[Brandon Gremillion is a student at the University of Mount Olive majoring in Exercise Science. He is currently an Athletic Development Intern at Athletic Lab.]
Empty calories refer to foods high in calories, but low in nutrients. The term “empty” relates to added sugars and solid fats that are found in many processed foods which offer no micronutrients (Grosvenor & Smolin, 2015). Micronutrients are all of the essential vitamins and minerals we must consume on a daily basis because they are not synthesized in our bodies. A majority of the food found in America is processed. The more processed something is the less nutritious it usually is. Identifying processed food is not difficult. If it does not come from and animal or grows from the Earth then it is processed. If the food is not in its naturally existing state before it is prepped for a meal then it is most likely processed. Many people have an understanding of macronutrients (carbs, fats, and protein), but lack knowledge of the micronutrients.
Vitamins are organic compounds that regulate body processes necessary for growth, reproduction, and maintenance of health (Ferraro & Steele, 2004). Vitamins are either water soluble (B vitamins and vitamin C) or fat soluble (vitamins A, D, E, K). The vitamins split up into sub groups to “help generalize how the vitamins are absorbed, transported, excreted, and stored in the body” (Grosvenor & Smolin, 2015)
Water soluble vitamins are not stored to a great extent and rapidly deplete from the body (Grosvenor & Smolin, 2015). We must eat these vitamins regularly to avoid becoming deficient. “The B vitamins are directly involved in transferring the energy in carbs, fats, and protein to Adenosine triphosphate” (ATP) (Ferraro & Steele, 2004). ATP is extremely important because it is what fuels the body for physical activity. Vitamin C is needed to synthesize connective tissue and collagen (Grosvenor & Smolin, 2015). Collagen is a protein that acts as the glue that holds the body together. It is present all over the body including bones, teeth, ligaments, tendons, and blood vessels. Vitamin C is also an antioxidant that supports the immune system (Grosvenor & Smolin, 2015). Antioxidants combat against free radicals. To keep things simple just know that “free radicals cause molecular damage by stealing electrons from nutrients…changing their structure and function” (Grosvenor & Smolin, 2015).
On the other hand, fat soluble vitamins are stored to a much greater extent than water soluble vitamins. The risk of deficiency for these vitamins is much lower, so long as we meet our weekly or monthly needs (Grosvenor & Smolin, 2015). Keep in mind high doses of vitamins can be toxic. Fat soluble vitamins run a greater risk of toxicity than water soluble vitamins due to their efficient means of storage (Grosvenor & Smolin, 2015). Vitamin A is needed for vision and healthy eyes because it is involved in our perception of light. It is also important for “cell differentiation which is where cells change in structure or function to meet specific needs” (Grosvenor & Smolin, 2015). Vitamin D can be made in the skin when exposed to sunlight. Its primary function is to maintain calcium and phosphorus levels in the blood. Vitamin E is an antioxidant found in red blood cells, white blood cells, nerve cells, and lung cells. Finally, Vitamin K is needed to produce the proteins that clot blood. Table 1 lists all water soluble a fat soluble vitamins along with their general function, intake recommendation, and food sources.
Minerals are non-organic compounds because they are found naturally on Earth and are not produced by any organism (Ferraro & Steele, 2004). Despite being needed in very small amounts, regular consumption of minerals is important for maintaining health and body function. There are two kinds of minerals: major minerals and trace minerals. Minerals are like vitamins in the fact that they can be toxic in extreme doses, but also run the risk of deficiency (Grosvenor & Smolin, 2015). Major minerals are all the minerals that are needed in quantities greater than 100 milligrams per day (Grosvenor & Smolin, 2015). They include sodium, potassium, chloride, calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, and sulfur. Sodium, potassium, and chloride make up the electrolytes. The electrolytes are important for maintaining fluid balance in the body and allowing nerve impulses to travel throughout the body (Grosvenor & Smolin, 2015). Trace minerals are all the other minerals needed in amounts less than 100 milligrams (Grosvenor & Smolin, 2015). Nine trace minerals have been given daily recommendations for consumption, but the list of trace minerals does not end there (Grosvenor & Smolin, 2015). Those nine minerals are iron, copper, zinc, selenium, iodine, chromium, fluoride, manganese, and molybdenum. Table 2 displays the major and trace minerals along with their function, intake recommendation, and food sources.
Given all this information about micronutrients it should be obvious why empty calories will diminish your performance in the gym. Consuming large amounts of empty calories means you will not meet your micronutrient needs. Certain vitamins and minerals are needed just so you can do basic movements. Others play a role in your blood flow and nutrient delivery. A number of vitamins and minerals keep your bones healthy and strong. Many of them also aid in combating free radicals so your nutrients are not being altered and stolen from inside the body. Essentially without vitamins and minerals your body cannot function at optimal levels. Fatigue will set in sooner due to not having the requirements to produce ATP. Your bones and joints will also have a harder time handling heavy resistance. The vitamins and minerals work collectively so your body can perform optimally. Some vitamins and minerals may play more important roles than others, but they are all needed to support each other. Make an effort to avoid empty calories, so that you do not slow down the progress of your performance.
Ferraro, G. & Steele, C. (2004). Eas sports nutrition review: The latest research on performance nutrition. Golden, CO: Mile High Publishing.
Grosvenor, M. B. & Smolin, L. A. (2015). Visualizing nutrition: Everyday choices. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons