Vitamins and minerals are the most popular supplements in the market place today, but do we really need them?
If you eat a balanced diet and eat a sufficient quantity of food, then it is likely you are getting the recommended daily allowance of all the necessary vitamins and minerals. Assuming you aren’t deficient in micronutrient intake, then there is no additional benefit in taking a multivitamin because your body can’t store the excess for future use.
On the other hand, if you tend to eat a lot of the same food (as bodybuilders do), or if you are dieting and your calorie intake falls below maintenance levels, then there is a good chance that you will be nutrient deficient. Vitamins and minerals are essential to your health and well being as well as being needed for your training and for the ability for the body to burn fat. They facilitate energy transfer, prevent disease, and act as co-enzymes to assist in many chemical reactions. A significant deficiency in any of these micronutrients can also lead to severe illness.
Personally I recommend to my clients to take a daily multivitamin and mineral complex regardless of their dietary habits. The only way to tell if a person is short in any of the micronutrients is through a blood test, but that takes time and involves having to wait for an appointment with your doctor then waiting for the results to see if you are lacking in any of the micronutrients (calcium and folate can be difficult to acquire through normal dietary means). A good multivitamin acts as an insurance policy against any possible deficiencies. And there is no downside; the cost is minimal and any micronutrients not used by the body are simply excreted in the urine without any ill effects.
In addition to taking a multivitamin, there is a class of micronutrients called antioxidants that require additional supplementation, over and above the recommended daily allowance (RDA). The recommended daily allowance was established to prevent any deficiencies, not to improve overall health and wellness, and antioxidants have benefits well beyond their basic functions.
Antioxidants are the bodies’ scavengers, helping to defend against damage caused by free radicals (unstable molecules that can injure healthy cells and tissues. Every time we breathe, oxygen uptake causes free radical production. Environmental factors such as pollutants, smoke and certain chemicals also contribute to their formation. If left unchecked, they can wreak havoc on our physiques and cause a multitude of ailments including arthritis, cardiovascular disease, dementia, and cancer.
To understand of the process works: Our bodies are made-up of billions of cells held together by a series of electronic bonds. These bonds are arranged in pairs so that one electron balances the other. However in response to various occurrences such as oxygen consumption, a molecule can lose one of its electron pairs, making it an unstable free radical. The free radical then tries to replace its lost electron by stealing one from another molecule. This sets up a chain reaction where the second molecule becomes a free radical and attacks a third molecule, which then becomes a free radical and attacks a fourth molecule and so on.
To prevent rampant free radical production, your body has a sophisticated internal antioxidant system. Various antioxidant enzymes combine with antioxidants from the foods we eat to help keep free radicals at bay. But when free radical activity reaches a critical level, the system becomes overwhelmed causing damage to cellular tissues.
Physical activity and training only exacerbates the situation. Because of increased oxygen consumption, free radical production skyrockets during exercise (by as much as twenty-fold over resting levels), overwhelming the body’s internal defence system. If left unchecked, this results in an inflammation of muscle tissue, impairing muscular function and slowing recovery. So, active people have an even greater need for antioxidant supplementation.
Although there are dozens of know antioxidants, two are absolutely indispensable: vitamin C and E. These vitamins are partners in defence; they have a synergistic relationship, working together so that their combined effect is greater than the sum of their individual actions. Other antioxidants such as alph-lipoic acid, coenzyme Q10, selenium, and caroteinoids are also beneficial; they not only have important health benefits in their own right, but can actually help to regenerate the activity of vitamins C and E as well.
Although antioxidants can be obtained through dietary means, it’s virtually impossible to consume adequate quantities from food sources alone. For example, you’d have to drink 11 glasses of orange juice to get your daily vitamin C requirement or eat over three pounds of almonds for the necessary amount of vitamin E! And because it has been shown that at low doses (even above RDA guidelines) antioxidants don’t provide adequate protection against infirmity, supplementation isn’t an option, it is a necessity. Given that side effects are virtually nonexistent at suggested levels, there is very little risk and a great potential reward.
Vitamins, Minerals and the Athlete.
For a long time it was believed that the body only needed proteins, fats, carbohydrates and a number of minerals to stay fit and healthy. But then it was discovered that these dietary components were not enough - tiny amounts of other materials were essential to keep the body functioning. These vital ingredients were named vitamins.
Vitamins - what are they?
Vitamins are organic compounds that help regulate fat, carbohydrate and protein metabolism in the body. They cannot be made by the body and have to be provided by the food we eat - fortunately we only need tiny amounts of these vitamins.
Vitamins are not an energy source, but they play a vital role in releasing the energy stored in the other foods we eat. In addition, our enzyme, nervous, hormonal, and immune systems are dependent on vitamins for regulation and control. Because of this vitamins are essential for good health, well being, and growth.
Vitamins are divided into two types: water-soluble and fat-soluble.
Water-soluble: These vitamins cannot be stored in the body and need to be replaced regularly through our diet.
Fat-soluble: These vitamins are stored in the body and include vitamins A, D, E, and K. although these vitamins can be stored; they should still be part of a healthy diet
Minerals - what are they?
