It can be a challenge to maintain an exercise routine, but getting the right nutrients can help.
However, physical activity can also change a patient’s micronutrient needs. “How exercise affects nutrient status is different for each person,” says Joy Dubost, PhD, RD, CSSD, and spokes- person for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “It depends on diet, the sport they’re in, and training intensity.”
Certain vitamins and minerals are especially important for athletes and active individuals, according to a report in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise.1 These include calcium, iron, zinc, vitamin B, and potassium.
Calcium is well-known as a bone- builder. It also regulates muscle contractions and helps control heartbeat and blood pressure. The recommended daily intake for adult men and women is about 1,000 mg daily, yet many adults get only about half that amount.
“Calcium excretion can be increased with high-intensity training,” says Dubost. In other words, sports that cause excessive sweating can increase a person’s calcium requirements. The body also may need more calcium as bones get stronger in response to training stress and as a person develops more lean muscle mass.
There are plenty of ways to get more calcium into the diet. Yogurt, cheese, and milk are excellent sources. Calcium is also found in salmon, spinach, tofu, broccoli, and kale. Vitamin D aids calcium absorption, and is sometimes added to fortified milk, cereals, and breads. People should avoid drinking coffee or tea with meals, as caffeine may reduce the absorption of calcium.
Iron deficiency affects around 3.4 million Americans. It is more common among women, vegetarians, and adolescents. Frequent exercise may be another risk factor, according to a new study from the U.K. The results, which were published in Network Health Dietitians, found that about 35 percent of female athletes had clinically low levels of iron.2
Iron helps carry oxygen to the heart and working muscles. “Iron is especially important in endurance sports,” Dubost says. If you’re iron deficient, you may experience cramping, because your muscles are not getting enough oxygen. Other symptoms include fatigue, headaches, and trouble concentrating. A blood test should be done if iron deficiency is suspected.
Lean red meat and chicken contain heme iron, which is more absorbable than the non-heme iron found in plants. Dark leafy greens, beans, seeds, and whole-grain pastas and breads can provide non-heme iron. Vegetarians can improve iron uptake by including vitamin C in meals, which can increase absorption.
Your body only needs small amounts of zinc (about 8 mg for women and 11 mg for men), but those quantities are essential. Zinc is present in more than 300 enzymes in the body and has a wide range of functions. Zinc has powerful immune-boosting properties and aids in resistance to infection.
Without adequate zinc, you may feel run down or develop colds more easily.
Zinc deficiency commonly affects the hair, skin, and nails. Dermatitis or poor wound healing may indicate a lack of zinc. “At extremes, people may have hair loss, reduced appetite, or weight loss,” Dubost says.
Zinc is found in oysters, beef, oatmeal, spinach, wheat germ, pumpkin seeds, and dark chocolate. The zinc in plants is not as well- absorbed, however, because many contain phytates that bind to zinc and reduce absorption. Protein aids in zinc uptake, so vegetarians can increase their intake by eating nuts and legumes.
Physically active people who are lacking vitamin B may perform worse during high-intensity exercise, according to a study in the journal Nutrition.3 This group of micronutrients includes vitamins B6, B12, folate, thiamin, and riboflavin. The B vitamins help to convert protein and sugar into energy and they repair red blood cells. They also aid in building muscle and repairing muscle tears.
Intense workouts increase the loss of vitamin B through perspiration.
Improper diet is another factor because people who restrict calories or cut out food groups have a higher chance of deficiency. Symptoms of severe deficiency include dizziness, headaches, and shortness of breath.
The B vitamins are found in red meat, salmon, tuna, chicken, cheese, spinach, avocados, oranges, and dried apricots. Fortified breakfast cereals and enriched soymilk are also options.
“Hydration status is really important,” Dubost says, “especially in intensive sports with prolonged sweating. You need to replace electrolytes.” Potassium is a key electrolyte that works together with sodium to keep the skeletal muscles working and lower blood pressure. It also regulates the amount of fluid in your body.
Athletes need to balance fluid losses, as low blood volume can decrease the supply of oxygen and nutrients to the body. Low potassium levels can cause cramping, weakness, heart rhythm
irregularities, and low blood pressure. Although potassium deficiency is uncommon, intense activity can lead to sub-optimal levels. Eating high- sodium meals and working out in hot humid weather can also upset your sodium-potassium balance. Recovery drinks and foods such as bananas or carrots can replace lost potassium.
Enhancing health and performance
Even top athletes can have blind spots when it comes to diet. “A lot of people want to push it out of their mind,” Dubost says. But as a chiropractor, there are several ways you can assist your patients.
Preventing deficiencies is an important first step. Chiropractors are in an excellent position to educate their patients about the relationship between exercise and micronutrient loss.
Awareness and information are key.
Although getting nutrients from foods is preferable, in some instances supplementation can help. Put your patients in contact with a physician or dietitian if necessary.
Finally, Dubost stresses the need to act promptly. “If you see an effect on performance, it is best not to wait,” she says. An unhealthy athlete will not succeed in the long run. So, the sooner your patients begin maintaining their health, the better.
Stephanie Kramer is a freelance writer and translator. Her writing on health, wellness, and the performing arts has appeared in Dermatology News and other publications.
- Rodriguez NR, et al. American college of sports medicine position stand nutrition and athletic performance. Med. Sci. Sports Exerc. 2009;41(3):709-731.
- Ruxton C, Cobb R. Benefits of Iron for Sport and Exercise. Network Health Dietitians Magazine. 2015;108:44-47.
- Lukaski HC. Vitamin and mineral status: effects on physical performance. Nutrition. 2004;20:632-644.