Vitamin and Mineral Supplements - Are They Necessary: Part 2
Over the past 20 years, research has clearly documented the beneficial effects of nutrition on exercise performance. There is no doubt that what an athlete eats and drinks can affect health, body weight and composition, substrate availability during exercise, recovery time after exercise, and, ultimately, exercise performance. The athlete who wants to optimize exercise performance needs to follow good nutrition and hydration practices as described in previous articles, use supplements and ergogenic (performance enhancing) aids CAREFULLY, and eat a variety of foods in adequate amounts.
WHAT DO FOODS PROVIDE?
The benefits of following good nutrition practices have been described in previous articles in this series on “Nutrition for water polo athletes”. Eating a variety of foods in the right proportions will provide the macronutrients of carbohydrates, proteins and fats that are necessary for optimum performance during practice and games. Many foods also provide micronutrients like vitamins and minerals in the diet. Micronutrients play an important role in energy production, hemoglobin synthesis, maintenance of bone health, and help build and repair muscle tissue following exercise.
To date, 14 vitamins and 15 minerals have been discovered, each with a scientific function. Vitamins are divided into fat-soluble or water-soluble vitamins. The fat-soluble vitamins such as A, D, E and K dissolve in fat and are transported throughout the body attached to fat. The body stores fat-soluble vitamins in adipose (fat) tissue. This accumulation of fat-soluble vitamins is the reason that a person doesn’t want to consume these vitamins in excess of recommended maximum values; because they can be toxic to the body.
Amounts of vitamins that are considered adequate for healthy people are listed as Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDA’s). These are figures that are published by the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies of the United States and can be found in most diet publications and listed on the labels of supplements made by reputable vitamin companies. %RDA on the label lists the percentage of RDA of that particular vitamin found in that product.
Water soluble vitamins such as Thiamin (B1), Riboflavin (B2), C, folic acid, and other B vitamins, dissolve in water and are not stored in significant amounts that can be toxic to the body. Anything more than the body can use is usually passed out of the body in urine. If you decide that you need certain vitamins, don’t be fooled by companies that try to sell you amounts in excess of the RDA’s. It will cost a lot of money and won’t be utilized by the body anyway. In the case of fat soluble vitamins, high dosages could be toxic; and in the case of water-soluble vitamins, the excess will just go down the drain.
Minerals are inorganic compounds that are part of the molecules that make up tissue, bones, teeth, and other parts of the body, and assist in various body functions. Minerals are classified as Major Minerals (Calcium, potassium, sodium, etc) and are found in larger amounts in the body than Trace Minerals ( Iron, Zinc, Selenium, etc). THE BODY CANNOT MANUFACTURE VITAMINS AND MINERALS, WHICH IS WHY YOU MUST OBTAIN THEM FROM THE FOOD THAT YOU EAT.
Micronutrients such as vitamin C, vitamin E and carotenoids that provide adequate immune function, and the protection of body tissues from oxidative damage are called anti-oxidants. These will be discussed in the next monthly nutrition article.
DO I NEED SUPPLEMENTS?
The question is often asked by athletes: are micronutrients necessary for optimum performance in my sport, can I get an adequate amount from my diet, and do I need to take supplements? As the research and interest in sport nutrition has increased, so has the sale of ergogenic aids, supplements, herbal preparations, and diet aids, all aimed at improving sports performance. Vitamin and mineral supplements are among the most commonly used supplements, and the most widely sold on the market to both athletes and non-athletes alike. It has, in fact, become a multi-billion dollar industry in this country; all claiming that their product is necessary, and the best one to take if you want better health and to become a better athlete. Does the young water polo player need to rush right out and buy vitamin and mineral supplements, or can your diet fill your needs?
POSSIBLE REASONS FOR TAKING VITAMIN AND MINERAL SUPPLEMENTS
There are many reasons why athletes might feel that they need to take supplements, or why companies that supply supplements claim that you need to take their product. We will investigate the following reasons for athletes take supplements, and whether the claims for supplementation are substantiated:
My Diet Does Not Provide Enough Vitamins and Minerals. If an athlete has a sub-standard diet, not getting enough vitamins and minerals is the least of his/her problems. The athlete on a poor diet is also not getting the necessary carbohydrates, proteins, and fats to supply enough energy, or to develop muscles and energy systems for performing their sport. Taking supplements will NOT compensate for a high-fat, low fiber, junk food diet that is lacking necessary ingredients for good health and energy for optimum sports performance.
If an athlete thinks that he/she can eat anything that they want to, and that supplements will “bail them out”, are in for a rude awakening. Supplements alone cannot substitute for eating food as close to it’s natural form as possible; the best bet for improving health, preventing disease, optimizing healing, and thus enhancing performance.
If you want to improve health and performance, improve your diet! Vegetables, fruit, whole grains, lean meats, low-fat dairy products, nuts and legumes are all rich in a combination of the important vitamins, minerals, fiber, protein, fat, carbohydrate, and anti-oxidants that water polo players need every day to stay in the game. As a bonus, many of today’s foods (including energy bars, milk, bread and breakfast cereals) are highly fortified, so many active people actually consume far more vitamins than they realize, further negating the need for supplement pills.
Vitamin and Mineral Supplements Will Help You To Perform Better in Your Sport. Supplements do not replace foods! Vitamins and minerals are not sources of energy for the body and therefore cannot provide fuel for exercising muscles. Although you do need vitamins and minerals to function optimally, no scientific evidence to date proves that extra vitamins and minerals offer a competitive edge. Despite claims to the contrary from some vitamin companies, vitamin supplements not only do not provide energy, they also will not increase strength and endurance, enhance performance, or build muscle in healthy, active people.
