How to: Read a Food Label – the practical guide

In my last post (click here for a recap) I discussed the ins and outs of reading a food label.

It’s all well and good to know the theory but how do you translate that info into practice?

I’m here to help 🙂 Let’s go through one of my fave go-to pre-training breakfast cereals –

Sanitarium Weet-Bix Gluten-Free Breakfast Cereal

First up, the ingredients list:

Wholegrain Sorghum (96%), Golden Syrup, Salt, Vitamins (E, Niacin, Thiamine, Riboflavin, Folic Acid).

Even though sugar (Golden Syrup) and salt are listed in the first four ingredients, this cereal is 96 per cent wholegrain, so the rest of the ingredients make up the rest of the product or four per cent. So, it should be low in sugar and salt. But let’s check to be sure 🙂

  • Protein

3.7g per serve – for a product to be a good source of protein it needs to contain at least 5g protein per serve. So, this cereal isn’t a ‘source’ of protein as such. But it doesn’t pretend to be!

  • Total Fat

3.6g per 100g – the guidelines recommend <10g per 100g, so we’re good!

  • Saturated Fat

0.6g per 100g – the guidelines recommend <3g per 100g, so, again, we’re good!

  • Added Sugar

2.2g per 100g – the recommendation is <10g sugar per 100g, good to go!

A little note about the claims …

This cereal makes a claim on the label to be ‘Low Sugar’. But is it?

At 2.2g sugar per 100g this cereal meets the ‘low sugar’ claim!

The FSANZ (Food Standards Australia New Zealand) state that for a product to be ‘low sugar’ it must contain no more that 5g sugar per 100g for solid food.

A little more about sugar and also the total carbs…

In yesterday’s post, we touched on the importance of considering serving size to take a look at how much you will be actually eating.

When it comes to added sugar, and total carbs perhaps, in this case, it’s a good idea to consider the serving so know how much you’re eating!

Remember, the WHO guidelines recommend we limit our total daily added sugar intake to between 5-10% of our daily energy (kJ) intake. This is 24-47g added sugar per day.

How does this cereal stack up?

One serve (30g or two ‘bix’) provides 0.7g added sugar! LOW! We’re still good. It also provides 20.9g total carbohydrates. Now, for those thinking this level of carbs is a little cray (!) it’s really not that much. In fact, it’s only 1.4 serves of carbohydrates (where one serve is 15g).

  • This brings me to the dietary fibre…

Interestingly, despite being predominantly made of whole grains, this cereal only has 2.0g dietary fibre per serve. Ideally, it’s a good idea to choose a cereal that has at least 4g fibre per serve.

NB: This cereal claims to be a ‘source of fibre’ on its sleeve/packaging. This claim is met as the FSANZ criteria for a product to be a ‘source of fibre’ is: ‘a serving of the food contains at least 2g dietary fibre’.

  • Sodium

233mg per 100g – this is less than 400mg per 100g so we’re good to go as far as salt goes!

Overall …

This cereal stacks up pretty well and is a great option for breakfast, particularly before a long training session on the weekend. It’s also great for those with an intolerance to gluten, are on the FODMAP diet or who have coeliac disease.

If you’ve started reading labels, how have you found it? If you find it a little tricky to start, remember – overtime it’ll get easier. Practice makes perfect! 🙂

How to: Read a Food Label

Food labels are there to tell you what’s in a product. They can help you make healthier choices when choosing products at the supermarket.


But making healthy choices – and choosing the healthiest food product – can be a little daunting when you’re faced with confusing tables, columns and numbers, and claims.

Here’s how to do it …

What you’ll typically find on a food label

  • Name of the product and brand
  • Nutrition claims
  • The use-by date
  • Weight
  • Allergy information – warnings about the presence of allergens such as gluten, dairy, milk, nuts etc.  
  • Storage instructions
  • Cooking instructions as required
  • Country of origin
  • The Nutrition Information Panel (NIP)
  • The ingredients list

The ingredients list

The ingredients list describes what is in the product – it’s like the recipe.  The ingredients in a product are listed from largest to least amount by weight. So, if salt (sodium), sugar or fat are listed in the first four ingredients, the product is going to be high in added salt, sugar, fat.

