The body fat percentages that the athletes were told to reach, according to The Oregonian, were often dangerously low. According to the American Council on Exercise, a healthy range for female athletes’ body fat percentage is 14 to 20 percent. One woman said that when her DEXA scan showed her body fat percentage to be 16 percent, a nutritionist told her to consider lowering it to 13 percent. Another athlete was told that she would not be permitted to compete in away meets until her body fat percentage was under 12 percent. Four of the athletes interviewed said that team members who didn’t hit the body fat percentage marker required of them by coaches frequently had to do additional cross training.
In a statement, Jimmy Stanton, a senior associate athletic director at Oregon, told me that DEXA scans are “optional for student-athletes, and individual results are not to be shared with coaches.” He added that Johnson said that the allegations of body fat metric benchmarks are “not accurate.”
Scientists who study runners have generally found that in longer-distance events, athletes who maintain a lower body weight and body fat percentage may perform more efficiently. But this research must be balanced with other considerations. In a sport as physically demanding as distance running, appropriate body fat levels are critical to staying healthy and even to having enough energy to compete effectively, as well as safely.
I spoke to Meghann Featherstun, a registered dietitian who works with endurance athletes, and I asked her if such low body fat percentages would ever be appropriate for women competing in endurance sports. In an email, she wrote “NO,” in all caps, echoing the American Council on Exercise standards and noting that women athletes need to have a certain percentage of body fat “to maintain normal hormonal function, which, as we know, cascades into all aspects of health — including bone health.”
Extremely low body fat in women can result in amenorrhea, or lost menstrual periods, which can have serious consequences for their bone density, fertility and general health. In fact, the athlete whose DEXA scan showed she was at 16 percent body fat told The Oregonian that she had not had her period for more than a year — a fact the nutritionist was aware of, she said.
Moreover, Featherstun told me, there’s no reason an extremely low body fat percentage would necessarily impart better performance for every single athlete, as some runners may perform better at a slightly higher body fat percentage than others. She added that an excessive focus on body fat percentages could actually contribute to worse performance, as athletes attempted to diet in order to hit their “goal” percentage. “A well-fueled runner is a faster runner. If runners are creating an energy deficit, leading to low energy availability, their performance will suffer.”
And despite the purported focus on “data,” the Oregon athletes’ appearances did not go unnoticed. One woman reported that during a workout her freshman year, Johnson asked her if she was on birth control because, he said, “Well, I noticed your hips have gotten wider, and that comes along with that kind of stuff.” While Johnson did not respond specifically to this allegation, he told the paper that if he asked an athlete about birth control, it would have been only to suggest she consult UO physicians about using one that had no weight-gain side effect.