The Golden Rule of Nutrition has always been “Food first, because food is best.” In other words, most experts believed that cyclists could get all the nutrients they needed from a well-balanced diet. Vitamin supplements were not thought to be a substitute for a poor diet.
But after looking at mounting evidence, I and other nutritionists are stretching our paradigms and admitting that supplementation can be beneficial–especially when it comes to antioxidants.
If you keep track of the nutrition scene you probably know the scoop: vitamins C, E, and beta-carotene (known as antioxidants) battle dangerous cells known as “free radicals.” Unchecked, these mutant cells can cause premature aging, cancer, and heart disease. On a less serious but more specific note, they also slow your recovery after tough rides.
The problem is that people–especially cyclists–probably can’t get enough protection from food alone. Although riding boosts fitness in general, it increases the number of free radicals in your body. Studies have shown free rad concentrations 2-3 times higher than normal in animals exercised to exhaustion.
But before you rash out to purchase pills and potions filled with these so-called miracle workers you should know what they are, how they work, and the destructive processes they can prevent.
The Air Facts
Humans are aerobic animals–we need air to thrive. But this same substance can be destructive. When our cells process oxygen the number of electrons they possess can change. This turns them into free radicals. They try to regain their electron balance from other cells, a reaction that creates more free radicals and damages tissue.
Lucky for us, antioxidants can neutralize free radicals. They throw themselves in the path of destructive molecules, oxidizing themselves instead of our precious tissue.
Evidence that this happens isn’t just from animal and test tube studies. In a ’93 study of 35,000 nurses and 40,000 male professionals, subjects who took extra vitamin E had 30-40% lower rates of heart disease. In China, 30,000 residents received either a placebo or an antioxidant multivitamin; those taking the supplement had a 13% lower cancer rate.
Because cyclists breathe 10-20 times more air than a typical person, our bodies generate more free radicals. But don’t worry. Proper supplementation appears to help protect even us from ill health. And not only that, it can also improve our performance by reducing muscle soreness. For instance, runners at UC-Berkeley were found to have significantly less muscle damage when they were given vitamins C, E, and beta-carotene.
If further research makes a stronger case for antioxidants, you might see food fortified with amounts higher than the RDA. For now, it’s still a personal decision. If you decide to supplement, use our chart to avoid side effects. In any case, don’t forget to eat right.
Only 9% of Americans eat plenty-o-plants (at least 5 servings a day), so start your antioxidant program here. There’s good reason to get as many nutrients from food as possible. At Cornell University, one group took a prescribed amount of vitamin C in supplements while another group ingested the same amount in fruits and vegetables. The food eaters showed lower levels of carcinogens in their bodies than the pill poppers. Other studies have shown that eating few or no fruits and veggies doubles the risk of most types of cancer. Here are good sources of each antioxidant:
Citrus fruit, juice, cantaloupe, strawberry, sweet red pepper, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, tomato, broccoli, potato, cauliflower, watermelon, kale
Vegetable oil, nuts, wheat germ, margarine, seeds, olives, leafy greens, asparagus
Milk, egg, liver, cheese, fish oil
Carrot, cantaloupe, pumpkin, yellow squash, sweet potato, spinach, apricot, mango, papaya, nectarine, peach, red pepper
Safe but effective supplement recommendations from the UC-Berkeley School of Public Health:
RDA: 60 mg/day (found in 1 orange, 1/2 cup orange juice or 1/2 cup broccoli)
Supplement: 250-500 mg/day
Warning: More than 500 mg can cause diarrhea.
RDA: 8 mg/day for women, 10 for men (found in 4-5 oz. of peanuts)
Supplement: 200-800 IU
Warning: No serious side effects reported except infrequent diarrhea.
RDA: 1,000 micro-grams/day for men, 800 for women
Supplement: None. It’s extremely toxic (even lethal) in high doses, and your body safely converts beta-carotene into vitamin A.
RDA: None, but 5-6 mg/day are suggested (found in 1/2 carrot or 1/2 sweet potato)
Supplement: 6-15 mg/day
Warning: Not toxic, although you may begin to rum orange (honestly).