By Danielle Johnson RDN, CDN, CPT, RYT

When it comes to building and/or maintaining muscle mass, micronutrients are just as important as macronutrients! What are micronutrients? They are vitamins, minerals, and other beneficial plant chemicals (polyphenols, flavonoids, etc.). Before jumping to the question of “what should I be supplementing?”, focus on a food first approach. It would be beneficial to consider having lab work done and meeting with a dietitian to see what micronutrients you may be lacking and IF a supplement is necessary. All the micronutrients are important, but we will look specifically at nutrients that may be of concern or commonly deficient in people who are very active.

Nutrients of Concern

Thiamine, aka vitamin B1, is necessary for the process of converting carbohydrates into energy. Typically, the more exercise you perform the more B1 is needed. B1 is also stored in high amounts in the muscle to provide quicker energy to the working muscle. Common sources of B1 include pork, wheat, nuts, liver, and flaxseeds. This nutrient can be lacking in a vegetarian or low carbohydrate diet.
Pyridoxine, aka vitamin B6, is necessary for metabolism of amino acids (from protein) and to release stored carbohydrate for energy. Exercise may increase excretion of B6 from the body and can be lacking in a calorie restricted diet. B6 is found in pork, poultry, peanuts, oats, soybeans, milk, and bananas.

Commonly Deficient Nutrients

Vitamin D is a nutrient that can be produced by the skin through exposure to sunlight and is not found in many foods (it is found naturally in fish) but is added to some foods through fortification (dairy, plant milk, orange juice). Vitamin D plays a role in the regulation of calcium and phosphorus for bone health, immune function, cell growth and muscle function/repair.
Calcium is well known for bone health, but it’s also a vital component for muscle contraction and nerve impulse in the body. Calcium is also excreted through sweat, so active people who are heavy sweaters may have an increased need for calcium. Calcium is found in dairy, leafy greens, nuts, and fortified in orange juice and plant milk. Iron is important for immune function as well as transporting oxygen throughout the body and to working muscles. Iron is found in foods like red meat, shellfish, spinach, and legumes.

Nutrients for Anti-Inflammation

Exercise itself is an inflammatory process. To build muscle, we need to tear the muscle so it can repair and grow, which naturally causes inflammation. Having a balanced diet with antioxidants helps heal the inflammation and prevent excess inflammation. If we don’t have a balanced diet with antioxidants, excess inflammation can occur and prevent adequate muscle development. Vitamins C (citrus fruit, peppers, broccoli), E (almonds, peanuts, seeds, oils) and beta carotene (yellow/orange veggies and leafy greens) are natural antioxidants that help reduce inflammation in the body.
Fish oil is also helpful for reducing inflammation and promoting protein synthesis, this can be consumed through fish 2-3x/week or a fish oil supplement that has both EPA and DHA 1-3g/day.
Probiotics are beneficial bacteria that reduce pro-inflammatory molecules within the body, promote a healthy gut and improve immunity. Probiotics can be found naturally in Greek yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, kimchi, kombucha, and sourdough bread (if using a supplement look for >20 billion CFUs). There are also common herbs/spices that can promote an anti-inflammatory effect like turmeric, ginger, cinnamon, garlic, and green tea.

To Supplement or Not to Supplement

This is where working with a dietitian is very important. The supplement industry is highly unregulated and has a history of adulterated products that can potentially cause harm to consumers. There are certain nutrients that excess consumption can be harmful or lethal, and other nutrients that are excreted through urine in excess (aka a waste of money!). A dietitian can help you figure out if you are lacking certain nutrients and make suggestions to increase through food or decide if a supplement would benefit you. When choosing a supplement, it is best to choose a brand that has “USP” or “Consumer Labs” on the label because they have rigorous testing for safety and efficacy of the product.

Keep in mind that nutrients work in harmony so focusing on just one, two or three nutrients and not paying attention to the other important nutrients can lead to an imbalance. All nutrients matter!

Danielle Johnson RDN, CDN, CPT, RYT is a registered dietitian. A graduate of Long Island University CW Post, Danielle works in the Department of Bariatrics/ Bariatric Center of Excellence where she specializes in surgical weight loss and medical weight management. She is also completing her Master of Science in Integrative Nutrition at Stony Brook University.