But it’s not as straightforward as looking out for the words ‘salt’, ‘sugar’ and ‘fat’ when reading a label. There are other words used to mean the same thing. Sneaky!

Other names for sugar

Look for words that end in -ose! 🙂

Dextrose, fructose, glucose, golden syrup, honey, maple syrup, sucrose, malt, maltose, lactose, brown sugar, caster sugar, rice malt syrup, coconut sugar, and raw sugar.

Other names for fat

Beef fat, butter, cream, coconut oil/cream/milk, copha, hydrogenated oils, margarine, milk solids, chocolate, ghee, vegetable oil, dripping, lard, oil, sour cream, and vegetable shortening.  

Other names for salt

Baking powder, celery salt, garlic salt, meat/yeast extract, monosodium glutamate (MSG), onion salt, rock salt, sea salt, sodium ascorbate, sodium bicarbonate, sodium nitrate/nitrite, stock cubes, and vegetable salt.

Understanding nutritional claims

Food labels may also display different nutrition claims, which may sometimes be misleading. So, it’s a good idea to know what they mean. But when in doubt, don’t just go by what the product claims – make sure you always consult the NIP and the ingredients list as well.

Some common nutrition claims are:

  • Low fat – for a product to be low fat, it must contain no more than 3g fat per 100g or 1.5g/100ml for liquid.  
  • Reduced fat/salt – the product contains at least 25% less fat/salt than in the same amount of the original product.
  • Reduced energy/Light/Lite – the product contains at least 25% less energy than in the same amount of the original product. Always check the NIP because ‘light/lite’ could actually be referring to the colour/texture of the product.   
  • Diet – the average energy content of the food is no more than about 80kJ/100ml for liquid food or about 171kJ/100g for solid food, or the food contains at least 40% less energy than in the same amount of the original product. Also, the food product must be artificially sweetened.
  • No added salt/sugar – the food product contains no added salt or sodium compound/sugars (honey, malt or malt extracts, and fruit juice); no added salt/sugar is added to the food during production.

NB: No added sugar means no table sugar (or sucrose) has been added to the product. It does not mean that the product is low in sugar! Make sure you check the labels!

“For example, some yoghurts are sweetened with fruit juice concentrates, which is essentially the same as adding sugar.”Simone Austin, Advanced Sports Dietitian, ‘Eat Like An Athlete – Boost Your Performance And Energy Through Nutrition’, page 196.

But don’t just go by what the product claims!

Look at the numbers and use this guide to interpret the information. This will let you make the best possible choice for your health!

How to read the NIP

Knowing how to interpret the Nutrition Information Panel (NIP) and ingredients list can help you make healthier choices when choosing between similar products in the supermarket.

The NIP can be a little daunting and confusing, but with a little practice using this to compare products will be the best thing since, well… sliced bread.

Serving Size vs Per 100g Serve

There are two columns in the NIP – the per serve column and the per 100g column.

Use the per 100g column when you’re comparing the nutritional information of similar products, such as packaged soups, bread, breakfast cereals or snack items.

Different brands have different serving sizes, so the per 100g column helps to compare the nutritional information based on a 100g serve – like with like kinda thing! 🙂

Serving Size

When you’re trying to figure out how much you will actually eat on purchasing the product, use the Per Serve column.

But be mindful to check the recommended portion size; some products will say that the product is two serves when in fact it can be easily enjoyed in one sitting.


For a food product to be a good source of protein it should contain at least 5g of protein per serve.

Total Fat

In general, choose foods that have less than 10g fat per 100g.

For milk, yoghurt and ice-cream aim for less than 2g per 100g. For cheese, aim for less than 15g per 100g.

Saturated Fat

You will find saturated fat listed under total fat. Aim for less than 3g per 100g.


This is a tricky one and can be a cause for confusion.

Sugar (listed underneath the total carbohydrates) on a food label typically refers to the ‘added’ sugar in the product, not the sugar naturally found in fruit, veggies and milk!

