Fuel for Thought

By 2nd Lt. Miranda Robles, Madigan dietetic internMay 13, 2022

weight pull
Pfc. Angie Guaman, assigned to 59th Military Police Company, 759th Military Police Battalion, completes the Sprint-Drag-Carry event of the Army Combat Fitness Test on Aug. 4, 2021, Fort Carson, Colorado. The ACFT consists of six events which shape Army readiness to correspond to the high-intensity combat that is seen in deployed environments. (U.S. Army by Spc. Woodlyne Escarne) (Photo Credit: Spc. Woodlyne Escarne) VIEW ORIGINAL

MADIGAN ARMY MEDICAL CENTER, Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash. – When you think of fuel, what comes to mind? Gas? Electricity? How about food? In a modern world that relies on fuel, we typically think of fuel that is used to power communication or transportation. However, food is fuel for our bodies. Food makes energy to power our bodies. It allows our heart to beat, our brain to think, and our bodies to move amongst other things.

Unlike most inanimate factors such as phones, cars, and house lights, our bodies cannot be turned off. In fact, our bodies are always at work and have a constant need for fuel to be healthy and well.

An online search for “ways to improve health” produces results that are largely centered on diet and exercise. There are hundreds of diets that can be found on the internet. Most diets are targeted towards weight loss. Often, these diets will involve some sort of calorie (energy) restriction to achieve weight loss. While some research suggests that reducing energy intake and increasing exercise will lead to weight loss, there are limitations to be mindful of.

Energy availability is the amount of fuel your body needs for it to function properly after it has used fuel for exercise. When exercising and reducing your fuel, it is important to not lower your intake so much that your body goes into a state of low energy availability (LEA). LEA occurs when fuel intake is not enough to meet the energy needed for daily living in addition to exercising.

Most research on LEA has been conducted on athletes. However, LEA is now being observed in people who are not necessarily athletes but follow an unbalanced diet and exercise regimen.

The human body is a complex system. The body performs many functions comparable to a smart phone. When some smart phones have a low battery, there is typically an option to switch the phone to a “low power mode” to conserve energy. When the phone is switched to the power saving mode, some functions of the phone are reduced or disabled. Similarly, when the body has low energy, it may have a reduced ability to perform muscle recovery which may lead to injuries. Additionally, in a state of LEA the body may try to conserve energy by holding on to body fat making it harder to lose weight.

LEA is dangerous. It poses health concerns for men and women. Some of the signs and symptoms of LEA include excessive fatigue, abnormal menstrual cycles, reduced testosterone levels, depressive moods, increased injury, and failure to lose weight.

The onset of LEA does not happen immediately, but some effects can be experienced in as little as five days. The longer one is in a state of LEA, the more severe the consequences may be.

If you have been struggling to lose weight or get in better shape despite cutting back on calories and adding extra workouts, perhaps you may have LEA. Raising awareness and recognizing the causes of LEA is important. Early detection of LEA is crucial to improving physical performance and preventing adverse health effects.

Fortunately, LEA can be prevented with adequate nutrition and a safe exercise regimen. Treating LEA involves increasing fuel consumption, reducing exercise, or a combination of both.

If you would like to learn more about LEA or would like to speak with a nutrition expert, please meet with a registered dietitian-nutritionist at Madigan Army Medical Center. You can make an appointment by calling the Nutrition Clinic at (253) 968-0547 and select Option 2.

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