Minerals are inorganic elements that have many roles in the body's functioning. Apart from their more well-known roles in the formation of strong bones and teeth, they also help to control the nervous system, fluid balance in tissues, muscle contractions, some hormonal functions, and enzyme secretion.
Minerals are as essential as vitamins and, just like most vitamins, they cannot be made in the body. All our bodies' mineral needs have to be supplied from our diets.
Where do we get our vitamins and minerals from and what role does each play?
Vitamin A: Found in two forms: Retinol and Beta carotene
Is necessary for vision in dim light, for healthy skin and surface tissues, especially those which excrete mucus (for example the intestines, lungs and vagina). In addition, it prevents infections and is necessary for the immune system
Food Sources: Fish liver oils (for example cod or halibut liver oil), liver, carrots, fortified margarine, cheese and dark green leafy vegetables
Vitamin D: Found in two main forms: Cholecalciferol and Ergocalciferol.
Used for the growth and maintenance of bones and teeth through regulation of absorption and metabolism of calcium
Food Sources: Oily fish, eggs, milk, fortified breakfast cereals and fortified margarine. Also created in the body by action of sunlight on the skin
Vitamin E: Found as a group of compounds called tocopherols.
Used for the protection of cell membranes and fats from oxidative damage; protection of vitamin A, immune system and nervous system
Food Sources: Vegetable oils, eggs, whole grains, green vegetables and nuts
Vitamin K: Covers a number of compounds, including Phylloquinone
Is necessary for normal blood clotting and energy metabolism
Food Sources: Dark green leafy vegetables, liver, meat, potatoes and cereals
Vitamin B1: Thiamin
Used for energy metabolism, especially from carbohydrates
Food Sources: Bread, potatoes, milk, meat (especially pork), offal, whole grain cereals, and fortified breakfast cereals
Vitamin B2: Riboflavin.
Essential for the utilisation of energy from foods, especially fats and proteins
Food Sources: Milk, meat (particularly liver) and eggs
Niacin: Also known as vitamin PP (nicotinic acid)
Necessary for energy metabolism
Food Sources: Meat, potatoes, bread and fortified breakfast cereals
Pantothenic Acid: Also known as vitamin B5
Energy metabolism and production of neurotransmitters for the nervous system
Food Sources: Yeast, liver, whole grains, greens, and nuts. In fact it is found in virtually all foods
Vitamin B6: Found as a group of compounds, including pyridoxine
Necessary for protein metabolism, particularly of hemoglobin
Food Sources: Potatoes, vegetables, meat, milk and fish
Vitamin B12: Found as a group of compounds, including cyanocobalamin and hydroxocobalamin
Used for the production of blood (red cells), nervous system, synthesis of DNA
Food Sources: Liver, milk, fish and eggs
Folic Acid: Also known as vitamin B or M)
Necessary for the production of blood (red cells), nervous system, synthesis of DNA
Food Sources: Offal and raw green vegetables
Biotin: Also known as vitamin H
Used for protein and fat metabolism
Food Sources: Liver and kidneys, whole grains and nuts
Vitamin C: Found as a group of compounds, including ascorbic acid
Necessary for the maintenance of connective tissues (including tendons, ligaments, and cartilage). In addition, it helps wound healing, production of hormones, the immune system and protects vitamins A and E
Food Sources: Fresh fruit, especially citrus fruits and vegetables (particularly potatoes)
Minerals Function Food Sources
Helps regulate body fluids and is involved in energy release, functioning of nerves and muscle contraction. Increases blood pressure
Food Sources: Salt, bread and cereal products, bacon, ham, shellfish, smoked fish, soy sauce, and foods that have been preserved by using salt
Is used in the body's fluid balance and is involved in membrane functions, muscle function and reduces blood pressure
Food Sources: Potatoes, vegetables, greens, pork, dairy products, fruit (especially bananas) and juices
For bones and teeth, blood clotting, hormone secretion, muscle and nerve function
Food Sources: Milk, cheese, bread and flour, green leafy vegetables and small oily fish with bones
Involved in muscle tone and activates enzymes
Food Sources: Milk, bread, potatoes and vegetables
Necessary for the manufacture of hemoglobin in blood (red cells) oxygen transport and transfer to tissues, activates enzymes
Food Sources: Red meats, liver, flour and cereal products, potatoes, and vegetables
For growth, bone metabolism, activation of enzymes, release of vitamin A from liver, immune system, taste and insulin storage
Food Sources: Meat, liver, seafood (especially oysters) milk, bread, and cereals
Essential for enzyme function, especially blood formation, bone metabolism, immune system, nerve function and energy metabolism
Food Sources: Oysters, mussels, whelks, liver, brewer's yeast, whole grains, nuts and cocoa
Necessary for enzyme activation and cell structure (works with calcium and iron)
Food Sources: Wholemeal bread, wheat germ, nuts, avocados, peas, and tea
Involved in enzyme functions
Food Sources: Liver, kidney, wheat germ, lentils, sunflower seeds, eggs, and beans
Have an enzyme function protecting cell membranes and fats from oxidative damage (works with vitamin E)
Food Sources: Nuts (especially Brazils), seeds, bread, fish, and meat (especially pork)
Enhances the action of insulin on glucose uptake by cells
Food Sources: Egg yolk, liver, cheese, wholemeal products, molasses and brewer's yeast
A necessary component of thyroid hormones
Food Sources: Oily fish, seaweed, meat, milk, and iodised table salt
Accommodates energy stores, bones, membrane function and growth
Food Sources: Dairy products, eggs, meat, fish, Soya beans, Soya products, pulses and wheat bran
So Am I Getting Enough?