In general, aim for less than 10g sugar per 100g. But there are a couple of exceptions:

  • FRUIT: If the product has a considerable amount of fruit in it, aim for less than 20g sugar per 100g.
  • YOGHURT: A good guide for yoghurts that are flavoured with fruit is less than 12g sugar per 100g.

If it’s more than this, see if ‘sugar’ is listed in the first four items on the ingredients. If it is then chances are the product is high in added sugar and is probably best as a real treat food – or left on the shelf.

A little more on sugar, sugar!

For health, it’s important to cut down your intake of added sugar as much as possible. This is the sugar that is sometimes referred to as ‘free sugar’ and is the sugar that is added to food during processing.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends we limit our added sugar intake to no more than 10% of our total energy (kJ) intake (preferably 5% for extra health benefits).

So, if you’re consuming 8000kJ on average, this means limiting your intake of sugar to 47 grams, which is about 12 teaspoons! And ideally, it means cutting down to 24g or 6 teaspoons per day.

Completely cutting out sugar is unnecessary!

But we should all limit it as much as possible – even those of us who are active.

Dietary Fibre

When it comes to breads and cereals, typically, you want to be choosing food that is high in dietary fibre (ahem, gut health!). Although, yes, if you’re an athlete there will be times when you’ll want to opt for a low fibre option such as before a race or major event (because well – who wants to spend race morning on the port-a-loo!).

When choosing your breakfast cereal or beard, try to aim for at least 4g fibre per serve (or 8+ grams per 100g). Anything less than this is considered low in fibre.

Sodium (salt)

Ideally, aim for less than 120mg per 100g (this is best!) but food with less than 400mg per 100g is OK for general health. Anything more than 400mg per 100g is considered high salt!

Remember though, salt requirements are very individual, particularly if you’re an athlete who is training a lot and sweating buckets! The guidelines above are based on a general person’s requirements – they’re not specific to athletes.

In my next post, I’ll go through a food product to show you how reading a food label comes together in the everyday! 🙂

Want to know more about how to read food labels? Get in touch! I’d love to help.


‘Eat Like An Athlete – Boost Your Performance And Energy Through Nutrition.’ Simone Austin, Advanced Sports Dietitian. (c) Simone Austin 2019. Published by in 2019 by Hardie Grant Books.

‘How to Understand Food Labels’ – accessed 05/03/2019. 

‘Reading Food Labels’ – accessed 05/03/2019. 

Australia New Zealand Food Standard Code – Schedule 4 – Nutrition, health and related claims. Authorised Version F2017C00711 registered 08/09/2017. 

Chewing the Fat: the good, the bad & the greasy


It’s one of the longest-running nutrition debates and it has us saying – “what the FAT?” Ah, yes. Fat. Should we eat it? Should we avoid it? What about coconut oil? Is full-fat dairy better or worse?

For the longest time we were told to avoid fat and to choose low-fat where possible. There are so many opinions and mixed messages around this macronutrient, even nutrition experts don’t ever seem to agree. Confusing, much!?

Nutrition is an ever-evolving science – the more research that’s done, the more we know.

The latest evidence suggests that we should be including fats in our diets – the key is choosing the right type and amount!

Why do we need fat?

In addition to regulating cholesterol levels and maintaining heart health, fat also provides our bodies with energy, keeps us warm and protects vital organs like the heart, kidneys and liver. Fat is important for proper brain function – in fact, did you know that 60% of your brain is made out of fat.

Fat is vital for the production and regulation of hormones such as leption (the satiety hormone) and reproductive hormones – women who don’t have enough fat may lose their period and may become infertile.

An adequate supply of fats also helps keep your skin healthy and hair shiny. And it’s important in helping our bodies absorb nutrients, in particular the fat soluble vitamins – A, D, E, K.   

Essential fatty acids (omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids) help regular blood clotting and control inflammation in joints, bones and other tissues.  

Adding healthy fat to your meal will also slow down the digestion of that meal, helping you to feel fuller for longer.

Phew! Is there anything this macronutrient doesn’t do!

So, yes, we definitely need fat in our diets but we need to choose the right type because different fats will have a different effect on your body and most importantly your heart health.

