When you up your exercise, all everyone seems to think about is macros – your protein intake, maybe carbs, maybe fat… but what about the micronutrients? Do you need to think about them at all?
Well, let’s think about it. When your exercise more, you burn more energy. Your body is also essentially under more stress than usual. You are trying to build more (muscle) tissue, and use more oxygen. Is it possible that micronutrients play a role in these?
Here is a list of some micronutrients you need to think about when you are more active:
As you exercise, burning more energy, you produce more free radicals in your body – small chemical molecules that are very reactive and can cause chain reactions, damaging your body, causing diseases and even cancer. Your body has many ways to combat those free radicals, one of which is a group of molecules called antioxidants that bind “the bad stuff”, but again, as an active person you will need more of those. Vitamin E is one of the powerful antioxidants available to us. It is a fat soluble vitamin, found in nuts, seeds and oils.
Another antioxidant! It also has other functions – helps form connective tissue (such as ligaments and tendons that support your bones and muscles) and is involved in formation of adrenaline, and also takes part in formation of red blood cells that transport oxygen (that we later burn for energy). Studies show that increased vitamin intake in athletes may reduce incidence of some infections, and also reduce muscle soreness and muscle damage post exercise.
- Carotenoids – beta carotene (plant form of vitamin A) helps recover vitamin E. All carotenoids, which are responsible for yellow, orange and red colours in plants, work most effectively together as antioxidants – so a varied diet full of differently coloured fruit and veg is best here!
- Minerals such as selenium, copper, manganese and zinc – not exactly antioxidants, but are part of hormones that scavenge free radicals. Found in whole grains, bread, nuts, meat, liver and eggs.
- Flavanoids (also called flavanols and polyphenols) – found in fruit and veg, tea, coffee, red wine, garlic and onions.
These are involved in release of energy from food – so if you eat more food, you need more B vitamins! It can be a problem especially for those sports enthusiasts who take carbohydrate supplements, but have no B vitamins to burn them. Among these, especially important for athletic performance are B5 – necessary for making glucose and fatty acids in our body, and B6 – involved in making new protein and red blood cells.
Folate and vitamin B12
Needed for formation of red blood cells (important for oxygen consumption), but also for formation of protein and new cells (such as muscle cells!). B12 is found in most animal products – meat, eggs and dairy. Vegetarians and vegans need supplementation.
Important for muscle structure and function, its lack may lead to injuries and decreased athletic performance, and even stress fractures or muscle weakness! It is important and so much that studies show sports performance is seasonal, and can increase in summer months with more sun exposure. Peak athletic performance seems to happen when you reach the vitamin D level equivalent to natural full body sun exposure on a summer day. Opinions on vitamin D supplementation are mixed, and if you want to supplement with vitamin D, you should consult a doctor or registered dietician/nutritionist.
Weight bearing exercise, such as lifting or running, increases our bone mass, and in turn, the requirement for calcium. But this is not the only exercise related function of calcium. It is also involved in muscle growth, contraction and nerve transmission. Calcium deficiency may present with muscle cramps, pain and weakness. For female athletes that have very low body fat and need to watch their weight, extra calcium is necessary because of low estrogen levels that in turn lower your calcium.
It is a part of haemoglobin – a protein that transports oxygen in blood, and myoglobin – similar protein that transports oxygen in muscle. Also involved in energy metabolism in general. If you are very active and tend to avoid red meat, you need to pay a special attention to other iron rich foods, such as poultry, seafood, beans (lentils), green leafy veg (spinach and broccoli), walnuts and dried fruit (raisins and apricots).
When you exercise, you can eat more, and it is tempting to just eat more junk food or chocolate – just because you can. However, for optimal health and for optimal performance, you should plan your diet especially well and eat healthy!
A lot of this information is available in a book by Anita Bean, The complete guide to sports nutrition. Great piece of information, highly recommended!