Nobody “needs” a multivitamin, but they can be helpful.
Taking a daily multivitamin/multimineral supplement is a personal choice for each endurance athlete. It certainly is not a necessity for anyone. A balanced diet based on unprocessed foods will give you all the vitamins and minerals you need. You only “need” a vitamin supplement if you create that need by eating a less nutritious diet than you should. What’s more, a multivitamin cannot truly substitute for a poor diet. It may save you from the worst consequences of specific vitamin and mineral deficiencies, but it cannot do all of the good that real foods do, nor can it undo all of the harm that bad food choices do.
However, while it is within the power of each of us to get all of the vitamins and minerals we need from our diet, few of us actually do. Particular vitamin and mineral deficiencies are very common in our society, even among athletes who make some effort to control their diet quality. While the individual athlete who has one or more of these common deficiencies is always best advised to improve his diet, a vitamin supplement can benefit the athlete’s health and performance while he works on mustering the willpower to eat better.
Many nutritionists recommend that everyone take multivitamins as a form of nutritional “insurance” on the grounds that doing so could help and can’t hurt. That’s not true. Taking a multivitamin that contains large doses of individual vitamins and minerals increases the chances that you will get too much of certain nutrients, especially if you maintain a nutritious diet. While you have to really overdo your vitamin and mineral intake to create serious toxicity issues, even moderate levels of “megadosing” can have negative consequences. For example, a study from the University of Jena, Germany, found that vitamin C and E supplementation limited the beneficial increase in insulin sensitivity that normally results from exercise.
To prevent the negative consequences of megadosing, avoid taking multivitamins that contain more than 200 percent of the RDA for any single nutrient, or skip the multivitamin altogether and take only individual vitamins and minerals that are commonly deficient in the American diet, including folate and calcium. Also, consult your doctor and have your iron levels checked before taking any kind of iron supplement. Because iron deficiency is relatively common in endurance athletes, and especially female runners, many take iron supplements as a form of insurance against deficiencies. But this may lead to iron overload, which can have serious health effects. A recent Swiss study found iron overload in 15 percent of the male participants in the Zurich Marathon.
If you do choose to take a multivitamin/multimineral supplement, shop carefully. Here are some tips:
* Consider taking a “real food” multi. These are supplements that contain extracts from real foods and/or vitamins and minerals in the forms found in real foods instead of individual, stripped-down vitamins and minerals, which the body actually treats as foreign chemicals.
* In traditional vitamin and mineral supplements (i.e. pills containing stripped-down, individual vitamins and minerals), look for the letters “USP” on the supplement bottle. This stands for “United States Pharmacopoeia.” Only vitamin and mineral supplements of the highest quality and absorbability earn this designation.
* Alternatively, look for the “CL Approved” seal on the bottle. “CL” stands for ConsumerLabs.com, which is an independent supplement industry watchdog that tests the quality of supplements and gives its seal of approval to the best only.
* Choose supplements that contain minerals in chelated form. This means the minerals are attached to proteins, just as they are in real foods, which aids absorption.
* Look for enzymes in the formulation. Certain enzymes help your body absorb vitamins and minerals.
* Don’t bother with vitamin and mineral supplements labeled as being especially for women, men, older people, children, or whatever. These are marketing gimmicks. We’re all human and we all need the same vitamins and minerals.
* Finally, take your chosen vitamin and mineral supplement with a meal. This, too, will aid absorption.
About The Author:
Matt Fitzgerald is the author of Iron War: Dave Scott, Mark Allen & The Greatest Race Ever Run (VeloPress 2011) and a Coach and Training Intelligence Specialist for PEAR Sports. Find out more at mattfizgerald.org.