Cholesterol – The Good and The Bad

Before we launch into the story around fats, we need to take a closer look at cholesterol because the different fats found in food will have a direct impact on your cholesterol levels.

Cholesterol is found in all cells of the body – it’s an important part of cell membrane structure. What’s more – your brain is 25% cholesterol and cholesterol is used by your body to make Vitamin D, Glucocorticoids (a steroid that plays a role in inflammation) and sex hormones (progesterone, testosterone, estrogen). So it’s kinda a big player!

The great thing is that our bodies are able to make the amount of cholesterol they need. In fact, according to Harvard Medical School, ‘your liver and intestines make about 80% of the cholesterol we need to stay healthy’. Only about 20% comes from the food that we eat.

We have different types of cholesterol in our blood. In general, the two types are classified as good cholesterol, which is known as HDL cholesterol and bad cholesterol which is typically LDL cholesterol.

It’s important that what we eat supports the production of good cholesterol rather than the bad – good cholesterol is heart protective, while bad cholesterol leads to clogged arteries and increases your risk of heart disease and stroke.

Supporting healthy cholesterol levels can be done by eating a diet rich in unsaturated fats like fish, avocados, nuts and seeds, oils such as olive oil, and leafy greens.   

On the flip side, according to the American Heart Association, a diet high in saturated and trans fats (more on the types of fats later) ‘causes your liver to make more cholesterol than it otherwise would and for some people this added production means they go from normal cholesterol levels to a level that’s unhealthy’.  

What are the types of fat in our food?

The food we eat will generally contains one (or a combination) of the four types of fat – monounsaturated fats, polyunsaturated fats, saturated fats and trans fats. Some are good for us, some not so good and some are downright nasty!

  • The Good – Unsaturated Fats (Mono- and Polyunsaturated fats)  

Fats that are well-known to have positive health benefits and that are good for us and our hearts are unsaturated fats – monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats.

These fats help to raise good cholesterol levels in the blood (HDL-cholesterol) while decreasing the bad type (LDL-cholesterol). This positive effect on blood cholesterol helps to reduce your risk of heart disease (which results from clogged arteries) and stroke.

Polyunsaturated fats can be further broken down into omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. These are essential fatty acids (meaning you must get them from your diet because your body can’t make them) with key roles in maintaining heart health, inflammation, immune function and blood pressure control.

The key with the essential fatty acids is getting the ratio right. Make sure your diet is skewed towards the omega-3’s because a diet too high in omega-6 fatty acids (common in the Western diet) leads to inflammation and increased blood pressure.    

Where do I find unsaturated fats?

Monounsaturated fats are found in avocado, nuts (peanuts, hazelnuts, cashews and almonds) and olive oil. Polyunsaturated fats are found in fish, seafood, nuts (walnuts and Brazil nuts) and seeds.

  • The Bad – Saturated Fats

It has long been known that saturated fats raise the risk of heart disease and stroke because they raise the bad cholesterol (aka LDL cholesterol) levels.

Where do I find unsaturated fats?

Saturated fats are commonly found in commercial products such as biscuits and pastries, and takeaway foods. They are also found in full fat dairy (yoghurt, cheese, cream), butter and meat products, most deep-fried foods, coconut oil and palm oil.

A quick word about coconut oil

Over recent years coconut oil has been touted as the miracle cure for almost everything! From having antibacterial properties, controlling blood sugar levels to boosting metabolism it seems coconut oil is some sort of an elixir!

But hold the train.

Before you head to your local health food store or the healthy section of your local supermarket, it’s important to remember that coconut oil is mainly saturated fat. While it might not be ‘the devil’ due to the various benefits of the particular saturated fats found in this oil, its antioxidant properties, and its stability when used in cooking, it’s not a miracle cure and you should use it sparingly.

Don’t lather everything in the stuff because too much saturated fat is linked with raised cholesterol levels. Moderation and use in combination with other, unsaturated oils, is certainly the key here.     

  • The Down Right Nasty – Trans Fats

While we do get a small amount of trans fats in animal foods, particularly milk, cheese, beef and lamb, they are mostly created during the manufacture of commercial baked goods such as pies, pastries, cakes, biscuits and buns through a process called Hydrogenation.

