Getting Your Vitamins and Minerals on a Vegetarian Diet

Most vegetarian athletes can meet their need for vitamins and minerals by consuming a diet that provides adequate energy and consists of a variety of wholesome foods, including whole grains, legumes, leafy greens and other vegetables,fruit, and, if acceptable, dairy products. Because of hectic training and work or school schedules, however, some athletes make poor food choices, resulting in a deficient intake of many vitamins and minerals. Others may be at risk for deficiencies simply because they restrict food intake to maintain low body weight. 

This is often the case with athletes involved in gymnastics, dancing, diving, distance running, figure skating, and wrestling. Surveys of various groups of athletes have suggested that intake of iron, calcium, zinc, copper, and magnesium are often insufficient, particularly among female athletes. Research in vegetarian and vegan populations has found that vitamin B12, vitamin D, riboflavin, and iodine status are occasionally compromised.

Better Food Choices for Improved Vitamin and Mineral Nutrition 

Despite what supplement companies and vitamin gurus want you to believe, it is always best to improve your nutritional status through better food choices. The reason is simply that Mother Nature wanted us to eat food. Food is packed not only with vitamins and minerals but also with many known and unknown factors that aid in nutrient absorption and utilization. These factors—often called phytochemicals—may even reduce the risk of chronic diseases. Great examples include the bioflavins found in citrus fruits and vegetables that help the body absorb vitamin C; and the many anticancer substances including isoflavones,lutein, isothiocyanates, saponins, and allium compounds that trap free radicals or deactivate cancer-causing substances.

Isolating one compound from a fruit or vegetable and putting it in a pill is probably appealing to those who would rather skip the spinach and simply gobble a pill, but it defies nature. In fact, we are learning more and more that supplementing with isolated vitamins often does not yield the same protective benefits of simply eating fruits and vegetables. Taking beta-carotene supplements,for example, has been shown to increase rather than decrease the risk of lung cancer and cardiovascular disease promoting particularly adverse effects in smokers and those exposed to asbestos. 

Taking folic acid supplements was recently found, somewhat surprisingly, to increase the risk of artery reclogging in heart patients following coronary stenting, an operation that unclogs arteries.Eating plenty of fruits and vegetables high in these and other nutrients, on the other hand, appears to protect against most chronic diseases. Supplements made from concentrated fruit and vegetable extracts also do not provide the full benefits of whole foods. These supplements lack soluble and insoluble fiber and other structural components that help keep bowel functions regular and also have a protective influence on gut health and blood sugar regulation.

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