white woman with brown hair dressed in tank top and shorts doing a barbell squat - low energy availability

What is Low Energy Availability? (and How to Avoid It)

Low energy availability – not eating enough to support your activity level – is a more common problem in active people than you realize.

I’m going to summarize this concept so you know what it is, what to look out for, and what consider to stay well fueled.

white woman with long brown wavy hair in a ponytail wearing a black tank top and black shorts holds onto a barbell does a barbell squat - low energy availability

What is Low Energy Availability?

Low energy availability (LEA) is a state where the energy you eat is not enough to meet the basic requirements to support your basic bodily functions plus purposeful exercise. (1, 2)

In a nutshell, it’s a state where there’s not enough energy to efficiently cover basal metabolic processes like cell production, circulation, respiration, nutrient processing, and more.

You’re spending energy on workouts but there’s not enough left over to keep your foundational body systems and processes working effectively.

Your daily energy needs include:

  • basal metabolic rate (BMR) – how much energy your body uses for cellular processes
  • non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT) – how much energy you expend by moving, fidgeting, doing daily chores, etc
  • exercise activity thermogenesis (EAT) – how much energy you use via purposeful exercise
  • thermic effect of food (TEF) – the amount of energy needed to digest, absorb, and metabolize the food you eat

What are Signs of Low Energy Availability?

There are different signs that might indicate you’re not eating enough relative to your activity level, including but not limited to:

  • Decreased performance
  • Reduced strength
  • Excessive soreness
  • Menstrual disruptions
  • Recurring injuries
  • Irritability / mood changes
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Increased fatigue
  • Decreased motivation for movement
  • Lowered bone density

white woman with long brown hair squatting with a barbell on her back - low energy availability

How is Low Energy Availability Related to RED-S?

Low energy availability underpins the syndrome known as RED-S, Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport.

This condition called Female Athlete Triad and focused on 3 main issues: low bone density, menstrual dysfunction, and disordered eating…but RED-S is not only something that happens to women.

And the potential consequences of RED-S go beyond the triad to include disruptions to reproductive hormones, bone health, the cardiovascular system, metabolism, immunity, disordered eating, and more. (3)

Who Can Have Low Energy Availability?

There’s a belief that only elite athletes may fall into low energy availability ranges.

That is incorrect.

Elite athletes are not the only people at risk for reduced / low energy availability.

Anyone who is not eating enough energy to support both basal metabolic rate plus the energy needed for purposeful exercise can be at risk for low energy availability.

In one study, 46% of female recreational exercisers were demonstrated at risk for low energy availability. (4)

white woman with long brown hair deadlifting with a barbell - low energy availability

The pressure to be leaner or lose weight can contribute to low energy availability.

Cutting out food groups or restricting macronutrients – unless advised by a medical professional – is a common reason you might not be eating enough.

Even movements such as “clean eating” can lead to inadvertently not eating enough energy. You may substitute bread or grains for comparatively lower calorie vegetables – such as cauliflower “rice” or bell pepper slices for bread – and not realize that this is significantly reducing your daily energy intake.

How Do You Avoid Low Energy Availability?

Yes, you can train hard and challenge your body! YES! I’m not here to tell you that you have to slow down or take it easy (if you don’t want to).

Do your thing. Test your limits. Get stronger. I’m a big fan of that!

BUT…

You must eat enough to cover your basal metabolic needs plus your non-exercise and exercise activity.

Here are some tips:

  • Make sure you’re eating regular meals.
  • Pay attention to including protein, carbohydrates, and fats in your meals.
  • Consider adding a a pre-workout and/or post-workout snack as needed.
  • Talk to a professional if you’re concerned that your relationship with food or your body image is leading to unhealthy behaviors such as skipping meals.

Remember to fuel, work out, and recover properly using science-backed principles and best practices.

Need guidance? Join my group coaching program, Strength Nutrition Unlocked. Join the waitlist here.

Learn More About Fueling

If you’re ready to learn more about properly fueling for your physical activity, here’s what to do next.

Tune into these episodes of the Listen to Your Body Podcast:

References

(1) Logue, et al 2020. Low Energy Availability in Athletes 2020: An Updated Narrative Review of Prevalence, Risk, Within-Day Energy Balance, Knowledge, and Impact on Sports Performance.

(2) Wasserfurth, et al 2020. Reasons for and Consequences of Low Energy Availability in Female and Male Athletes: Social Environment, Adaptations, and Prevention.

(3) Mountjoy, et al 2014. The IOC consensus statement: beyond the Female Athlete Triad—Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport (RED-S)

(4) Slater, et al 2016. Female Recreational Exercisers at Risk for Low Energy Availability.

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Hi, I'm Steph!

Nutrition and fitness coach for women, Lord of the Rings nerd, and depending on who you ask, crazy cat lady. My mission is to help you fuel for more, not less: bigger muscles, strength, energy, and possibilities. We’ll do it with my signature blend of science, strategy…and a little bit of sass.

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