Let me give it to you straight. You don’t need to take vitamin and mineral supplements, most of the time. Taking multiple supplements to equal a healthy diet is the same as practising individual ball skills and drills but never playing a game. The sum of the parts does not equal the whole. Regularly taking a B-complex vitamin won’t make you fast like Usain Bolt any more than practising your jump shot thousands of times will make you an NBA legend like Michael Jordan.
To get the most out of your body, keep your everyday nutrition top notch. Vitamin and mineral supplements will not fix a bad diet. Instead, try a food-first, whole diet approach. If after revamping your diet there are holes, then you can add in supplements as needed. Most of the supplements are only helpful if you are deficient in the nutrient or risk being deficient because of your diet choices or medical issues.
The following are three vitamin or mineral supplements that athletes often fall short on in their diet.
The Sunshine Vitamin
What it does
Vitamin D helps our bodies store and use calcium and phosphorous for strong bones and teeth, and can help protect against osteoporosis. Vitamin D also helps keep your immune system healthy and may reduce the risk of chronic diseases. Also, vitamin D may influence muscular strength.
How much do we need?
Vitamin D recommendations are heavily debated in the scientific community. While Dietary Reference Intake (DRI) guidelines suggest intakes in the range of 600 IU (15 mcg) to 800 IU (20 mcg) daily depending on age, many nutrition experts suggest daily intakes in the range of 1000-2000 IU for maintenance.
Sources of Vitamin D
We get vitamin D from a combination of diet and sun exposure. Dietary sources include oily fish, egg yolks and liver, and fortified foods like milk. Many of us do not meet our needs from diet alone.
Our other route for getting vitamin D is from harnessing the suns rays. We make vitamin D using UVB radiation from the sun. Unfortunately though, during the winter months, UVB radiation does not reach latitudes greater than 35 degrees in both the Northern and Southern hemispheres. In Canada, this means we need another source of vitamin D between October and March.
Can a Vitamin D Supplement Help?
There is a strong case for vitamin D supplementation in athletes. A 2011 study in college athletes found that lower vitamin D levels were associated with higher upper respiratory illness levels in the winter and spring. Another vitamin D supplementation trial in female navy recruits found that recruits receiving 800 IU/day of vitamin D for eight weeks had a 20% lower incidence in stress fractures than those who did not receive the supplement. And finally, a 2011 study in injured athletes found that poor vitamin D status delays rehabilitation and recovery following orthopaedic surgery.
Beating Fatigue with Iron
What it Does
The second micronutrient supplementation you might need to consider is iron. Iron is a component we need to form red blood cells (RBC) in our body. RBCs carry and supply oxygen to our muscles. If we are iron deficient (i.e. don’t have enough iron), this affects the amount of oxygen we can carry to our muscles. With reduced oxygen supply to our muscles, they cannot efficiently produce energy- impairing our training or competition performance. Iron deficiency also makes us tired and lethargic, lowers our aerobic capacity, and makes us more likely to get sick.
How much do we need?
For healthy men and postmenopausal women try to eat 8mg/day.
For healthy individuals that are 50 or younger, try to eat 18 mg/day.
Note: Iron requirements may be as much as 1.8 times higher in people who follow a vegetarian or vegan diet. This is because plant foods contain a form of iron called non-heme iron. Non-heme iron is not as well absorbed as the heme iron found in animal foods.
Why are Athletes Prone to Iron Deficiency?
As an athlete, your iron needs might be 30 – 70% higher than sedentary individuals due to increased losses of iron and decreased absorption of iron.
During, moderate to high-intensity training, some athletes will experience a more significant iron loss in sweat, urine and faeces. Certain athletes, such as distance runners, can also experience iron loss from foot-strike hemolysis, which is when RBC breaks down in response to their feet repetitively striking hard surfaces. Finally, women and teenage girls have higher iron needs because of losses from menstruation.
Athletes may also have reduced iron absorption due to inflammation. Intense physical activity results in acute inflammation in our body, reducing iron absorption in our gut.
Sources of Iron
It is best to meet our iron needs through food, first. Beans, lentils, whole grains, meat, poultry and fish are all iron-rich food sources. Increase iron absorption by pairing eating iron-rich foods with vitamin C- rich foods like orange juice, tropical fruit and sweet bell peppers.
Can an Iron Supplement Help?
To figure out if you need an iron supplement have your blood checked for your iron status. If you are iron deficient, taking an iron supplementation can help. Whereas if there is no deficiency, taking iron supplementation can result in more harm than benefits. Too much iron inside our body can cause toxicity. Also, acute iron intake (more than 20mg/kg) supplementation can cause side effects like constipation, nausea, fainting and even gastric upset. It is best to consult your physician and get your blood test before taking any iron supplements.
Stoking Metabolism with B12
What it Does
The last vitamin supplement to consider is Vitamin B12.
Vitamin B12 is crucial for numerous body functions, such as RBC formation, cell metabolism, nerve function, and building and repairing tissues. More importantly, it is required for the body to release energy. However, there is no evidence showing that B12 supplementation can boost energy output or improve sports performance unless you are deficient. Ensuring that you meet your vitamin B12 needs is still vital as a deficiency can cause issues such as anaemia, fatigue, muscle weakness, and more seriously permanent neurological damages. Neurological impairments can hinder our coordination while anaemia affects oxygen supply to the muscle, affecting endurance performances.
Sources of B12
Vitamin B12 is a water-soluble vitamin primarily found in animal food sources such as meat, poultry, fish, eggs and milk products. Examples of vegan sources of vitamin B12 include nutritional yeast and fortified non-dairy milk.
Who is Prone to B12 Deficiency?
Vegan or vegetarian athletes are at higher risk of vitamin B12 deficiency because they avoid or limit animal-based foods in their diet.
How much do we need?
The daily recommendation for vitamin B12 is 2.4 micrograms (mg). Because B12 is a water-soluble vitamin, the risk for toxicity is low. We can excrete excess vitamin B12 through our urine.
Can a B12 Supplement Help?
Vegan or vegetarian athletes should consume foods fortified with vitamin B12 and/or take a daily B12 supplement to ensure sufficient levels inside the body.
Vitamin supplements may be necessary for some and but have little benefit for most. It is important to speak to your health care provider before beginning any vitamin regimen to make sure you only supplement vitamins necessary and avoid possible toxicities. As always, food is the best source for nutrients, and a balanced diet is your best bet for great health.
National Institutes of Health [Internet]. Bethesda: U.S. Department of Health & Human Services; Dietary Supplements for Exercise and Athletic Performance; [about 25 screens]. Available from: https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/ExerciseAndAthleticPerformance-HealthProfessional/
Dietitians of Canada. Vitamins and Minerals for Athletes [Internet]. Toronto: Dietitians of Canada; 2013 [cited 2019 Dec 6]. 3p. Available from: https://www.dietitians.ca/Downloads/Factsheets/Vitamins-and-Minerals-for-Athletes.aspx
MayoClinic [Internet]. Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research; c1998-2019 [ updated 2017 Oct 17; cited 2019 Dec 6]. Vitamin B- 12; [ about 4 screens]. Available from: https://www.mayoclinic.org/drugs-supplements-vitamin-b12/art-20363663
Rogerson David. Vegan diets: practical advice for athletes and exercisers. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2017;14 (36): 1 – 15. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12970-017-0192-9
Nutritional planning is integral to achieve your optimal athletic performance. Gazelle Nutrition Lab delivers one on one or group nutritional counselling and consulting to both recreational and high-performance athletes. Also, the Food For Thought Blog is a free resource for healthy recipes and health tips. Have questions? We’d love to hear from you! Get in touch!