Legionnaire:

Vitamins and Minerals: Which ones are the most important?

Part I – Vitamins

Such a simple question, yet a fairly involved answer. To start I’ll share a little nutrition lingo with you, so at least you’ll sound a little like you know what’s up.

Difference Between Micronutrients and Macronutrients

Vitamins, minerals and other trace elements are all called micronutrients whereas carbohydrates, fats and proteins are called macronutrients. Micro- means small whereas macro- means big.  Using this terminology, vitamins, minerals and trace elements are considered to be micronutrients because they are needed by the body in small amounts (milligram amounts and sometimes microgram amounts).  One milligram is 1/1000 of a gram and one microgram is 1/1,000,000 of a gram…that’s small.  Similarly, carbohydrates, fats and proteins are needed by the body in gram amounts and for this reason are called macronutrients because they are needed by the body in much bigger amounts.

Energy Producing vs. Non-Energy Producing Nutrients

A common way in which these nutrients are classified is ‘energy-producing’ and ‘non-energy producing’ nutrients.  Carbohydrates, fats and proteins are energy-producing nutrients because their metabolism or breakdown results in energy being produced inside our body cells.  Vitamins, minerals and other trace elements are non-energy producing nutrients because their metabolism does not result in energy production. You have to be careful with how you interpret this last classification because it’s for people to read that and think vitamins and minerals aren’t as important because their breakdown doesn’t result in energy being provided to the cells of the body.  Without energy, how can your body contract its muscle, burn fat, build more glycogen, build more muscle, etc.?  BUT, what if I told you without optimal levels of vitamins and minerals your body could not even complete those reactions that breaks down carbohydrates, fats and proteins, ultimately producing energy?  You would probably think they were important.  Also, many vitamins and minerals are needed for healthy bones, immune (sickness fighting) function and protecting cells from other forms of damage.

Difference Between Water-Soluble and Fat-Soluble Vitamins

Like some amino acids, vitamins are considered to be essential nutrients.  This means that your body can either not produce them at all or it cannot produce them in high enough amounts to meet the needs of the body.  Water-soluble and fat-soluble are the two general classifications of vitamins exist based off of what medium is needed for them to be absorbed into the body.  Water-soluble vitamins dissolve readily in water.  Consider your body is close to 70% water they usually don’t have a problem being dissolved and absorbed.  Because of this they are also excreted daily in our urine.  For this reason, they aren’t stored in our bodies and we need to consume them in our diets on a regular basis.  All of the B vitamins (aka, B-complex), which includes thiamin (B1), riboflavin (B2), niacin (B3), pantothenic acid, vitamin B6, biotin, folic acid and cyanocobalamin (B12) and Vitamin C (ascorbic acid) are water-soluble vitamins.  Below are brief bullet points on each item.  This information can be found in more detail in the following textbooks: 1) Nutritional Supplements in Sports and Exercise (2) by Greenwood, Kalman and Antonio (Humana Press, Totawa, NJ USA) and 2) Essentials of Sports Nutrition and Supplements (1) by Antonio, Kalman, Stout, Greenwood, Willoughby and Haff (Humana Press, Totawa, NJ).  They are an excellent source to have and if you would like to read this type of information are well worth the $50 – $75 to purchase them.

Water-Soluble Vitamins

Thiamin (B1)

  • Primary Function: Carbohydrate and amino acid metabolism
  • Food Sources: Pork, fortified grains, cereals, legumes

Riboflavin (B2)

  • Primary Function: Aerobic metabolism (cardio-type activity or exercise)
  • Food Sources: Milk, almonds, eggs, bread, fortified cereals

Niacin (B3)

  • Primary Function: Aerobic metabolism (cardio-type activity or exercise)
  • Food Sources: Meats, fish, legumes, peanuts, some cereals

Pantothenic Acid

  • Primary Function: Metabolism or breakdown of fatty acids, amino acids and carbohydrates
  • Food Sources: Egg yolks, mushrooms, peanuts, yogurt, broccoli, sunflower seeds

Vitamin B6

  • Primary Function: Glucose (sugar) production inside your body
  • Food Sources: Meats, whole-grains, vegetables, nuts

Biotin

  • Primary Function: Fats and glucose production; Breakdown of leucine (a key essential amino acid)
  • Food Sources: Egg yolk, soybeans, cereals, legumes, nuts

Folate

  • Primary Function: Oxygen transport, genetic material production
  • Food Sources: Fresh green vegetables, strawberries, liver

Cyanocobalamin (B12)

  • Primary Function: Formation of key molecules that transport oxygen to our cells
  • Food Sources: Shellfish, dairy products

In addition to the B-vitamins, vitamin C (also called ascorbic acid) is a water-soluble vitamin.  Vitamin C is quite popular for its ability to help prevent illness and its function as an antioxidant. Also, vitamin C assists with collagen (connective tissue) formation and iron absorption.  Short-term decreases of this vitamin do not influence performance, but long-term deficiency negatively impacts performance (REF). Results associated with supplementation to improve performance has been mixed with some studies showing positive effects (REF) and some studies showing no positive effects (REF).

Vitamin C

  • Primary Function: Antioxidant (protecting cells) and immune health
  • Food Sources: Citrus fruits, green vegetables, peppers, tomatoes, berries, potatoes

Fat-Soluble Vitamins

The other primary class of vitamins is the fat-soluble vitamins, or those that are only soluble in a fatty medium.  For those of you that this sounds gross to, all of the membranes surrounding our 7+ trillion cells are comprised of fat.  These vitamins include vitamins A, D, E and K.  Because of their solubility, fat-soluble vitamins are readily broken down and stored by the body.  Because of this, if they are consumed in excessive amounts on a regular basis, the chance of toxic levels being reached is much greater than with water-soluble vitamins.  All four of them play key roles in our optimal health:

Vitamin A

  • Primary Function: Vision, immune function, cell growth and repair
  • Food Sources: Broccoli, squash, sweet potatoes, carrots, milk, eggs, cantaloupe, pumpkin

Vitamin D

  • Primary Function: Bone function and health, optimal absorption of calcium
  • Food Sources: Fatty fish, egg yolks, fortified milk and cereals, sunlight

Vitamin E

  • Primary Function: Cell function
  • Food Sources: Vegetable oils, green leafy vegetables, nuts, cereal grains

Vitamin K

  • Primary Function: Blood clotting
  • Food Sources: Green leafy vegetables, cereal, organ meats, dairy products, eggs

Summary

In summary, vitamins are critically important for optimal health and that’s the case for everyone.  If you are exercising regularly and stressing your body in this manner (or any manner) it’s a good idea to make sure you are getting enough.  For those of you that are dieting, restricting your calories, trying to make weight, etc. and exercise a good bit, it becomes even more important to get enough vitamins.  I liken optimal vitamin status to the battery in your car.  Everyone is concerned about having enough fuel (carbs, fat, protein, etc.) but when you don’t have enough vitamins or the battery is dead in your car, it’s never a good thing. We must have optimal amounts of micronutrients for our body to run properly each and everyday.

Bibliography

  1. Antonio J, Kalman D, Stout J, Greenwood M, Willoughby D, and Haff G, eds. Essentials of sports nutrition and supplements. 2008, Humana Press: New York, NY.
  2. Greenwood M, Kalman D, and Antonio J, eds. Nutritional supplements in sports and exercise. 2008, Humana Press: Totawa, NJ USA.

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