Should climbers take vitamins?

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Marisa Michael, MSc, RDN, CSSD is a Certified Sports Dietitian and author of Nutrition for climbers: fuel for sending. She serves on the USA Climbing Medical Committee and has a private practice in Portland, Oregon. Find it online at nutritionforclimbers.com or on Instagram @realnutritiondietitian for nutritional coaching, workshops and writing services.

I can’t even begin to tell you how many customers In my 19 years as a dietitian, I’ve said they take a vitamin supplement for “diet insurance” or “just in case.” The 2011-2014 National Health and Nutrition Survey found that 52% of American adults regularly use dietary supplements and 32% use a multivitamin supplement. That’s a lot of people buying these “just in case”. I always wonder, just in case?

Do climbers need extra vitamins? First, ask yourself what you expect him to do for you. Having a clear goal or expected result can help you determine if you should take it, which vitamin to take, and at what dose. Climbers like us may think that because we train hard in a tough sport, vitamins will help offset high performance, but taking a multivitamin just for fun is like having fun on random boards at the gym. It might help, it might hurt, and if it’s not intended or intentional, what’s the point?

Taking a multivitamin just for fun is like having fun on random boards at the gym.

Regular use of multivitamins has been shown to be ineffective in preventing chronic diseases, including cancer and cardiovascular disease. A healthy diet offering a variety of food groups (and therefore a range of nutrients) is much more beneficial in reducing the risk of disease. Fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and lean protein/fish will get you further than any multivitamin.

In addition, taking a multivitamin could be potentially harmful:

  • Supplements are known to be contaminated. Look for the USP, NSF for Sport, or Informed Choices symbol to ensure anything you take is third-party tested. Otherwise, you could end up ingesting banned substances, steroid-like compounds, and even heavy metals. One study showed that between 12 and 58% of supplements tested were contaminated (Marínez-Sanz et al, Intended or Unintended Doping? A Review of the Presence of Doping Substances in Dietary Supplements Used in Sports, Nutrients, 2017, 9, 1093)
  • It could lull you into a false sense of health. “I didn’t eat any vegetables, but at least I took my vitamin.”
  • Increased risk of vitamin toxicity. Some multivitamin supplements contain much more than the recommended amount per day, even 1000% or more. If you also eat fortified foods, such as cold cereals or sports products, you may be consuming a lot more vitamins than you think. At best, you will have expensive urine because you are excreting excessive amounts of it. At worst, you will have toxicity. If you must take a multivitamin, look for one that contains about 100% of the recommended vitamin and mineral intake.
  • Vitamins steal from your food budget. Unless you’re short on cash, most mortals like to save money when possible. No kidding, a client I had was spending $320 a month on vitamins, many of which were unnecessary, redundant, and harmful.
  • Some vitamins cause gastrointestinal upset. For example, iron can cause stomach upset and constipation. Too much vitamin C can cause diarrhea.

There are cases where taking a supplement can be helpful:

  • If a known deficiency is present, such as vitamin D (usually caused by lack of sunlight in winter) or iron. However, before you start taking vitamins, consult your doctor and get tested.
  • You are in intense training and have a higher demand. There is evidence that athletes may need more vitamin D.
  • Menstruating people, high-volume runners (there are climbers who also run), and vegans and vegetarians may need more iron.
  • Pregnant women need extra folic acid.
  • Vegans need vitamin B12.

Before taking any supplement, ask yourself:

  1. Is it necessary?
  2. Is it safe?
  3. What do I expect it to do for me?
  4. Is my diet already optimized?
  5. Do I understand how to take it correctly to have a therapeutic effect (dose, form and duration)?
  6. What are the risks ?
  7. Does it interact with any of my medications?
  8. Can my wallet handle it?

In general, climbers do not need “just in case” vitamin supplements. Be sure to consult your doctor before adding any supplement to your routine.

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