Exercise may make you more prone to these vitamin and mineral gaps.
While working out has a plethora of health benefits, it can also rob your body of certain nutrients. "The more active a person is, the more likely they are to experience certain deficiencies," says Bill Misner, Ph.D., director of research and development at E-Caps and Hammer Nutrition in Whitefish, Montana. Research backs this up. A study published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition found that athletes experience micronutrient deficiencies at higher rates compared to sedentary people. Here’s why: “Sweating excessively and over-training can contribute,” says Shelly Wegman, a registered dietitian at Rex Nutrition Services in Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina. Another common habit amongst weightlifters that puts them at risk is protein-loading while skimping on carbs.
But, this is no case against exercise; there are ways to combat the effect. First, athletes should talk to their doctors about any specific concerns (such as chronic fatigue, muscle cramps, or heart palpitations). “They can give you a simple blood test which can let you know if you are deficient in anything,” says Shira Levine, a registered dietitian in Teaneck, New Jersey. Here, some of the most common deficiencies amongst the fit crowd.
Calcium is a mineral essential for helping athletes to build and maintain strong bones. It also plays an integral role in muscle contraction. But, you lose calcium in perspiration, says Myers Hurt, M.D. a family medicine doctor with Diamond Physicians in Frisco, Texas. What’s more, calcium is of specific concern to female athletes as they age. “As their estrogen falls (usually after age 52), their bones become more brittle and predisposed to fracture,” he explains.
Signs that you are deficient: Micro fractures and conventional fractures of bone, poor muscular recovery, muscle cramps and spasms affecting speed and coordination, and brittle nails
Recommended daily allowance: 1,000mg per day
How to get more in your diet: Eat foods like milk, cheese, and other dairy products, as well as green leafy vegetables, soy beans, tofu, and nuts. “Supplements can also help but make sure to take these with a vitamin D supplement as they work together,” says Jatin Joshi, M.D., founder of London-based supplement company Instavit.
Vitamin D affects athletic performance in multiple ways. “A deficiency in the vitamin has been shown to decrease recovery time from training but also has been linked to force and power production in athletes,” says Darin Hulslander, a personal trainer and nutritionist with DNS Performance & Nutrition in Chicago. Vitamin D, like calcium, is also essential for bone health. “Athletes are not necessarily more prone to vitamin D loss, they are just not exempt from the common phenomenon and can benefit from added doses,” says Vijay Jotwani, M.D., a primary care sports medicine physician at Houston Methodist.
Signs that you are deficient: Stress fractures, muscle injuries, and lethargy
Recommended daily allowance: 600 IU per day
How to get more in your diet: Sunlight is the best source, based on how it is absorbed through the skin. "Fatty fish, egg yolks, and fortified milks and cereals also provide a source of vitamin D,” says Hulslander. Talk to your doctor about taking a supplement—it’s likely that you’ll need one if you live in areas where the sun is less prevalent. Joshi recommends Vitamin D3 opposed to other available forms which have less evidence to support them.
“Iron is a component of hemoglobin, myoglobin, cytochromes, and various enzymes in the muscle cells, all of which are involved in the transport and metabolism of oxygen for aerobic energy production,” says Ryan Neinstein, M.D., of NYC Surgical Associates. “Athletes are more sensitive to the effects of anemia and iron deficiency because exercise performance depends on efficient oxygen utilization.” Female athletes are even more prone to iron deficiency due to menstruation.
Signs that you are deficient: Fatigue, heart palpitations, shortness of breath
Recommended daily allowance: 8mg per day for males, 18mg per day for females
How to get more in your diet: Up your intake of red meat, fish, beans, green leafy vegetables, and peas. Iron supplements are also available, however, Joshi cautions athletes to take them only under the guidance of a doctor because they can sometimes cause stomach issues.
As athletes lose zinc through the process of sweating, it’s very important that they get enough in their diet. Doing so allows for faster recovery (it's important for muscle repair) and higher performance during sports and workouts, says Hulslander. Zinc is also important for overall immune function. “Deficiency of zinc is one of the reasons endurance athletes are thought to have periods of reduced immunity to diseases,” says Hurt.
Signs that you are deficient: Poor recovery post-workout, tiredness, weakness
Recommended daily allowance: 40mg per day
How to get more in your diet: Eat a variety of whole grains, dairy, meat, oysters, poultry, beans, and nuts. Unless you are severely deficient, a zinc supplement is often unnecessary.
Magnesium is a mineral that is also lost via sweat. But, it is an important mineral for numerous biochemical reactions in the body involved with energy production. “High-performance athletes have a faster turnover of energy, use their muscles more, put greater stress on their bones and sweat more,” says O’Shaughnessy. “So they definitely require more magnesium. It also can help with recovery from strenuous exercise.”
Signs that you are deficient: Muscle cramps and spasms, weakness, heart palpitations and irregularities
Recommended daily allowance: 400mg per day
How to get more in your diet: Eat dark green leafy vegetables (spinach, chard), yogurt, nuts, beans, and avocados. You can also try a supplement. Epson salt baths or a magnesium sprays often work, as the mineral is easily absorbed through your skin.
Source: Recommended daily levels of nutrients via the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences