Getting fitter and stronger isn’t just about training hard. It’s also about paying attention to the details, and one of those details is nutrition. If you’re serious about getting stronger and building muscle, you need to eat right! That means consuming enough calories, protein, carbohydrates, and fat. It also means eating the right types of food, whole, unprocessed foods, and not a lot of junk.
Proteins, carbohydrates, and fat supply your body with macronutrients, components your body uses for energy and to repair muscle tissue (protein) but you also need vitamins and minerals to support muscle growth and health. What role do vitamins play and are some more important than others for fitness gains and muscle growth?
Vitamin A, a fat-soluble vitamin, comes as pre-formed vitamin A. It’s in a variety of animal-based foods including meat, dairy, and fish. Liver is a particularly good source. But you can also get it in the form of pro-vitamin A carotenoids from plant-based foods, mainly orange and yellow fruits, and vegetables. Your body must activate provitamin A carotenoids and convert them to active vitamin A. Carotenoids also have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits, independent of pro-vitamin A.
Vitamin A and carotenoids help support a healthy immune system, which is important for any type of fitness training. You also need it for preventing night blindness and for keeping the surface of your eyes healthy. Since vitamin A has antioxidant activity, it helps with muscle recovery after a workout. Exercise creates oxidative stress that antioxidants, like vitamin A, help counter.
Does vitamin A play a role in muscle growth? There is evidence that vitamin A assists in protein synthesis and also supports healthy testosterone production. Since protein synthesis is important for muscle repair and growth, as is testosterone, it’s important to get enough vitamin A in your diet. Avoid taking supplements though, as too much vitamin A can be toxic to your liver.
There are 8 B-vitamins that have a variety of functions, but for fitness, the most important is the role B-vitamins play in energy metabolism. You need B vitamins to convert the food you eat into energy. Plus, vitamin B6 plays a role in protein metabolism, meaning it’s important to get enough of it if you strength train. You also need B-vitamins for healthy red blood cells, especially folate, and vitamin B-12. A 2006 study found that people with low B-vitamin status may not perform as well during high-intensity exercise. Plus, research shows that people who work out may require more vitamin B-6, folate, vitamin B-12, and riboflavin than those who are sedentary.
If you eat a vegan diet, you’re at higher risk of vitamin B12 deficiency if you don’t supplement, since reliable sources of B-12 are only in meat and dairy-based foods, although fortified foods such as breakfast cereals do provide B12.
Vitamin C, a water-soluble vitamin, supports the production of collagen, which you need for healthy skin, bones, and joints. It also has antioxidant properties that reduce oxidative stress during exercise and help with muscle repair after exercise. Antioxidants like vitamin C neutralize free radicals before they can damage healthy cells, including muscle cells. Plus, vitamin C supports immune health, which is important for avoiding upper respiratory infections, especially if you train hard.
Although there’s little solid evidence that supplementing with vitamin C improves exercise performance or muscle growth, research shows vitamin C deficiency can reduce exercise performance. Vitamin C is water-soluble and gets flushed out of your body when you urinate or sweat. So, if you don’t get enough vitamin C from your diet, your body may not be able to replace what it loses naturally. This can lead to low levels of vitamin C in the body. So, make sure you’re getting vitamin C-rich fruits and vegetables every day.
Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin that promotes calcium absorption and regulates the amount of calcium and phosphate in your body. It also plays a key role in muscle function. People who are deficient in vitamin D may experience muscle fatigue and have an increased risk of falling. Studies show that up to 40% of the American population may have a sub-optimal vitamin D level. Having an adequate vitamin D level also maximizes testosterone, a hormone that helps build strength and muscle mass.
Therefore, vitamin D ranks among the top vitamins you don’t want to be deficient in if you’re trying to get stronger or build muscle size. The National Institute of Health recommends that adults aim for a minimum daily intake of 600 IU of vitamin D3 or 800 IU if they’re over 70 years old. However, many experts believe this may not be sufficient to maintain a healthy vitamin D level. You can get vitamin D through natural sunlight exposure or supplements such as cod liver oil, salmon oil, and mushrooms. However, it’s a good idea to check your vitamin D blood level to ensure you’re not low.
Vitamin E is a fat-soluble vitamin found in oils such as vegetable oils and sunflower oil, nuts, leafy greens, and seeds. There are eight different types of vitamin E: alpha-tocopherol, gamma-tocopherol, delta-tocopherol, alpha-tocotrienol, gamma-tocotrienol, delta-tocotrienol, alpha-tocopherol acetate, and alpha-tocopherol succinate. The most common form of vitamin E is alpha-tocopherol (commonly known as dl-alpha-tocopherol).
Vitamin E helps to prevent cell damage caused by free radicals. These are unstable molecules your body produces naturally but also when you’re exposed to pollution, radiation, and cigarette smoke. Vitamin E is important for muscle recovery too, as it reduces inflammation that contributes to muscle breakdown. Plus, vitamin E deficiency can slow muscle recovery.
The Bottom Line
Which ones are most important? They all are! Vitamins and minerals play an essential role in muscle growth, so if your diet doesn’t provide enough of these nutrients, consider taking supplements. Ideally, you’ll be able to get the vitamins and minerals your body needs through food alone. However, sun exposure is the best way to get vitamin D, and foods that contain vitamin D are limited. Therefore many people could benefit from a vitamin D supplement. Although supplements are not a replacement for proper nutrition, they can help fill the hill in your diet. Talk to your doctor first before taking a supplement though and make sure they know what you’re taking.
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- “Vitamin D – Consumer – National Institutes of Health.” https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/VitaminD-Consumer/.
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