It’s important to limit (or avoid if possible) these fats because not only do they raise bad cholesterol levels thereby increase your risk of heart disease and stroke, they also lower good cholesterol levels – this makes them doubly bad!

How much fat should I be eating?

Generally speaking (and of course this will vary between individuals, individual goals and whether or not you’re on a specific diet such as the Keto Diet), it is recommended that fat should make up no more than ~20-35% of your total caloric intake. This means that if you consume 8000kJ/day, you should be eating no more than about ~43-76g of total fat per day.

It’s also recommended that you should limit your intake of saturated fats to no more than about 10% of your total energy (kJ) intake or about ~22g if you’re consuming an 8000kJ diet.

Key Takeaways

  • Including healthy fats in your diet is important for overall health – don’t fear fat!
  • The key is including mainly healthy fats such as mono- and polyunsaturated fats and limiting saturated fats
  • Where possible try to limit or avoid foods high in trans fats

If you’re concerned about how much fat your eating and wondering how this is impacting on your cholesterol levels and heart health, get in touch! I’d love to chat and help! 🙂

Fermented Foods – Do They Live Up To The Hype

This article was originally published in Australian Triathlete magazine 

Born into an Eastern European family (we’re Polish), my family and I immigrated to Australia, dubbed ‘the lucky country’ and ‘the land of milk and honey’, a month before my fifth birthday. However, it wasn’t until I started Primary School that I began to notice just how different our diet actually was.

While my friends had lunch orders or vegemite sandwiches for school lunch, I’d have pickle sandwiches. I was mortified by the smell that came out of my lunch box at lunchtime.

While my friends had meat and three vegetables for dinner, we’d have kefir with potatoes, butter and salt and sauerkraut. My mum even went as far as pickling her own beetroots and making a fermented beetroot drink. “Because it’s good for you”, she’d say as she forced us to drink it. Maybe she was onto something.

Fermented foods like sauerkraut, pickles, kefir, kombucha and kimchi have unquestionably come into vogue over recent years. Walk into any trendy health food shop and you will see shelves lined with these foods. But do they really stack up? Or is it just hype?

Gut health and athletes

Most athletes typically only think about their gut health when something goes wrong, when gut issues cost them a spot or two in a race or when they are bee-lining it to the nearest tree during a training session. However, as new evidence emerges (or as my mum likes to say – “science is finally catching up!”) athletes would be wise to pay attention to their gut health every day, rather than only when things go wrong.

Gut issues, such as gut cramps and diarrhoea, are common among athletes, especially endurance athletes, and can impair performance and recovery. The three main causes of gut issues are physiological, mechanical, and nutritional. For example, during intense training or exercise, there is a reduction in blood flow to the gut, which increases the likelihood of gut issues. This happens particularly if an athlete is hypohydrated (if you’re not drinking enough!).

Training the gut (that is, practising your race day nutrition strategies in training) helps to minimise this gut discomfort by guaranteeing rapid gastric emptying and absorption of water and nutrients under stressful conditions. Moreover, being adequately hydrated will also help to prevent and minimise the chances of gut issues in training and competition.

While it’s important for athletes to use and practice strategies that will minimise gut discomfort in competition, it’s just as important, if not more so, for athletes to follow daily nutrition principles to ensure general gut health.

The gut is inhabited by diverse species of bacteria (the more diverse the better!) that are important to optimal immune function and that protect the body against infection and inflammation. It is well known that a disruption of the microbial flora is linked with infection, autoimmune diseases and cancer. Evidence also suggests that gut bacteria can help to prevent the immunosuppressive effects of intense exercise. So, athletes who want to stay fit and healthy, and avoid catching the latest winter viral plague need to pay attention to their gut health.

Furthermore, recent evidence is now starting to show support for the connection between gut health and weight management. So, athletes who want to achieve a certain race weight or who have a desired body composition goal should also pay attention to their gut health.

Foods that support gut health

Outside of supplements such as Inner Health Plus, the first food that comes to mind when thinking probiotics (the good bacteria) and gut health is yoghurt.

