Eating for Vitamins: Do You Need Supplements?
Nancy Clark, MS, RD
THE PHYSICIAN AND SPORTSMEDICINE - VOL 25 - NO. 7 - JULY 1997
Confusion abounds about vitamin supplements for active people: Should you take them? Which ones are best? When should you take them? Will they enhance sports performance? Here is information to help clear up any confusion and show you how to meet your vitamin needs without wasting money on unnecessary supplements.
What Are Vitamins?
Vitamins are food substances that assist essential biochemical reactions within your body. There are 13 known vitamins:
The Best Source: Food
Most people can get an adequate supply of vitamins from a 1,200- to 1,500-calorie-per-day diet consisting of a variety of wholesome foods. For athletes who get 2,500 to 4,000 or more calories a day, the task is relatively simple. For example, a thirsty teenage athlete who needs over 4,000 calories per day can easily get almost three times the recommended 60 milligrams (mg) of vitamin C from 16 ounces of orange juice. And that's just from one beverage there's even more in food.
The trick to getting enough vitamins is to choose foods that are nutritional powerhouses. Fresh fruits and vegetables are the ultimate natural vitamin sources. Unlike supplements, fruits and vegetables offer far more than just the vitamins—they also contain fiber and various other compounds that are important to health. If you eat a balanced diet you'll get these important nutrients and you won't need vitamin supplements to correct nutritional deficiencies. Unfortunately, most Americans eat fewer than the recommended 5 servings of fruits and vegetables per day.
Who Needs Supplements?
To date, no evidence suggests that extra vitamins will enhance athletic performance, increase strength or endurance, increase energy, or build muscles. Certainly, a vitamin deficiency can impair performance, but deficiencies are generally related to conditions such as anorexia, unhealthy weight loss, malabsorption, or poor eating habits. Deficiencies are unlikely in active people with robust appetites.
For very active people, vitamin E is a possible exception to the "eat your vitamins" rule, because even though a hungry athlete eats a lot of food, diet is unlikely to provide large enough amounts of this nutrient. Vitamin E is an antioxidant, which means it helps fight damage to body cells. It may help reduce the tissue damage associated with intense exercise. Researchers are still trying to determine if extra vitamin E offers benefits for athletes.
Although outright vitamin deficiencies are rare, some people are at risk for marginal vitamin shortages. Supplements can be appropriate for:
Some people simply like to take a multiple vitamin pill for health insurance. This is practical as long as the pill just supplements healthy eating. People who take handfuls of pills in hopes of finding a cure-all are likely to feel better if they improve their diet instead. No amount of pills can compensate for a deficient diet.
Prompted by persuasive advertising, many active people have developed a big appetite for vitamin pills. Here are some tips to help you sort through the hype and get the most from a vitamin supplement:
Many active people are already getting abundant vitamins from fortified foods such as breakfast cereals, energy bars, sports drinks, and snack foods. You don't even need to take a vitamin pill if, for example, you eat a big bowl of a cereal fortified with 100% of the DVs for breakfast or as a snack.
Invest in Nutrition
If you don't know whether you're getting adequate vitamins in your food, consult with a registered dietitian who specializes in sports nutrition. He or she can evaluate your diet and teach you how to optimize your food intake. To find a local sports nutritionist, you can call the American Dietetic Association's referral network (800-366-1655). Investing in personalized nutrition education is better than buying myriad mysterious pills.
Remember: You, your physician, and your nutritionist need to work together to discuss nutrition concerns. The above information is not intended as a substitute for appropriate medical treatment.
Ms Clark is director of Nutrition Services at SportsMedicine Brookline in the Boston area. She is a fellow of the American College of Sports Medicine, a fellow of the American Dietetic Association, and a member of its practice group, Sports and Cardiovascular Nutritionists (SCAN).
Copyright (C) 1997. The McGraw-Hill Companies. All Rights Reserved