Vegetables... Can you Take a Pill Instead?

July 3, 2013

The World Health Organization reported

  • Low fruit & vegetable intake among top 10 risk factors for global mortality
    • About 1.7 million (2.8%) deaths
  • In the USA, only 13 % of people ages 14-35 years old eat 3 or more servings of vegetables a day

Sometimes life can be that simple; vegetable consumption reduces your risk for disease and death, and most of us are not meeting even the most basic requirements of 5 servings a day. A serving is about the size of a fist.

Of course the next step in this data age and amongst our athletes, is how to solve the problem with maximal efficiency. Supplementation is often sought out to solve such problems.

Nutrient Density

According to a 2013 scientific review out of the University of Graz, Austria, the risk reducing effects of vegetables are attributed to bioactive compounds including phytochemicals, phytonutrients, vitamins, minerals, and fiber. Bioactive compounds are the major overlying superiority of vegetables. They are a type of chemical found in small amounts in plants and certain foods that affect status of health and therefore have an added biological value beyond their caloric content.

Inadequate vegetable intake in an athlete’s daily diet can lead to inadequate consumption of bioactive compounds. Vegetables are nutrient dense, so our focus has remained on this class of plant foods. Athletes ask where carbohydrates will come from if they do not focus as much on traditional rice/bread/grains, the solution is this nutrient dense carbohydrates known as vegetables (see Sparta Point).

These bioactive compounds include phytochemicals or phytonutrients (see Sparta Point). There are over 10,000 of them, and they have effects such as antioxidant, boosting the immune system, anti-inflammatory, antiviral, antibacterial, and cellular repair. Highly colored vegetables and fruits tend to be highest in these chemicals, but tea, chocolate, nuts, flax seeds, and olive oil are all excellent sources as well. Various families of plants tend towards certain families of phytonutrients, for example, orange foods tend to have the carotenoid group.

Benefit to Athletes

The majority of the discussion has been on health rather than direct performance. There is a low probability that vegetables will provide direct enhancement. But the benefit is regeneration; the process of restoration and renewal after intense physical activity.

During activity, a deficit of nutrients and antioxidants occurs that results in free radicals, which are unstable molecules that damage cells and are believed to contribute to many diseases. This situation is called oxidative stress, resulting in molecular, cell and tissue damage. In athletes, an overwhelming production of free radicals can induce increased inflammatory processes, decreased immunity, and an increased susceptibility to injury and prolonged recovery

Research on fruit & vegetable supplementation indicate that an athlete’s immunity and health can benefit from supplementation when dietary consumption of FV is low (

Why Bother with the Real Thing?

So the ensuing question is always; why bother with the real thing? Food synergy. Different components in a single food can work together to benefit our health. For example, Cornell University researchers found that an apple extract given with apple skin worked better to prevent the oxidation of free radicals than apple extract without the skin. They also found that catechins (a type of phytochemical found in apples), when combined with two other phytochemicals, had an effect that was five times greater than expected.

And as long as we are on the topic of apples, and their skin, we cannot neglect the fiber component present in real foods (see Sparta Point).   Fiber, which is defined as the indigestible portion of plant foods, gives the intestines something solid to clamp on during digestion. Without this fiber, your intestinal muscles get weak and flabby, just like other muscles without exercise. This weakness then compromises the immune system because of the intestines inability to expel normal environmental toxins.

So supplementing vegetables can be effective if your servings size is below 3, due to extreme conditions you cannot avoid (i.e. a soldier in Afghanistan).  But you are not always traveling for your games or on a tactical mission, so what are you doing when you are back home?

Lamprecht M. Supplementation with mixed fruit and vegetable concentrates in relation to athlete’s health and performance: scientific insight and practical relevance. Med Sport Sci. 2012;59:70-85.

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