Yoghurt is a well-known source of probiotics. However, try to steer clear of sugar-laden varieties and opt for plain, natural and/or Greek-style yoghurt. A brand I like to recommend is Chobani. Chobani yoghurts are generally higher in protein and lower in fat and sugar compared to other varieties. If plain, natural yoghurt doesn’t sound too appealing, flavour it with frozen berries, nuts, chia seeds, honey or ground cinnamon, or add it to your favourite smoothie. Yoghurt is great as a snack between meals if you’re hungry and also a great post-training recovery snack.

Don’t like yoghurt? Not a problem. Yoghurt is not the only probiotic option.

Kefir, a fermented milk drink made by fermenting milk with kefir grains comprised of yeast and gut-friendly bacteria, is also a great source of probiotics. In fact, it tends to have more probiotics than yoghurt! A brand of kefir I love is Babushka Kefir ( Babushka Kefir is available online or in your favourite health food store. But if drinking fermented drinks aren’t appealing, don’t worry – Babushka Kefir comes in all forms including yoghurt, frozen yoghurt, probiotic cheese and probiotic smoothies. The choices are endless!

Other food sources of probiotics that are great for gut health include sauerkraut (fermented cabbage), kimchi (a traditional Korean dish) and the increasingly popular Kombucha (a fermented tea).
You can buy Kombucha from almost any supermarket these days and it comes in a variety of flavours. My favourite is Remedy Kombucha ginger and lemon – it tastes delicious! Kombucha a great alternative to juice or soft drinks, especially if you feel like drinking something flavoured.

If fermented cabbage doesn’t sound like something you would choose for dinner, make sure you try the recipe below before you make up your mind.

Sauerkraut Salad


  • 1 jar Polish sauerkraut
  • 1 carrot, grated
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • Parsley, chopped
  • Caraway seeds (these are a great source of iron, copper, potassium, manganese, selenium, zinc and magnesium)
  • Extra Virgin Olive Oil


  1. Place approximately two tablespoons of sauerkraut into a mixing bowl. Mix in the grated carrot, chopped onion and parsley. Sprinkle caraway seeds as desired, to taste. Drizzle Extra Virgin Olive oil and mix in. Serve and enjoy!

This salad is typically served with mashed potato.

What about Prebiotics?

But it’s not all about the probiotics. Prebiotics and resistant starch are also important for gut health. Prebiotics work in conjunction with probiotics to promote the growth and function of good bacteria in the gut. Food sources of prebiotics include onions, leeks, celery, green vegetables, bananas, garlic, wheat bran, rye, barley and raw oats. Nuts and nut skins are also a great prebiotic.

Resistant starch is also a powerful prebiotic (food for gut bacteria). It’s a type of carbohydrate that resists digestion – it bypasses the small intestine and is fermented in the large intestine. Resistant starch is found in a range of foods, including legumes, lentils, beans and whole grains.

How much should I eat? 

Variety is key here! In general, if you eat a varied diet and aim to include food sources of both probiotics and prebiotics once or twice per day, you’ll be on the right track. When I’m working with athletes I’ll typically recommend one serve of natural/Greek yoghurt daily, about 30g nuts each day and at least half a plates worth of vegetables at lunch and dinner. I’ll also typically recommended adequate serves of whole grains, legumes and lentils for each athlete.

Unless you have a known food allergy or intolerance, it’s important to avoid cutting out whole foods and food groups unnecessarily. This might result in a poor intake of foods that are great to keep your gut healthy.

In short…

Whether you’re an athlete preparing for a race and you want to minimise your chances of gut issues during the event, or if you’re an athlete wanting to support your immune system to prevent winter colds and flu, or if you’re an athlete wanting to achieve a certain body composition goal, don’t forget about your gut. Your health starts in your gut! A healthy gut is your key to wellbeing and problem-free racing.

If you’d like to find out more about how your nutrition can impact your gut health, contact me for an appointment today!

