They're found in foods but they're not foods. Eating them won't provide the calories that power you through workouts. But without them your diet will be incomplete, you won't recover quickly from your training sessions, and eventually you'll get sick, injured, or both. They come in fruits, vegetables, meats, cheeses, milk, juices, and pills. They don't replace good food, but they're the stuff that makes good food good. They're the little things on the bottom of the nutritional label. They're important, and you probably don't know nearly enough about them. What are they? Vitamins.
Vitamins are the micronutrients that make macronutrients—protein, carbohydrates, and fat—work. Your body needs them to function normally—it can't even sustain life without them—and they're not automatically produced anywhere in your body. They regulate your metabolism, boost your immune system, help your blood clot, help you see, and enable growth. Your parents were right: You need 'em. OK, but what, specifically, are they, and what do we need them for? A quick primer on the five major vitamins:
Vitamin A plays an important role in keeping your hair and skin healthy. It also helps you see in low-light conditions, keeps your bones strong, and contributes to your reproductive health. You can find vitamin A in animal products: whole eggs, whole milk, and liver; and also in fortified breakfast cereals and darker-colored fruits and vegetables.
Vitamin B comes in six forms: B1, B2, B3, B6, B12, and B9. You can find B vitamins in a variety of foods—everything from whole-grain breads to meats and peas. The B family of vitamins help your body perform essential metabolic functions, maintain your nervous system, break down proteins, and produce red blood cells. Deficiencies in vitamin B have been found to cause everything from skin disorders to brain damage.
You probably already know that vitamin C in orange juice helps keep you healthy by acting as an antioxidant. But you many not know that vitamin C also assists the body in the production of collagen, a basic component of connective tissue. A surprising fact: The Journal of the American Dietetic Association reported that juice from frozen concentrate has significantly more vitamin C than the juice in ready-to-go cartons. However, vitamin C levels in orange juice can drop to zero over even a few weeks of storage for either type of juice, due to oxygen in the air. The solution: Buy juice well before the expiration date to ensure it hasn't been sitting on the shelves as the grocer, then drink it as soon as possible after you open it, preferably within one week.
When your pediatrician said that you needed to take your vitamins to grow big and strong, he meant vitamin D. The D vitamins help your body maintain normal levels of calcium and phosphorous, both of which keep bones from becoming brittle or soft. You can get your vitamin D by getting a tan—exposure to sunlight causes your body to produce it. If you can't get out in the sun, you can find vitamin D in fish, fish oil, and fortified milk.
The most powerful form of the vitamin E family is a substance that acts as an antioxidant, protecting your body's cells from the damaging effects of oxidation. Other members of the group also keep our blood pressure low by preventing blood cells from sticking to each other as they travel through your arteries and veins. Vegetable oils, nuts, leafy vegetables, and fortified cereals are good sources of vitamin E.
Understanding each vitamin, its functions, and its sources can be confusing. But if you take the right approach when you choose what you eat, covering all of your nutritional bases need not be overwhelming. Emily Bender, M.A., N.C., a nutritional consultant for Gourmet Helper Nutrition Consulting, encourages active individuals to think beyond calories when they analyze their diets: "People think of food as calories, but that underestimates the value of what we eat. Our bodies need nutrition to create energy and allow essential processes to happen," she says. "Calories don't let us walk down the street. Nutrients—like vitamins and minerals—do."
Bender suggests you eat foods as close to their natural state as possible—apples instead of Apple Jacks, unrefined flours and sugars, grass-fed meats. This will allow you to benefit from as many of the inherent vitamin and mineral nutrients as possible. When asked which specific vitamins are of vital importance to athletes, she laughs: "All of them. B vitamins and minerals help the rebuilding process after workouts. Calcium, magnesium, and vitamin K—a little known nutrient&3151;keep our bones dynamic and healthy."
Bender also points out that taking the US Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) of a vitamin isn't necessarily enough. "The RDA was established as a baseline, as a preventative measure to protect the public against deficiency-related diseases like scurvy," she says. "That baseline might not get you your optimum level of nutrients." Your best bet to learn more about the optimal level of nutrients for your body? Check out the Encyclopedia of Nutritional Supplements by Michael Murray to learn more about what your active lifestyle might require. Not in the mood for reading? Keep it simple—covering about half of your plate at every meal with a variety of vegetables should meet most of your nutrient needs.
No matter how ideal your diet, taking a daily multivitamin can help you ensure healthy nutrient levels. Bender recommends shopping at local health food stores, not giant chains like GNC, advising that the product at the local chain will likely be better quality. Her picks for a men's multivitamin? Supernutrition's Men's Blend and New Chapter's Every Man. And if you're thinking about just busting out that old can of the generic multivitamin you bought in the airport a few years ago, think again: Some vitamins are volatile enough to have expiration dates. Check your bottle's expiration date before you start your regimen.
Topher Bordeau is a correspondent for the Rowing News and has written for Men's Edge, N'East, and other magazines. He also makes his living as a collegiate rowing coach and currently works at Dartmouth College.