While the vital importance of vitamins is well known, the essential value of minerals is often overlooked. Although a balanced diet, as depicted by the Food and Drug Administration’s food pyramid, is lauded by nutrition experts, the truth is that few people in the real world follow such idealized diet plans. The result can be a deficient diet, with some of the most common nutrient deficiencies being minerals.
Bodybuilders are aware of the importance of minerals. To iron athletes, some minerals, such as chromium and magnesium, have achieved near star status because of their putative anabolic properties. Other minerals, such as boron, have enjoyed their 15 minutes of fame, but haven’t shown the anabolic potency originally ascribed to them by some people with avowed commercial interests in the sales of such nutrients.
Other minerals haven’t received as much publicity, but are just as vital as the “stars.” One example is zinc, which activates more than 100 enzymes in the body and is needed for both insulin and testosterone synthesis.
The typical precontest bodybuilding diet presents problems when it comes to adequate mineral intake. Such diets are, by necessity, limited in both calories and food variety. While this can help promote body fat oxidation, it also sets the stage for nutrient deficiency.
Studies have shown that female bodybuilders in contest shape are often lacking in calcium and iron. A simple solution would be a good multi-mineral supplement.
Drugs commonly used by competitive bodybuilders can also wreak havoc with mineral balance. For example, anabolic steroids promote calcium, phosphorus, and even sodium retention. Insulin and growth hormones also lead to sodium retention. This, in turn, promotes potassium excretion. In addition, taking too much of one mineral might cause the excretion of another, an example of which can be found in the relationship between zinc and copper.
The most obvious illustration of mineral imbalance is the graphic display of muscle cramping seen in bodybuilders who use certain diuretics before a contest. Diuretics might interfere with several minerals, causing retention of some and excretion of others. Thiazide diuretics, for example, cause both calcium retention and potassium excretion. Other diuretics, such as spironolactone (Aldactone) are potassium-sparing and sodium-excreting in nature. Taking supplemental potassium with this type of drug can be extremely dangerous, as some bodybuilders have found out.
A recent report in the European Journal of Applied Physiology (73:299-303, 1996) described how both anaerobic and aerobic exercise affects mineral levels. The study involved 50 healthy men, 34 of whom were professional athletes. Some of the athletes engaged in anaerobic sports, such as judo and fencing; the others engaged in aerobic activity, specifically, endurance cycling.
Results showed that the anaerobic athletes had higher levels of zinc than their aerobic counterparts, and both groups showed higher levels of that mineral than did the non-athletes in the study. The anaerobic athletes also showed higher levels of copper than both of the other groups (the aerobic athletes and the non-athletes).
Since the study participants lived in Madrid, Spain, which has a polluted environment, the researchers also checked their subjects for buildups of toxic minerals associated with pollution, such as lead and cadmium. The athletes showed lower levels of those toxic minerals, leading the scientists to speculate that the athletes might have more efficient physiological systems that are better able to eliminate harmful minerals.