The Female Triad – Don’t let your athletic aspirations be sidelined

This article was originally published on 

Have you ever trained so hard that you missed your period? Did you think – ‘Awesome! I don’t have to worry about that dreaded monthly disturbance’? Well, don’t get too excited. As much as that menstrual cycle can make you feel bloated, tired, emotional, a little grumpy and well if you’re anything like me when I have my period, the last thing I want to be doing is training – they are a part of our genetic makeup as females. Missed periods can be a sign that something isn’t quite right. This is why one of the first questions I ask my female athletes in clinic is – ‘are you getting regular periods?’

What causes menstrual dysfunction in female athletes?

One of the main causes of athletic amenorrhea (the technical term for loss of regular periods) is low energy availability.

Energy availability is the energy we get from the food we eat (energy in) minus the energy we use up in training (energy out). It is the energy left over, or available, to support normal bodily processes, such as maintaining reproductive function. So, if an athlete is in a state of low energy availability it means that she isn’t getting enough energy in to support both her training and her normal bodily functions. This then typically causes these bodily functions to become impaired. For example, she stops getting her period, in a bid to reduce the amount of energy that is being used up by the body.

What about the training load? Can an increased training load cause menstrual dysfunction?

Not directly. Training itself does not suppress reproductive function as such, however, it can impact on energy cost and therefore energy availability. So, the more an athlete is training (the higher the intensity and the longer the duration) means more and more energy is being used up in training. If the athlete isn’t compensating that energy expenditure by eating enough, then less energy is available to support normal bodily function, putting the athlete at risk of being in low energy availability.  As mentioned above, one of the consequences of being in low energy availability is menstrual dysfunction.

Do you know how much you need to be eating?

It can be easy to assume that when a female athlete presents with low energy availability this is due to restrictive eating habits (excessively restricting calories) or due to disordered eating. And while this may be the case for some athletes, often it is due to athletes not realising what their energy requirements actually are – and they can be pretty high, especially for long course triathletes – and how much they actually need to be eating to meet these requirements.

It is vital for female athletes to understand how important eating the right amount of calories is and how important proper nutrition is for athletic performance and longevity in their sport.

Low energy availability and your bones

Low energy availability, not only leads to menstrual dysfunction, but it also suppresses estrogen and other metabolic hormones that promote bone formation and increase bone loss. Bone loss in amenorrheic female athletes is irreversible and warrants the earliest possible intervention to prevent further loss. The short-term consequence of this is increased fractures (do you really want to be sidelined by fractures just before an A-race?), with the long-term consequence being osteoporosis.

How can I prevent low energy availability, amenorrhea and ultimately bone loss? 

The first step in preventing or treating low energy availability, restoring regular periods and preventing bone loss is eating enough to meet training demands. Food really is fuel, and to ensure adequate energy availability, dietary intake may need to be increased to better meet the demands of training.  Those athletes who are trying to achieve a certain race weight, under the guidance of a Sports Dietitian; race weight can still be achieved, without sacrificing reproductive and skeletal health.

If you are unsure if you are eating enough to meet the demands of the training you are doing, or if you are concerned about any of the above, contact me for an appointment today, to discuss ways to achieve your athletic goals without compromising your nutrition and your health!


AIS Sports Nutrition. ‘Female Triad’. 12/3/14

Burke, L and Deakin, V. ‘Clinical Sports Nutrition’. Fourth Edition. © 2010. McGraw-Hill Australia Pty Ltd.

Brukner, P and Khan, K. ‘Clinical Sports Medicine’, third edition. © 2007 McGraw-Hill Australia Pty Ltd.

Javed, A et al. ‘Female athlete triad and its components: toward improved screening and management’. Mayo Clinic Proceeds. 2013 Sep;88(9):996-1009. doi: 10.1016/j.mayocp.2013.07.001.

Mallinson, R et al. ‘A case report of recovery of menstrual function following a nutritional intervention in two exercising women with amenorrhea of varying duration’. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition 2013, 10:34

Mineral Spotlight: Calcium – The Miracle Mineral

One of the body’s most important nutrients is calcium. We all know calcium is important for maintaining strong bones and preventing osteoporosis – and for athletes, a big one is preventing stress fractures and bone breaks. But did you know this miracle mineral also plays a role in normal blood clotting, muscle functioning, conduction of nerve impulses, regulating fluid balance, regulating blood pressure (calcium has been linked to lower blood pressure), reduced colon cancer risk and reducing PMS. Calcium plays a big role in maintaining health and well-being. It makes sense that we need to make sure we’re getting enough from the food we eat.

