Optimizing nutrition when you’re an athlete (or even if you workout regularly) can make a significant difference in your health and performance on the court, field or at the gym.
Just like exercising your muscles through cardiovascular workouts or strength training is important, so is fueling your body properly through your diet. Unfortunately, when this doesn’t happen it can negatively affect performance, and in some cases, impair immune function.  
Increased Energy and Nutrient Needs
Focusing on some key nutrients can not only increase endurance in the athlete but also improve overall health by bolstering the immune system, improving bone health and minimizing oxidative stress.
Eating adequate amounts of micronutrients and vitamins is vital to muscle building and recovery from the physiological stress of intense activity or playing sports. Nutrient needs are increased when metabolic and biochemical pathways are taxed via exercise which is used to repair lean tissue.
Supplements can help but the idea is to make food your primary source of nutrients because your body utilizes food differently than supplements. 
Food also includes fibre, other vitamins and essential nutrients that work together to create energy and fuel cells. These important components in the diet are more depleted in athletes that don’t consume adequate calories and/or restrict or eliminate food groups.
The 6 Most Essential Nutrients For Athletic People:
Individuals who are athletic are especially susceptible to being low in zinc mainly because they aren’t eating enough rich food sources of this mineral.
Zinc plays a part in immunity, protein utilization, and metabolic efficiency as well as thyroid function, and all of these affect athletic performance in some way.
Foods that are high in zinc include meat and poultry, whole grains, oysters, milk and dairy, legumes and fortified breakfast cereals.
Those that are most at risk for a deficiency are vegetarians who don’t eat enough whole grains or meat. It must be noted that overdoing zinc supplementation can result in a copper deficiency. Be sure to consult your healthcare practitioner to discuss supplementation.
Iron is necessary for the metabolism of carbohydrates, protein, and fat as well as its capacity to carry oxygen. A deficiency may inhibit endurance as well as immune and cognitive functions.
Foods that are high in iron include red meat, fortified cereals eaten along with fruit or vegetables that are high in vitamin C. This vitamin will enhance iron absorption and improve iron status in an individual.
Calcium aids in muscle contraction and nerve impulses, as well as bone growth and increasing bone mass. Poor calcium intake can lead bone-related issues such as stress fractures.
Foods high in calcium include cheese, milk, yogurt, spinach, collard greens, almonds, sardines (with the bones!), fortified cereals and juices.
This vitamin is needed for adequate calcium absorption in the gut, to control serum calcium and phosphorus and to build strong bones. It also contributes to a well functioning nervous and skeletal system.
If a person lives in an area with little sunlight and they spend most of their time indoors, and because there aren’t many foods that contain vitamin D without fortification, they’re at a greater risk of having low Vitamin D – in this case, supplementation may be prudent.
The best sources are fatty fish like salmon, tuna or mackerel, and eggs. Fortified milk offers most of the vitamin D in the average diet with fortified orange juice beverages and certain cereals contributing a small amount. Again, supplementation is a wise choice!
Magnesium aids in more than 300 biochemical processes in the body that include:
- helps produce ATP, essential to the metabolic activities of every cell
- protein synthesis for muscle building
- relaxes muscles and nerves
- calms the mind
- aids in calcium absorption
- regulation of blood pressure & heart rhythm
All of which are concerns to an athlete!
Sources of Magnesium include green leafy vegetables, nuts, whole grains, seeds, meat and dairy. Some breakfast cereals are also fortified with Magnesium.
However, as we explained in “Nutrient Deficiencies: Why Nearly Everyone Has Them!”, the composition of what we eat and the quality of our foods has drastically changed over the past hundred years, and this has made it difficult to get enough of many key minerals, especially magnesium.
B vitamins all play a rather large role in energy metabolism and blood health along with building and repair of muscle tissue.
A deficiency can lead to fatigue, muscle soreness and apathy along with poor cognitive function. Meat, fish and poultry, as well as enriched grains, are good sources of B vitamins.
The bottom line on essential nutrients for everyday athletes:
Regular exercise and sports participation increases the turnover and loss of nutrients from the body, so greater calories, vitamins, and minerals are needed to cover these losses through the diet and in some cases supplementation.
Eating a wide enough variety of foods from all the major food groups is what is needed for proper functioning of muscles, a strong immune system, and optimal performance during athletic endeavours.