The more active you are, the more B vitamins you need. “These nutrients are extremely important for energy metabolism,” says Melinda M. Manore, Ph.D., R.D.N., a professor of nutrition at Oregon State University. They’re crucial for breaking down food into fuel, transporting oxygen throughout your body, and increasing your red-blood-cell production to keep your muscles functioning properly.
But the funny thing about B’s is that they’re debilitated by healthy habits-if you work out and limit certain foods, you may be coming up short. For instance, if you cut out meat or dairy or ease up on carbs in the form of grains, three top sources of B vitamins, there’s a good chance you’re not getting enough. (BTW here’s another reason you might not want to eliminate dairy.) Exercising regularly causes you to drain your supply of B’s faster than being sedentary as well. What’s more, marginally low levels of certain B’s have been shown to negatively affect athletic performance.
Fortunately, all it takes is a few simple eating upgrades to turn things around. This checklist spells out exactly what you need and why.
This breaks down the carbohydrates, protein, and fats you eat and converts them into glucose, amino acids, and fatty acids-the substances your body uses as fuel. “It’s what gives you energy when you exercise,” explains Nicole Lund, R.D.N., a sports performance dietitian and personal trainer at NYU Langone Sports Performance Center. That’s important for everyone, but women who work out regularly need more energy throughout the day than those who don’t, so they may be more likely than most to have low B2 levels, Lund adds.
The fix: Get 1.1 mg of riboflavin daily through foods like almonds (1⁄4 cup contains 0.41 mg of B2), Greek yogurt (6 ounces, 0.4 mg), white mushrooms (1 cup, 0.39 mg), eggs (1 hard-boiled, 0.26 mg), and brussels sprouts (1 cup boiled, 0.13 mg).
It helps you convert food into energy like riboflavin does. In addition, B6 also assists with muscle contractions, which are key for movement inside and outside of the gym. What’s more, the vitamin helps your body produce serotonin and melatonin, two hormones that improve your mood and your sleep, says Keri Glassman, R.D.N., a nutritionist and founder of Nutritious Life, a wellness company.
The trouble is, people who exercise use up more B6 than those who don’t, research finds. In fact, some studies have shown that 60 percent of athletes are deficient in vitamin B6. To prevent a shortfall, active women should aim for 1.5 mg to 2.3 mg a day, Manore says. Get the nutrient by eating poultry (4 ounces of turkey breast has 0.92 mg), fatty fish (3 ounces of salmon, 0.55 mg), walnuts (1 cup, 0.54 mg), sunflower seeds (1⁄2 cup, 0.52 mg), bananas (one large, 0.49 mg), and lentils (1⁄2 cup, 0.18 mg).
A powerhouse essential for energy, B12 assists with the production of red blood cells and helps iron create hemoglobin, which carries oxygen throughout the body, Glassman says. (The vitamin also plays a surprising role in brain health). But since it’s found mostly in meat, vegetarians and vegans are often deficient. In fact, as many as 89 percent of vegans don’t get enough B12 from food alone, a recent study in the journal Nutrition Research reported.
Fit women need about 2.4 mcg daily. If you eat meat or fish, that’s pretty easy to achieve-3 ounces of salmon has 2.38 mcg and 3 ounces of beef, 3.88 mcg. But if you don’t, Glassman suggests consuming fortified foods such as soy milk (8 ounces, 2.7 mcg), fortified cereals (3⁄4 cup, 6 mcg), and nutritional yeast (1 tablespoon, 2.4 mcg). Just be sure to split it up: The body can only absorb so much B12 at once. Eat or drink roughly 25 percent of your daily target with each meal or snack.
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This nutrient serves as a link between your muscles and your brain. (Although it’s not technically a B vitamin, experts consider it one because it’s so essential for energy production.)
“You need choline to activate acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter that tells the muscles to move,” Lund says. “Learning new skills at the gym, like kettlebell swings or barre routines, requires attention, cognitive function, and coordination-all of which depend on choline to happen.”
Yet 94 percent of women don’t get the recommended 425 mg a day, reports the Journal of the American College of Nutrition. To increase your intake, eat eggs (1 hard-boiled has 147 mg), turkey (3 ounces, 72 mg), and soy protein powder (one scoop, 141 mg), or one of these choline-filled recipes.