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Vitamin B, vitamin B12 guide for athletes: foods and deficiency

B vitamins are the athlete's best micro-nutritional friend. Performance Nutritionist and Author of the "Plant-Based Cyclist" Nigel Mitchell takes a closer look at B vitamins and sport performance.

We know that vitamins are vital for optimal overall health, and some vitamins can be grouped into a 'family' based on chemistry and function. One such group is the B vitamins, which have a multitude of proven benefits including energy production, reduction of tiredness and fatigue, immune system support, healthy circulation and more.

Food sources of B vitamins include wholegrains, meats, eggs and dairy products. However, in recent years there has been a huge increase in vegetarian and plant-based athletes. Although you can find B vitamins in beans, nuts, seeds and dark green leaves, it is believed that potentially if meat-free athletes do not pay particular attention to their diets they can be at risk of some nutritional inadequacy. In particular there is potential risk of inadequate vitamin B12: this is recognised by Burke1 and Rogerson.2

I want to use this article to examine B vitamins with particular focus on their importance for supporting physical activity, sport, and athletic performance. We should start by reviewing what we mean by B vitamins. The group includes vitamins B1 (thiamin), B2 (riboflavin), B3 (niacin), B5 (pantothenic acid), B6 (pyridoxine), B7 (biotin), B9 (folate or folic acid) and vitamin B12 (cyanocobalamin). These vitamins work synergistically together, so are often referred to as a complex.

Vitamin B and diet in athletes

From an exercise perspective the B vitamins are essential for energy metabolism. The more energy you need, the more B vitamins you require. We all know athletes require more energy, in particular carbohydrates, and if the athlete is consuming the additional carbohydrates from 'whole' foods, they should receive adequate B vitamins.

However, people do not always follow a whole-food diet. I have worked with endurance athletes who have been following 'modular' diets, in that they would compartmentalise nutrients such as carbohydrate and consume a lot of energy from foods which were energy-dense but nutritionally light, and as a consequence were not consuming adequate B vitamins – in particular B1 (thiamine). Woolf3 suggests that 'Athletes who have poor diets, especially those restricting energy intakes or eliminating food groups from the diet, should consider supplementing with a multivitamin/mineral supplement.'

An extreme example of increased B vitamin demands is the Tour de France. I have supported Tour de France riders for over 15 years, and on the hardest days riders can burn as much as 9,000kcal. To help ensure adequate B vitamin provision, we have previously used Healthspan Elite's Gold A-Z Multivitamin.

Vitamin B12

The new Healthspan Elite Vitamin B12 product has been designed to support the nutritional needs of athletes whose diet may be lacking in the essential nutrient vitamin B12. This new product differs from many on the market due to containing methylcobalamin, which is the body's natural form of this essential vitamin, meaning it is better utilised and retained by the body. Many products contain cyanocobalamin, which is a synthetic B12 and needs to be converted to methylcobalamin in the body.

B12 is one of the less well-known vitamins, but is essential for health and normal function. It is particularly important for athletes, as it helps support energy metabolism and is important for blood health: in particular a deficiency can lead to pernicious anaemia. From a food perspective B12 tends to come from animal-based foods and is much less common in non-fortified vegetable sources. There is a growing number of plant-based and vegetarian athletes whose diets may be low in B12, and so may benefit from a supplement.

When I am working with athletes, I will look at their current dietary intake, and if their diet appears moderate in B12 I will recommend that they consume foods fortified in B12, such as some yeast extracts.

This new product from Healthspan Elite provides a new tool for me to use to help support the nutritional needs of athletes. I work with athletes who are part of the British Sailing Team, some of whom follow a plant-based diet. This new product will be part of their overall nutrition strategy.

Nigel Mitchell is Technical Lead for the English Institute of Sport, nutritionist for British Sailing and an honorary senior lecturer at the University of Portsmouth.

Find out more about Healthspan's Expert Panel.