The world of vitamin and mineral supplementation is beyond confusing for many of us, especially when it comes to understanding what vitamins and minerals are or why they are important. The simple answer is that a vitamin is a chemical that is needed by your body for normal growth, development, repair and function, but are not naturally produced by your body. Therefore, it must be consumed in order for your body to function with maximum efficiency. Minerals are much the same in that you cannot make certain minerals. A mineral is a naturally occurring organic element versus a vitamin that is a compound which has a chemical structure. The bottom line is that there are certain substances that your body cannot make that are essential for survival, so we must consume them either in foods or as supplements that we must add to our diet.
Vitamins come in two types. Fat-soluble vitamins, such as vitamins A, D, E and K, are stored by the body in our fat cells, so too much of these types can be toxic. Water-soluble vitamins are basically vitamin C, and the complex of B vitamins and since these vitamins are more delicate and are not stored, you must consume them in small amount several times a day to get the best benefit from them. Vitamins are absorbed from the food we eat or the supplements we take.
Minerals are inorganic substances that are found in soil and rocks. For example, plants absorb minerals from the earth, and we in turn consume these plants. This is also true for animals! Minerals such as iron are taken into your body in this way. A general rule of thumb is that it is always best to eat a healthy well-balanced diet in order to get the essential nutrients we need, but if you are on a calorie-restricted diet or have health issues such as those that interfere with absorption, a supplement may be needed in order to have your intake be sufficient.
Which food groups will give me the proper portion of nutrients I need?
Breads, pastas and grains – B vitamins and iron if fortified
Dairy – Calcium, vitamin D
Fruits and vegetables – vitamin C and some calcium and small amounts of some A and B vitamins and potassium
Meats – red meat for iron, and eggs contain iron
Nuts – vitamin E
How do I know if I am getting enough of the nutrients I need?
The United States has a panel of experts that have developed the Recommended daily allowances for most nutrients that are essential. Most food labels list these in terms of percentages so it’s helpful to read food labels or consult with many of the online food tables to ensure that you are getting the proper amounts of nutrients.
Which nutrients are most essential and why?
Calcium is the most abundant mineral in the body as it is needed for our bones, muscles and teeth.
Iron allows our body to attach oxygen molecules to our red blood cells. Every cell in our body needs oxygen, so iron allows oxygen to reach all of our cells.
Potassium is another vital substance that helps regulate all of the electrical impulses in our nerves and muscle. Too much or too little of potassium can be lethal.
Vitamin A is essential for eye health
Vitamin B is essential for nerve and metabolism functions
Vitamin C is essential for immune function and tissue strength
Vitamin D helps along with calcium to build bone and helps keep our muscles strong
Vitamin E helps the body break down free radicals and provides some antioxidant protection
Vitamin K helps our blood to clot
The bottom line is that the best way to maximize performance is to make sure that your intake of essential elements is sufficient. Maximum fitness and performance requires that intake of vitamins and minerals is kept well balanced. A healthy well-balanced diet is always the best first step, but if you are restricting your diet or have medical issues that may keep you from consuming certain nutrients, if you are a vegetarian or have other reasons for dietary restrictions you may want to consult with your doctor or a nutritionist to make sure your intake of nutrients is adequate for you to look and perform your best.
There are literally hundreds of types of vitamin and mineral supplements on the market, so take care to read your labels and understand what you are buying, as too much of a good thing isn’t always best. When in doubt, ask a trained professional as the world of vitamins and mineral supplementation is ever changing.
Until next time, here’s to the best of your health so keep working out to create the best possible you!
Elizabeth Salada MD
Internal medicine and Wellness