Where is calcium found?

Of the body’s calcium, 99 per cent is stored in bone and teeth. The remaining one per cent is found in body fluids and soft tissues.

Tight Regulation

Because of its many vital functions, the level of calcium in the blood is tightly regulated by a delicate balance between the bones (our biggest calcium reservoir) and the blood. If there is not enough calcium in the blood and we’re not getting enough from the food we’re eating, the body draws calcium out of the bones. Over time, if there is a chronic shortage of calcium from our diet, the storage supply in our bones will gradually become depleted – a little bone loss each day can result in osteoporosis (thinning of the bones) later in life. This is why it’s important to get enough through the food we eat!

How much do I need?

Sex Age RDI
Men 19-70 1000mg
70+ 1300mg
Women 19-50 1000mg
50+ 1300mg

Where do I get it?

Food Source
Dairy – milk, buttermilk, cheese, yoghurt
Fish – sardines and salmon
Calcium-Fortified Foods – breakfast cereals, fruit juice and bread
Green leafy vegetables – broccoli, okra, spinach, kale, bok choy
Pinto beans
Sweet potato
Tofu and Tempeh
Nuts and Seeds – almonds, Brazil nuts, sesame seeds, chia seeds, hemp seeds
Almond milk
Coconut milk
Soy Milk
Hemp milk
Almond butter

Calcium Absorption

Things that aid calcium absorption:

  • Vitamin D is essential for the absorption of calcium. The main source of vitamin D is sunlight. The recommendation for sun exposure is around 15-20minutes of sun a couple of times per week (but avoid peak UV times so that you don’t get sunburnt). Vitamin D is also found in food such as cod-liver oil, oily fish, eggs and butter.
  • Vitamin K – research shows that not getting enough vitamin K from the diet may lead to weaker bones and increased risk of stress fracture. Vitamin K has also been shown to keep calcium in your bones (it helps to reduce bone loss). Fermented soybeans (Natto) are the richest source of vitamin K. Vitamin K is also found in green leafy veg, broccoli, cauliflower, liver, meat, eggs and dairy foods (especially fermented foods such as yoghurt).

Things that hinder calcium absorption:

  • Salt – a diet high in salt has been shown to speed up bone loss. It has been shown that for every 2000mg of sodium removed by the kidneys in the urine takes with it 60mg calcium. So, while salt is important, avoid too much!
  • Caffeine – a large intake of caffeine (6+ caffeinated drinks per day) acts as a diuretic and flushes more calcium through the kidneys. Caffeine drinks include coffee, cola and tea.
  • Fizzy drinks – research has shown that fizzy drinks are associated with softer bones and a higher risk of stress fracture.
  • Excessive alcohol – drinking too much alcohol inhibits the stomach’s ability to absorb calcium adequately. It has been shown to interfere with the pancreas and its absorption of calcium and vitamin D.  

Putting it into practice:

So, that’s all well and good but how do you put it into practice? Try the following:

  • Make sure you fill up on plenty of green leafy vegetables
  • Snack on almonds, Brazil nuts
  • Include chia seeds and sesame seeds in your Bircher muesli
  • Use almond butter as a spread on toast
  • Have natural Greek yoghurt at breakfast or as a snack with added almonds for extra calcium and protein!
  • If you eat animal products aim to have salmon twice a week
  • Make sure the plant-based milk you use (e.g. almond milk) are fortified with calcium
  • Get some sunlight
  • Avoid excessive drinking, caffeine and salt

If in doubt:

Not sure if you’re doing it right and if you’re getting enough calcium in your diet? Contact me for an appointment today.


Catherine Saxelby’s Complete Food And Nutrition Companion, The Ultimate A-Z Guide, ©2018 Hardie Grant Books.

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