By Nancy Clark, M.S., R.D.
Vitamin and mineral supplements, as well as fruit and vegetable replacements, abound in today’s nutrition marketplace. Their advertising claims are impressive, but can pills really enhance your health and performance? Are any problems associated with taking nutritional supplements? Do athletes have a higher need for vitamins? If you have ever wondered about the pros and cons of supplements in your own personal sports diet, keep reading.
Believe it or not, a diet that contains a variety of wholesome foods can provide all the vitamins and minerals athletes need to support good health. The American Dietetic Association’s position stand on vitamin and mineral supplements (Jan. 1996) strongly recommends food for nourishing our bodies. To date, neither the ADA, nor any other major health association or government agency endorses the routine use of supplements. But they all endorse eating plenty of fruits and vegetables - the “all natural” form of vitamins and minerals. They also recognize the need for increased nutrition education to teach people how to eat appropriately, even when eating on the run.
There’s little question that foods will nourish you better than supplements. That’s because foods contain many health-protective substances such as phytochemicals, fiber, and yet unknown compounds that seem to protect against heart disease and cancer. Even the value of the pills that supposedly replace fruits and vegetables is questionable - can a pill really capture the complex interactions of little known or yet unknown substances in food?
Nutrition is an ever-changing science including much we don’t know. That’s why taking supplements, if you choose to do so, should be in addition to eating well. The “I take a vitamin pill for breakfast because I eat cookies for lunch” philosophy is short-sighted. So is the story “I don’t like to drink milk, so I take calcium pills instead.” Granted, taking a vitamin or mineral in a pill is better than eating none, but, pills are not the answer to protecting health. Most nutrients work in combinations and in the optimal balance found in natural foods. For example, milk contains far more than just calcium - it offers a myriad of nutrients that are integral to bone health. Bones need all these nutrients, not just calcium in a pill. Whole foods protect whole health.
Are there dangers to taking supplements? Yes. Although not common, the medical literature reports vitamin overdoses among people who self-prescribe too much of vitamins A and D, as well as B vitamins that are thought to be supposedly harmless even in high doses. But otherwise, natural overdoses are very unlikely. More likely than not, you’ll flush excess vitamins down the toilet.
In comparison, overdoses of minerals are worrisome. Taking too many minerals can create serious imbalances. For example, zinc supplements (>200 mcg) interact with iron, magnesium, nickel, cooper, chromium, calcium and lead, plus decrease the good HDL cholesterol and impair immune function. Many athletes are taking copious minerals without even knowing it. That’s because many brands of sports bars, such as PowerBars and PR Bars, are highly fortified. If this is your case, and if you are also eating highly fortified breakfast cereals, such as Total and Just Right, plus taking a multi-mineral supplement, you might want to re-evaluate your nutrition program. You may be creating problems. Nutrition professionals have yet to fully research and understand the impact of abundant minerals on overall health, but the current belief is that the impact is more likely to be harmful than helpful.
Chromium is one mineral of particular concern. Chromium is supposed to help burn fat and build muscle, but these claims have not been proven in well-respected studies. Concerns are being raised about potential dangers with chromium supplements. Excess chromium may contribute to anemia (which hurts athletic performance) and chromosomal changes. Meanwhile, chromium sales are skyrocketing among athletes eager for a quick fix.
The safest bet for optimal nutrition is to chow down on nature’s powerhouses: broccoli, spinach, peppers, tomatoes, carrots, sweet potatoes, melon, strawberries, kiwi, bananas, oranges, and other citrus fits, lean meats, beans and legumes, lowfat dairy foods, and unrefined grain foods. If you don’t eat these foods every day, at least eat generous portions when you do eat them! They are proven health protectors.