Most experts now agree that a balanced diet should provide you with all the vitamins and minerals you need. This is provided you eat a variety of foods from each of the food groups, and, of course, in sufficient quantity. By quantity, we mean enough food for you to maintain a healthy body weight.
Clearly, different people have different requirements and, because of this, helpful guidelines have been established by the Department of Health. These are called Dietary Reference Values or DRV’s. For any particular nutrient (where the scientific information is available) there are three values.
LRNI (Lower Reference Nutrient Intake): This is for a small number of people who have low needs and represents about three percent of the population. Most people will need more than this.
EAR (Estimated Average Requirement): Is the amount of a nutrient needed by an average person. So many people will need more and many will need less.
RNI (Reference Nutrient Intake): The amount of a nutrient that should cater for the needs of 97 percent of the population. It is more than most people require and only very few people (3 percent) will need more. This is also known as the Recommended Daily Amount or RDA. It is this value you will see on the sides of cereal packets.
It is important to remember that DRV’s are aimed at populations of people, not individuals. As such they are guidelines and not targets for you to aim for.
Athletes - do we have or need different requirements?
Generally speaking, athletes should get all the vitamins and minerals from their diet. Because athletes use up more energy than inactive people, they probably eat more too, and so any increased requirement for vitamins or minerals should be met by their increased food intake (providing the diet is balanced).
However, some studies have shown that many athletes don't have adequate vitamin and mineral intakes. This may be because they restrict calorie intake in order to manage weight. Other reasons for inadequate vitamin and mineral intake include irregular training routines that making meal planning difficult and following a dietary "fad" that is not providing a balanced diet.
Will vitamin and mineral supplements enhance my training performance?
A lot of work has been carried out to try to establish whether vitamin and mineral supplements improve athletic performance. So far, there is little evidence that any improvement occurs in athletes who are well nourished. The only improvements observed have been in people whose diets were previously deficient in one nutrient or another, adding supplements just brought them up to their optimum level.
In summary, if you are not deficient in any vitamins or minerals, then supplementing your diet will not bring about any improvement in performance. Nevertheless, if you do have some sort of deficiency, then correcting this may well be of benefit.
Choosing a Supplement
Most people will probably not be aware of any minor vitamin and mineral deficiencies as the symptoms may be slight, while gross deficiencies are very uncommon in this country.
Nevertheless, you may want to take a supplement as an "insurance policy", based on the principle that, at the very least, it will not harm you and may possibly be of benefit. If you do decide to take a supplement then it is best to choose a well formulated multi-vitamin and mineral supplement that contains all the main vitamins and minerals.
More information on vitamin supplements.
What about specific vitamins or mineral supplements?
It is best not to use supplements that contain just one or two specific vitamins or minerals. This is because vitamins and minerals work in harmony and an excessive amount of just one can impair the absorption or effectiveness of others. Correct balance is important.
Furthermore, some vitamins, particularly the fat-soluble vitamins, can be harmful in excess quantities as they tend to build up in the body and cause problems. With water-soluble vitamins, amounts over and above the body's requirements are simply lost from the body in urine and do not provide any additional benefit - so you will be wasting your money!
You will notice on the packaging of supplements that for each particular vitamin or mineral it may list the "% of RDA". RDA simply means the Recommended Daily Amount so, for example, if say for Vitamin C it says "100% RDA", this means that it contains 100 percent of your daily allowance. The RDA is similar to the RNI in Dietary Reference Values.
You will probably notice that many supplements exceed the RDA, however, this is not necessarily harmful as the safety margins are very high and well-formulated supplements are well within the acceptable range. RDAs were formulated to cater for the vast majority of a population (nearly 100 percent). This means that many people will require less.
However, RDAs were also set at a level where it was known that there were no adverse effects.
- Most vitamins and all minerals cannot be made by the body, so need to come from your diet
- A balanced diet should provide you with all vitamins and minerals you need
- If you are well nourished already, supplements will not improve performance
- If you are slightly deficient in some nutrients, a supplement may benefit performance
- Gross vitamin deficiencies are rare in this country
- The fat-soluble vitamins, A D E and K, may cause side-effects if taken in very high quantities
- When choosing a supplement choose a well-balanced multi-vitamin and mineral supplement
- Supplements containing a single vitamin or mineral are best avoided because it is difficult to get the balance right.
This article was written by Doug Lawrenson. Doug is an expert in diet and fitness and can be found over at our muscle building and fitness forum. Doug also owns Pro-Diets.com which provides personal diet plans for athletes and people wanting to change their bodies.