Eat Your Vitamins: The Surprising Value of Real Food for Athletes and Everyone Else Too

There is a woman standing in my office with a shopping bag full of vitamins. She sets them one-by-one on my table and explains how often she takes each one. There is CoQ10, fish oil, vitamin D, obscene amounts of biotin (because Dr. Oz told her it’s good for hair growth), B stress complexes, chlorophyll, pancreatic digestive enzymes and half a dozen other potent means of disrupting the body’s normal function.

“Do you eat food?” I ask, rather seriously, because I can’t figure out how there’s any space in her gut for a steak after all those supplements. And then my follow-up question comes: “Why are you taking this one?”

About 99% of the time, people are taking a vitamin because they heard somewhere that it’s good for something. And since they too have a body, they assume their body will function better with more of that. By this logic, I’ve consumed enough vitamin B to handle a divorce, car crash and relocation in the same week.

In a perfect world, we’d be able to get all our vitamins from the food we eat. Somewhere between the discovery of isolated vitamins and malnourishment is a multi-billion dollar market where food is delivered in pill form with little instruction on how to consume it.

There are two major reasons why we may not be able to get all our vitamins in only the food we eat: 1. Foods are not as nourishing as they used to be (see modern agricultural techniques and depleted soil); and 2. We demand more vitamins than our ancestors because it seems like a good idea to complete an Ironman or ride a bike for 24 hours.

So how do we get as many vitamins as possible in the food we eat?

This is pretty important, especially to those of us who have bona fide sugar addictions as a result of our endurance sports. I’ll try to put it in simple terms and not over complicate because I understand not all of us are doctors or scientists or food geeks: Eat. Real. Food.

Surprisingly, real food can be hard to find today, although it can usually be identified in the confusing environment of a grocery store or market by a single common trait: It doesn’t have ingredients. Most of the time it needs to be prepared in some fashion, which many Americans are becoming adverse to if it involves more than unwrapping a package and shoving said “food” into pie hole. Real food, as opposed to faux food, is “nutrient-dense.” This is a term we use a lot in my practice. Nutrient-dense foods are foods that are loaded with vitamins, minerals, proteins, fatty acids and carbohydrates. It is about getting more bang for your buck.

Take a cracker, for example. You get a few carbohydrates, some sugar, if you’re lucky, trace vitamin A and a dash of iron for good measure. Take a slice of kohlrabi and you’ll get vitamin C, B6, potassium, copper and some manganese. Both are equally effective scoops for guacamole, pesto or a slab of Brie. One is empty calories.

Foods such as pastas, rice, breads, white potatoes, cereals, etc. are pretty devoid of nutrients beyond some trace minerals and an overdose of simple carbohydrates. Your nutrient-dense foods are going to be found in the vegetable aisle, on the butcher’s block, in the fish market. They are not in boxes.

What if we need more vitamins because we make our bodies do crazy things? Understanding what supplements we might need and why is the first step to figuring out correct dosage. The next step is understanding what co-factors are necessary to absorb that dosage. For example, taking high doses of vitamin D (5000 IU/day) is a good start for most of us northerly folk, but if we don’t consume or take supplemental vitamin K, we cannot effectively transport the D into the correct cells and may wind up purchasing ourselves some new kidney stones.

Spend some time researching your supplements as you would researching your training plan. If you invest the same amount of energy in your nutrition, you’ll perform better and feel better. And as a general rule, that applies to vitamins and shoes: You get what you pay for. In the meantime, eat plants and animals. //

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