Semester one of my Master’s program is officially done. I can’t believe all that I’ve learned in the past 4 months and how quickly the time has flown by. My biggest learnings have actually been non-nutrition related, but rather surround areas of the research process and exercise physiology. I have a whole new appreciation for the amount of work required to publish research, and also how much is still unknown about the human body. I’ve had the opportunity to learn a lot about exercise physiology through both graduate classes and by the work done by other graduate students done in the lab. I wanted to use this “update” to share about my area of research, Relative-Energy Deficiency in Sport (RED-S). RED-S is a syndrome of impaired function that leads to numerous detrimental health and performance outcomes that can affect both male and female athletes. The seriousness and prevalence of RED-S is becoming more well-known thanks to high level athletes speaking out about their struggles.
The underlying cause of RED-S is low energy availability. Energy availability is the amount of dietary calories remaining for the body after the calories for exercise have been accounted for. This is different than the traditional energy balance model, which is the total amount of calories consumed minus the total amount of calories burned. An issue with energy balance is that it assumes that calories consumed doesn’t influence calories burned. However, this is not the case. For instance, in the situation that too few calories are consumed, the body is able to reduce the number of calories it burns in an attempt to conserve energy by downregulating resting metabolic rate. Energy availability focuses on the two things that are controllable: the amount of calories consumed through the diet and the amount of calories expended through exercise.
While low energy availability leads to RED-S, certain dietary factors may exacerbate its effects. These dietary factors are what my research project will focus on. One dietary factor is how calories are distributed throughout the day. Energy intake is typically expressed over a 24-hour period. However, the amount of time spent in negative energy balance throughout the day is important to consider. For instance, imagine going for a 16 km run in the morning without any breakfast. You have a small breakfast and light lunch due to a busy work schedule. When you finally get home in the evening, you eat a large dinner and nighttime snack before bed. If you looked at your 24-hour caloric intake, it would look appropriate, but the majority of the day (breakfast until bed) was spent in a negative calorie deficit because you ate a small breakfast and lunch, but large dinner and snack. This would be an example of poor within-day energy deficiency.
Another dietary factor that may exacerbate the effects of low energy availability is not consuming enough carbohydrates around exercise training. I find this especially interesting because of the fear that has been created in regards to carbohydrates amongst the general public, which has found its way into the athletic community. Many endurance athletes are eating way too few carbohydrates to support daily training. Eating too few carbohydrates, even when eating enough calories can have negative impacts on immune function and bone health, which are also negatively impacted by low energy availability. My research will also look at how low carbohydrate availability may be perpetuating the effects of low energy availability.
4-months down…. 20 months to go. This may seem like a lot, but I know that the time will fly by. I can’t wait to see what the coming months bring. Stay tuned for the occasional update, or perhaps, rant blog. If you missed it, click it here.