moderately active female who weighs 162 pounds would consume around 2100 calories to maintain her weight. At the minimum, she needs to consume 1680 calories to safely lose weight. Your maintenance intake will vary, depending on your height, weight, lean body mass, and current activity level.
2. Don’t overexercise. Limit exercise to one hour a day, unless you are training for an event, such as a marathon. Make sure to also have rest days, or days where you do not engage in moderate physical exertion. Rest days do not mean extra cardio. Remember that more exercise means you need to eat more calories, not less.
3. Don’t diet if you are at a relatively healthy weight. Aiming for an underweight body mass index (BMI) is not advisable — it will put you at risk for amenorrhea, even if your diet is healthy. Consider eating a healthy diet, exercising regularly, and staying active to get leaner instead.
Although getting thin is tempting, remember that dieting and excessive exercise can have serious consequences, even if you feel okay. Eating a healthy diet and not going to extremes are the keys dieters need to prevent amenorrhea.