Nutrition and the Athlete

By Jennifer Kaumeyer, N.D.

Very often athletes and those who exercise a lot feel that they can eat whatever they want. I often hear words such as “I worked out hard today; I deserve these doughnuts.” These people are thinking that exercise gives them a reason to splurge and eat poorly. They often believe that they are healthy because they exercise even though they never eat a vegetable (French fries and corn do not count!). I know this because I consider myself an athlete and therefore have many friends and acquaintances who are into sports and physical activities. The truth is, the athlete may not gain as much weight but can be more at risk for chronic disease than the sedentary person, whom is eating the same types of foods. Let’s talk about how this could be true.

Most athletes know that certain nutrients are essential for health and performance. Failure to consume adequate amounts of these essential nutrients—which include 13 vitamins, 22 minerals, essential fatty acids, essential amino acids and, of course, water—results in consequences that range from low energy to death, depending on the specific nutrient, the individual and the severity and duration of the deficiency.

Recently, nutritional science has brought new attention to the vitamin and mineral needs of athletes and the consequences of deficiencies. A recent study from the University of Oregon found that vitamin B deficiencies (B1, B2, B3, B5, B6, and B12) were common in athletes and that these deficiencies sabotaged athletic performance. 

An even more recent article published in the pro-supplementation Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition concluded that it is impossible for athletes to meet their daily vitamin and mineral requirements without supplementation. The predominate view is that athletes probably do need slightly more nutrients than non-athletes, but that these nutrients are obtained automatically in the course of eating the extra calories that are required to fuel workouts—assuming a balanced, healthy diet. However, besides the extra calories, the typical athlete does not really know what a “balanced, healthy diet” consists of and eats very much like the typical American — and in the typical American diet there are several common nutrient deficiencies resulting from poor dietary habits. Most of the time, the extra needed calories that exercisers take in are often from “reward” meals and junk food which are usually a worthless source of nutrients. This often leads to deficiencies that are likely to affect their health and performance. Let’s take a look at each of the most common deficiencies, their consequences and how to overcome them.

Physical activity increases the need for vitamin C so that our bodies can produce hormones such as cortisol that are needed during the event. Vitamin C is an antioxidant and helps with detoxification and oxidative stress within the body. Vitamin C is also needed to repair muscle and soft tissue as well as build new muscle and bone. Many athletes, especially those under 25, develop a vitamin C deficiency because they often eat processed foods from vending machines, gas stations, fast food and anything and everything that comes in a box. Also, food prepared at colleges, work or office restaurants are usually overcooked and poor in vitamins, especially vitamin C. Young athletes eat very little fresh fruits and vegetables which are the richest vitamin C sources. To make matters worse, when they do eat these fresh foods, the vitamin C content is a lot less than it was in the same fruit/vegetable 50 years ago. Also, please note that the nutrients that are used in the fortification process are very poorly absorbed and utilized by the body. In other words, don’t rely on your morning bowl of Total® cereal for your nutrients.

DEFICIENCY OF B VITAMINS, especially thiamin and riboflavin (B1, B2) deficiency, is widespread in athletes. B vitamins are very important in athlete nutrition because they are involved in energy production and its shortage may affect performance and recovery after exercises. Thiamin and riboflavin are easily lost in sweat, so the more you are active and sweating, the more you need of these two vitamins. The B vitamins are considered a family and operate as a team and usually are present in food together.

IRON DEFICIENCY is the next most common nutritional deficiency among athletes. Women and vegetarians who are involved in sports are particularly at risk for developing iron deficiency. This mineral is easily lost through sweat, urine and, in women, through menstrual flow. Iron is better absorbed from meat sources than from plant sources, so vegetarians (especially vegetarian women) need to pay extra attention to their iron intake.

POTASSIUM, MAGNESIUM, AND ZINC are also lost through heavy sweating. Deficiency of potassium and magnesium in the athletes system may cause excessive tiredness and fatigue after a training or athletic performance. Magnesium deficiency can cause muscle cramping, twitching and restless legs at night. A deficiency of zinc may cause immune dysfunction, frequent infections, skin inflammation, and gastrointestinal problems.

ESSENTIAL FATTY ACIDS, especially those that are Omega 3s, are very lacking in our diet. The main reason for this is because our beef is not grass fed anymore. Grain and corn fed cattle will produce a lot more saturated fat than grass fed cattle. Those that eat grass will produce much more of the essential fats within their meat. This is why wild animals are usually considered more lean and healthy. Americans also do not eat enough fatty fish or other foods with an abundance of essential fatty acids, such as walnuts, flax, avocados, and dark green leafy vegetables. These fats are important for athletes because they are the precursors to the chemicals in our body that help fight inflammation. A deficiency can cause a person to be at greater risk for inflammatory problems such as tendonitis, plantar fasciitis, and shin splints. These fats also help lubricate the joints, improve circulation and improve oxygen uptake.

The reality is that most people, especially in America, are already experiencing suboptimal nutrient levels. Chronic stress (physical and emotional), environmental toxicities, bad nutrition, addictions, lack of physical activity and lack of R&R in general can deplete all of our nutrients rather quickly. The best and quickest way to get these levels back to optimal is through intravenous nutrition therapy (IVs) and intramuscular injections (IMs). This is especially true for any athlete who is experiencing any kind of gastrointestinal problem, irritable bowel syndrome, or other diagnosed chronic disease. Fortunately, here at the Riordan Clinic, we not only have the ability to order and administer these IVs, but we also have done a lot of the research that has shown the benefits of this type of therapy. We could be considered experts.

These IVs are non-toxic, painless, and last approximately 20–45 minutes depending on the combination of nutrients within the IV bag. It is best to “know your levels first” and have nutrients tested so that we can gauge the effect of the IV treatments. Every individual is different, but usually starting off with weekly IVs and then graduating to monthly IVs is standard. If the athlete is training for a certain event such as a marathon race, IVs are especially important during the “recovery” weeks.

IF YOU ARE INTERESTED IN INCREASING YOUR PHYSICAL PERFORMANCE and/or reaching optimal health, you should highly consider getting your health markers (nutrients) tested and boost your biochemistry through intravenous nutritional therapy. Call the Riordan Clinic today at 316-682-3100.