Are Your Workouts Intense?
It is no secret that regular physical activity and a well-balanced diet are the cornerstones for a healthy body. Every person needs a wholesome diet to maintain good health throughout their lifespan. However, for athletes, food is for more than just staying energized. Unlike their sedentary counterparts, athletes who engage in regular intense physical activity demand much more from their diet for optimal performance and recovery. Here are 10 critical nutrients for the hardcore recreational and competitive athlete.
Calcium – The most abundant mineral in the body
With 99% of calcium found in bones and teeth, it a critical nutrient for bone health. The other 1% circulates the blood and is essential for muscle contraction and nerve signaling. Due to the bone stressors and sweat loss from physical activity, athletes have a greater need to replenish their calcium stores. Calcium absorption is highest in doses of ≤500 mg, which is equal to about 8 oz of yogurt or 1 ½ cups of fortified orange juice. Taking a higher dose in a single instance (such as duration supplementation) can actually limit the amount of calcium your body absorbs.
Vitamin D – Another critical nutrient for bone health, as it is involved in calcium absorption and muscle metabolism.
Because of this, prolonged Vitamin D deficiency can result in brittle bones or osteopenia. According to the Third National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, over 77% of Americans are Vitamin D insufficient. Given Vitamin D’s role in bone and muscle health, low amounts have implications on fractures, injuries, muscle weakness, pain, and balance (especially in older adults). Vitamin D can be obtained in the diet and from skin exposure to sunlight. Athletes who live in areas with little sunlight are strict vegetarians or vegans, are elderly, or have very dark skin may benefit from Vitamin D fortified foods and supplementation. The recommended amount of this nutrient varies, so always discuss supplementation with a health care professional first.
Iron – Vital for carrying oxygen from our lungs to our blood and muscle tissue
Prolonged deficiency can result in iron deficiency anemia, which feels like a lack of energy, problems with concentration, and inability to control body temperature. Therefore, iron is a critical nutrient for sports performance. Exercise also contributes to iron losses. Research shows a higher incidence of deficiencies in female athletes (mainly premenopausal women). Vegetarian and vegan athletes are also inclined to have low iron levels and may benefit supplementing this nutrient.
Vitamin E – As exercise intensity and duration increases, muscular damage increases as well.
An athlete’s body responds to this stress by using its natural defense systems, which depend partly on antioxidants like Vitamins E. Vitamin E is a critical nutrient for protecting cell membranes and polyunsaturated fatty acids from oxidative damage from highly intense and prolonged exercise.
Vitamin C – Powerful antioxidant that protects tissue from oxidative stress.
Vitamin C can also donate electrons to Vitamin E once it has been oxidized as well. A note of caution: research shows that Vitamin E and C supplementation can weaken the body’s natural defense systems for fighting oxidative damage. In fact, one systematic review concluded that supplementing these antioxidants can prevent muscular biogenesis and hypertrophy, so it is best to get moderate amounts from food rather than supplements.
Magnesium – Plays a critical role in 300 essential metabolic reactions
…including muscle contraction, bone formation, and heart activity. According to the National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements, over 60% of all magnesium in the body is found in our skeleton, and about 27% is found in muscles. Magnesium is in many plant and animal foods, so deficiency is rare. However, athletes experience more muscle and bone break down than sedentary counterparts and have higher needs for this nutrient. The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that nutritional needs should be met through food before supplements. Food sources of magnesium include oat bran, brown rice, spinach, almonds, nuts, lima beans, and peanuts.
Sodium – Key for electrolyte balance, cell volume, maintains acid-base balance, nerve impulses, and muscle contraction
The typical American diet usually provides enough sodium. However, endurance athletes and athletes exercising in hot and humid conditions have a critical need to replenish with sodium-containing fluids.
Potassium – Major role in keeping electrolyte balance, cell integrity, a steady heartbeat, and healthy blood pressure
Like sodium, potassium is eliminated in sweat. Therefore, it is critical that athletes exercising replenish with adequate potassium. Food sources of potassium include banana, strawberry, orange, watermelon, baked potato, squash, and broccoli. Sports drinks like Gatorade contain the electrolytes and fluids for proper hydration.
Zinc – Essential for over 100 enzymes, immunity, protein synthesis, wound healing, and much more
This nutrient is usually found in animal products (meats, poultry, and dairy). Athletes who have very high carbohydrate diets or low protein intakes may experience suboptimal zinc levels, due to lack of protein or a high amount of phytic acids. In addition, research shows that exercise-induced inflammation can reduce zinc ions in muscle tissue in healthy aerobic athletes.
Protein – Skeletal muscle is the major storage for protein.
…Because of the constant building and breakdown of muscles in physical activity, it is absolutely critical for athletes to get frequent and adequate protein intakes. There are many protein supplements on the market. However, getting protein from foods ensures the athlete can get vitamins necessary for energy metabolism (such as Vitamins B12 and B6), as well as the other critical nutrients listed above. Daily protein recommendations depend on the athlete’s sport. The American College of Sports Medicine generally recommends a daily intake of 1.2 – 1.7 g of protein per kilogram of bodyweight for aerobic athletes and possibly more for strength training athletes.