Improve Your Health with Micronutrients
Though micronutrients are only needed in small quantities, they are just as important as macronutrients. These tiny nutrients are found in whole plant foods by varying amounts. They include vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients (beneficial plant-chemicals), and they serve as helpers (cofactors) in certain reactions. Phytochemicals are also responsible for the anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties mentioned in chapter one.
While the functions of vitamins and minerals are generally well established, the benefits of phytonutrients is a growing area of study. Some phytonutrients you may have heard of include flavonoids, isoflavones, carotenoids and polyphenols. Currently, more than 8,000 phytochemical substances have been isolated from various fruits and vegetables, but we know that there are even more yet to be identified. These chemicals have been researched for everything from cancer prevention to anti-inflammatory properties, and are said to be one of the primary reasons a plant-based diet is so beneficial. The best way to get enough of these nutrients is to pack plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and legumes in your resupply boxes.
In addition to the infamous “where do you get your protein?” question, those considering a plant-based diet may have concerns about getting enough of certain vitamins and minerals. Calcium, iron and B vitamins are a few that come up often. Electrolytes, while not specific to the plant-based diet, are another micronutrient necessary for any endurance athlete, and will also be addressed below.
What is the role of calcium ?
Calcium is one of the most abundant minerals in the human body and is essential for strong bones and teeth. Calcium also plays an important role in nerve function. Although most people associate calcium with dairy products, there is plenty of calcium to be found in plant foods such as almonds, beans, dried fruit and green vegetables. In fact, studies have found that those consuming enough calcium through plant sources are at no greater risk of bone fracture than those who get calcium through dairy. The higher amount of animal protein consumed, the more calcium is needed. So through decreasing meat and increasing beans, nuts and green vegetables, a person can meet or exceed their daily calcium needs on a plant-based diet.
Why Iron is So Crucial to Your Body?
Iron is a key mineral in blood cells and plays an important role in transporting oxygen throughout the body. This becomes important for endurance athletes and long distance hikers, especially at higher elevations, since these athletes are constantly circulating extra oxygen to their muscles. It is easy to meet daily iron needs through plant foods such beans, green vegetables, dried fruit, nuts and molasses. Additionally, vitamin C helps to facilitate iron absorption, and is plentiful in a plant-based diet (found in apples, oranges, tomatoes, bell peppers, etc.). Common wisdom dictates that heme-iron (found in animal foods) is better than non-heme iron (found in plant foods). While it’s true that heme-iron is more easily absorbed by the body, it can have a pro-oxidant effect and cause free radical damage in the body.
When a person does not get enough dietary iron, she might feel sluggish and have low energy. On a long-distance hike, it may be hard to differentiate general fatigue from hiking 20+ miles per day versus fatigue from low iron. If you think you may be low on iron, try eating more beans, green vegetables, molasses and vitamin C-containing foods. Avoid dairy and caffeine, as these can impede iron absorption. If you still feel sluggish, have your blood levels tested. Only take an iron supplement if it is recommended by a doctor.
Do You Need Vitamins B?
Other nutrients to consider for optimal energy are B vitamins. These are nutrients that help with the function of the heart, red blood cells, nerves and the brain. The majority of B vitamins can be found in whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds. Vitamin B12 is the one exception. This vitamin is actually a byproduct of bacteria. Omnivores get vitamin B12 from eating animals, but the animals get the nutrient from living close to dirt and bacteria. Since we generally live in a sanitized world and drink clean water, it is recommended to take a B12 supplement or eat fortified foods. Clif Bars, Luna Bars, some brands of nutritional yeast, and many other common hiker foods generally are fortified with B12.
Can you add electrolytes to water?
Electrolytes can be nutrients of concern for all endurance athletes, no matter what diet they follow. Sodium, potassium, magnesium and calcium are the main electrolytes that help to regulate fluid balance. During long bouts of exercise, these nutrients can be lost through sweat and may need to be replaced. Generally, a person can get enough electrolytes through the food he eats. However, if exercising for more than a few hours (or hiking all day), it can be a good idea to have an electrolyte drink such as Nuun or Gatorade. I’ve found the best time to drop some electrolyte powder into my water is in the afternoon, especially if it is hot, humid, or I’m climbing a hill.
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