Deficiencies of Certain Vitamins and Minerals That I Get from Food. Some athletes assume that active people need more vitamins and minerals and supplements to pave the way to better health and performance. They think that because their bodies are working hard every day, they will burn off and use any vitamins and minerals that will need to be replenished. This is not the case. People who exercise do not need vitamins and minerals in excess of those that are required for normal body function. Exercise does not burn vitamins, just as cars don’t burn spark plugs.
Deficiencies of Certain Vitamins ans Minerals Caused by Lifestyle. Deficiencies are more likely to occur in a sedentary person who eats very little, such as an elderly grandparent, then in an active person. Keep in mind that the more you exercise, the more you eat. Most athletes consume more calories, and therefore more vitamins and minerals, than sedentary people. Athletes at the greatest risk of poor micronutrient status are those who restrict energy intake or use severe weight loss practices, eliminate one or more of the food groups from their diet, or consume high-carbohydrate, low-micronutrient-dense diet.
Athletes who eat a lot of processed high sugar and white starch products like candies and pastries are included in the latter category. These kinds of foods provide lots of calories in the form of simple sugars and starches; but little or no vitamins and minerals. That is why these food products provide what are called “empty calories”( calories that are empty of nutrients).
Athletes participating in these types of behaviors may need to use a multi-vitamin/mineral supplement to improve overall micronutrient status. As mentioned above, multi-vitamins will still not provide other necessary ingredients that are missing in the diet; they will only make sure that you are getting the right amount of vitamins and minerals that you might not be getting from your diet. If you feel that you need a multi-vitamin for peace of mind, make sure that it provides only 100% of the required levels (RDA’s) of all of the vitamins and minerals.
More Is Not Better. Super doses of single vitamins above the 100% RDA values are not recommended, and can be toxic and harmful to your health if taken in high doses.
- You May Have Deficiencies or Needs That Can Only Be Met by Taking Supplements. As mentioned above, supplementation with higher doses of single micro-nutrients is discouraged unless clear medical, nutritional, or public health reasons are present, such as the supplementation of iron to treat iron deficiency anemia. Any deficiency such as this should be diagnosed by a doctor, who also prescribes the correct dosage and proper procedures to insure maximum effectiveness, and minimize potential toxicity and side effects.
Special situations that only would require a multi-vitamin/mineral:
Restricting calories. Athletes who are trying to lose weight and who eat less than 1200 calories daily. Although an active athlete who needs energy to perform would have a tough time surviving on this kind of diet, because of the low amounts of carbohydrates, fats and proteins.
Allergic to certain foods. People who can’t eat certain foods such as fruit or wheat, need to compensate with alternative vitamin sources.
Lactose intolerant. The inability to digest milk sugar found in dairy products can result in a diet deficient in vitamin D and calcium.
An indoor athlete. If you train in an indoor pool and spend little time in the sun, especially during the winter months, you might be short of vitamin D. Milk fortified with vitamin D is a good source of this vitamin, as well as calcium for good bone density. If you can’t or won’t drink milk, then taking a calcium pill with vitamin D might be a good idea; as well as 15 minutes a day of regular activity in the sunshine without sunscreen.
Vegan diet. Total vegetarians, who abstain from eating any animal foods, may become deficient in vitamin B12, vitamin D, riboflavin, iron and zinc.
The primary minerals low in diets of athletes, especially female athletes, are calcium, iron and zinc. These special need situations might require higher doses of these single micro-nutrients:
Inadequate dietary calcium increases the risk of low bone mineral density and stress fractures. Females are at greater risk if energy intakes are low, dairy products are eliminated from the diet, and menstrual dysfunction is is present.
Iron depletion (low iron stores) is one of the most prevalent nutritional deficiencies observed in athletes, especially female athletes. Iron depletion in itself is not performance limiting, unless the condition progresses to iron deficiency anemia. This deficiency can occur because of avoidance of meat, fish and poultry, from some vegetarian diets, or increased iron losses in body fluids. Athletes, especially females, long distance runners, and vegetarians, should be screened periodically to access iron status.
Because of the role zinc plays in energy production and repairing body tissues, and because of possible zinc deficiencies in the food supply, it may be prudent to access the diets of active female athletes for adequate zinc intake.
Athletes who fall into any of the above categories, or who may suspect any of the above diet deficiencies, should not try to do a self diagnosis; but should consult with a medical doctor, or even better a registered dietitian (RD), preferably a RD, CSSD (board certified specialist in sports dietetics).
Vitamin and mineral supplements do no replace food and will not improve your athletic performance. Improving your diet will do more to help you perform better, by providing necessary vitamins and minerals for good health, and also important carbohydrates, proteins and fats needed for energy production.
If you decide that you want to take a vitamin supplement, just in case you are not quite getting enough in your food, then look for multi-vitamins that contain only up to 100% of the RDA’s for each vitamin and mineral. Look for the USP symbol and expiration date on the label. USP stands for United States Pharmacopeia and insures that the product has been tested and contains the ingredients listed on the label.
More is not better! There is a tolerable upper intake for supplements, beyond which there may be consequences of overuse, such as toxicity. Do not take any micro-nutrients in excess, even for major deficiencies, without first consulting a medical doctor or certified dietitian.
[Click Dante's photo to learn more about his water polo experiences
and Click the water polo ball to learn more about Dante's books.]