Macros are the big players in sports nutrition talk. There’s only the three of them – carbs, fat and protein – and you’d be forgiven for thinking that the holy grail of physique and performance is a simple matter of nailing your macros.
In reality the story of fuelling your health and performance is much more complex, and arguably it’s the micros – vitamins and minerals – that are the true heavy hitters in nutrition/health science.
These ‘invisible nutrients’ are critical to immune function, hormone and enzyme production, longevity and cognitive function.
In sports nutrition, the macros drive some key elements of adaptation and performance. As a very simplistic breakdown:
- Protein: builds and repairs muscles. Primarily found in: meat, eggs, dairy, and legumes (4 calories per gram).
- Carbohydrates: helps support energy levels and provide fibre, which improves digestive health and nutrient absorption. Found in: grains, fruits, starches (4 calories per gram).
- Fat: important for hormonal health and to absorb nutrients. Found in: fatty meats, nuts, coconut, oils, seeds (9 calories per gram).
In sports nutrition terms we often talk about fuelling – a reliance on carbs (and/or fat) for energy, recovery with a focus on protein and carbs, and lean muscle mass gains driven by adequate protein and overall energy intake.
Managing your macros in line with performance outcomes will help you nail your physique, manage energy and improve adaptations on the track or in the gym – speaking with an Accredited Sports Dietitian can help address any individual issues you may have.
These are the vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and polyphenols – including vitamin A, B C, D, E, K, and minerals such as iron, calcium, sodium, potassium – that don’t provide calories or energy, but instead accompany calories in food.
For instance, when you drink milk or eat cheese, you get calcium in addition to the protein, fat and carbs. It’s these ‘hidden’ nutrients – the micros – that are essential to our overall health and wellness, which in turn sets the foundation for performance.
- The production of enzymes, hormones, and proteins that are critical to body and brain function.
- The regulation of metabolism, and the release of energy from carbs, protein and fats.
- Bone density and growth.
- Nerve function, production of neurotransmitters and DNA synthesis.
- Immune function and inflammation.
Mental health and mood have also been linked to adequate levels of key nutrients. Those identified as being particularly important for mental health are: folate, iron, magnesium omega 3 fats, potassium, vitamin A, vitamin C, selenium; zinc and vitamins B1, B6, B12; and antioxidants.
Best food sources for these nutrients are: leafy greens, lettuces, peppers, organ meats, seafoods, cruciferous vegetables, herbs, berries.
Meeting your micros
Micronutrient deficiencies can cause significant, lasting health problems, both physically and cognitively, but some micros are easier to get than others. Eating a broad spectrum of colours and variety of whole foods will generally maximise your micronutrient intake.
Take vitamin C for example, very common in fruits and vegetables meaning you can get more than your daily recommended intake from an orange or one cup of broccoli. Other vitamins are more difficult to obtain, meaning deficiencies are more common. Whereas vitamin D is difficult to obtain from foods, and although we make it from sunlight, people who work indoors a lot, and/or throughout darker colder winters may find they have inadequate levels. Vitamin D is important for bone health and strength (amongst other functions) and research indicates athletes may need higher levels than initially thought for optimal health and performance.
Other micronutrients that can be tricky to get sufficient in your diet include magnesium (found in leafy greens), which helps with sleep quality and stress reduction; vitamin K also found in dark leafy greens, and essential for bone strength and blood clotting; and zinc, key for immune function (found in shellfish, meat plus chickpeas and nuts and seeds.
There is evidence to suggest that micronutrient content of some foods has decreased over the years due to farming practices and soil quality – meaning that the same diet might not provide as much nutrient quality as it once did.
Additionally, athletes and highly active individuals and their requirements for micronutrients may increase with training loads due to increased stress on body systems and a desire to not just maintain adequate levels of health – but to actually excel and perform.
Iron, calcium, vitamin D and antioxidants have been identified as micronutrients that athletes should pay particular attention to. At other times – whether through injury or illness – additional nutritional support may be warranted for tissue repair and a speedy return to play.
For hard training athletes the focus can (quite rightly) sometimes be on fuelling sessions or races – which may mean prioritising simple carbs – often refined sports foods and sugars which while great for energy production and short term performance, do little to boost nutrient quality.
This is where supplements provide a good option to boost dietary intakes, but should be done with care and attention, and under the guidance of a suitably qualified professional
There is no point taking supplements without knowing what deficiency you are trying to address or understanding what foods may boost or block absorption. Too much of some vitamins can also cause health issues.
Supplement quality is also important – to ensure you are getting what is listed on the label (and nothing else) and that the ingredients are high quality and efficacious. Again, check with your health professional, look for trusted brands and batch tested products. At other times, when fuelling for a race or key workout isn’t the nutrition priority make sure you focus on eating a broad spectrum of colours and variety of whole foods. This will ensure that macros, micros, fibre, phytonutrients and lots of other ‘hidden’ nutrients will follow.
– Pip Taylor