Updated: Sep 27, 2022
Dana Eshelman, MS, RDN, METS I
You often hear about your macronutrients - carbs, protein, and fat. However, you do not hear much about about your micronutrients, or vitamins and minerals, you need as an athlete.
Micronutrients serve multiple functions in the body and work behind the scenes in energy production, bone health, metabolism, immunity, and performance, among other functions. As an athlete, you have higher demand of micronutrients due to the physical stress and demand of exercise. There are guidelines for the general population on micronutrient needs per day, but, to date, there are no specific guidelines or recommendation regarding how much more you need as an athlete.
This is where lab work and blood analysis becomes increasingly important in athletes. It takes the guessing game out of "am I getting enough?" A deficiency in micronutrients is likely to cause negative side effects to performance such as lethargy/ fatigue, poor muscle recovery, or low bone density. Nevertheless, supplementation with vitamins and minerals is not indicated unless a deficiency is seen in your blood work. Keep in mind supplements are very concentrated forms of that specific vitamin or mineral and more of one nutrient is not necessarily better. Lab work and analysis can take the guessing out of supplementation.
I am going to breakdown key vitamins and minerals for athletes in regard to performance, energy, immunity, and bone health.
B12 is found naturally in animal products, which puts vegan and vegetarian athletes at risk for a deficiency. There are foods that are fortified for these athletes (below), but you want to be sure to check the food label to ensure you are getting the nutrients you need.
Food sources: beef, poultry, fish, shellfish, dairy, egg, breakfast cereal, nutritional yeast, plant- based meat alternatives (some are fortified; check food label)
This is well known for your eye sight + vision. It also acts as an antioxidant.
Food sources: liver, salmon, tuna, sweet potato, carrots, winter squash, leafy greens, mango, cantaloupe
Iron plays a crucial role in oxygen transportation throughout your body. Deficiency is common in endurance athletes and can cause fatigue and impact physical performance.
Food sources: leafy greens (consume with vitamin C), beef, turkey, salmon, liver, oysters, legumes, pumpkin seeds
Sodium is the primary electrolyte lost with sweat. Generally, you get plenty of sodium from your day to day nutrition. If you are a heavy sweater, training or competing long hours (> 2 hours/day), exercising in hot or humid climate, or exercising at altitude, you may have increased sodium needs.
Food sources: animal proteins, soups/ broths, cottage cheese, breads, cereals, pre-made food products, sports nutrition products
Thiamin (vitamin B1)
Important for the metabolism of carbs and branched chain amino acids (BCAAs). It plays a vital role in the growth and function of multiple cells.
Food sources: fortified cereals + breads, fish, pork, legumes, green peas, sunflower seeds, yogurt
Niacin (vitamin B3)
Niacin works as a coenzyme for over 400 enzymes in the body that are important on converting nutrients to energy, creating cholesterol and fats, creating and repairing DNA, and acting as an antioxidant.
Food sources: red meat, poultry, brown rice, fortified cereal + breads, nuts + seeds, legumes, bananas
Pyridoxine (vitamin B6)
This vitamin benefits the central nervous system (CNS) and metabolism of protein, carbs, and fats. It helps maintain a normal level of homocysteine, an amino acid, that is linked to inflammation + cardiovascular disease. It is also plays a role in immunity.
Food sources: beef liver, salmon, tuna, poultry, chickpeas, fortified cereals + breads, dark leafy greens, oranges, papayas, cantaloupe.
Magnesium is well known as an electrolyte, but it is also a cofactor to over 300 reactions in our bodies. It plays a role in blood sugar balance, blood pressure, muscle growth and strength, and nerve conduction, to name a few. It is important in turning the foods you eat into energy (ATP).
Food sources: whole grains, leafy greens, legumes, nuts, dairy products
Zinc helps maintain a strong immune system and is important for healing wounds.
Food sources: seafood, beef, poultry, eggs, legumes, nuts, seeds, soy products
This is a powerful antioxidant that protects your cells against damage from free radicals. Free radicals are created from sun exposure, environmental toxins/ smoke, exercise, unmanaged day to day stress, etc and have been shown to increase risk for heart disease, cancer and other chronic disease.
Food sources: citrus fruits (orange, kiwi, lemon, grapefruit), bell pepper, strawberries, tomato, cruciferous veggies (broccoli, brussels, cabbage, cauliflower), white potato
Powerful antioxidant that protects the cell from oxidative damage + production of free radicals.
Food sources: almonds, peanuts/ peanut butter, pumpkin, sunflower seeds, oils (soybean, sunflower, safflower), greens (beet, collard, spinach), red bell pepper
Known as the sunshine vitamin! The amount absorbed from the sun varies by the season, time of day, cloud coverage, geographic location, and skin color. Vitamin D is important for the absorption of calcium.
Food sources: egg yolk, fatty fish (salmon, tuna, mackerel), beef liver, fortified OJ, fortified soy milk, fortified cereals
In addition to bone health, calcium is important for nerve function, muscle contraction, and the release of hormones.
Food sources: dairy products, leafy greens, soy beans, white beans, canned fish with bone in, fortified products (orange juice, breakfast cereal)
It is very important to consult with your physician, provider, dietitian or certified health professional before you begin supplementing. Over supplementation can also be dangerous, cause negative side effects in the body, and inhibit absorption of other key nutrients. Keep in mind, more is not better.
As I like to say, "test do not guess." Lab work and analysis takes the guessing out which supplements are or are not right for you and reduces risk of over supplementing with any one nutrient.
If you are unsure of your vitamin and mineral needs or are feeling "off" it is worth consulting with a certified health professional that specializes in sports nutrition and/or has awareness around athlete needs for a personalized nutrition plan.
I am always here for you as a resource!