The question about vitamins for active people doesn’t begin with an A, B, C or even E. It begins with another question: “What’s for dinner and breakfast, lunch and snacks?”
Foods are the main source of vitamins and minerals, while vitamin supplements are exactly that supplements to the regular diet.
“It’s naive to think vitamin supplements can compensate for lousy eating,” said Nancy Clark, a nutritionist at a sports medicine clinic in suburban Boston. “There is no protein, no fiber and no natural biochemicals in vitamin pills.”
On the other hand, recent studies have shown the benefits of antioxidant vitamins (specifically C and E) for athletes who train hard. Heavy exercise can release too many “free radicals,” which are byproducts of metabolism that can damage healthy cells.
“The research certainly shows the potential value of 1,000 milligrams of C and 400 international units of E to help enhance the immune system,” Clark said about a recent study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. “But it still is best to get most of your antioxidants from foods rather than capsules.”
Fruits and vegetables are especially recommended because of their abundance of phytochemicals, which scientists are discovering are valuable in sustaining health and preventing illness.
Nonetheless, multivitamins can be helpful.
“If someone lives life on the run, eating a lot of fast-food lunches and frozen dinners, then vitamin supplements can serve as a sort of insurance policy,” said Christine Palumbo, a nutrition consultant in Naperville, Ill. “Another good candidate is a person who has hectic periods at work or home, not preparing the same meals as usual.”
In any case, Palumbo suggests starting off with a basic multivitamin with 100 percent of the recommended daily allowances for major vitamins and minerals. She generally advises clients to seek a doctor’s care if they are interested in supplementing individual vitamins or minerals.
“Taking single supplements such as B-6 or zinc over a long period might throw your system off balance,” Palumbo said. “There are medical situations that call for supplementation (iron for anemia, zinc for an enlarged prostate), but that’s for you to decide in partnership with your doctor.”
One short-term exception might be vitamin C, which Palumbo said is “always a good choice this time of year to reduce the severity of cold symptoms.” Research shows that an extra 500 to 2,000 milligrams per day at the first sign of a cold can trim back the symptoms.
But be forewarned, particularly if you are planning a long outdoor workout: You can’t overdose on vitamin C, but it typically acts as a natural laxative. Plus, taking long-term megadoses of the vitamin can harm certain individuals whose genetic makeup causes them to release too much stored iron in the bloodstream, perhaps damaging the heart and other organs.
Some athletes may benefit from prescribed supplementation, Clark said. For instance, vegetarian athletes could develop deficiencies in iron and zinc, which are most easily obtained from meat and seafood. Active women run the risk of low calcium, which slows bone development; females who train regularly also may need some iron, which nutritionists generally recommend in the form of red meat once per week.