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How can athletes get the minerals they need?

This is an excerpt from Fundamentals of Sport and Exercise Nutrition by Marie Dunford, PhD, RD.

Athletes are likely to get the minerals they need if they do two things: eat enough calories and eat a variety of healthful foods. A healthful diet consists of an adequate number of calories from a variety of foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole-grain breads and cereals, beans and legumes, lean sources of protein, and fat found in nuts, seeds, and oils.

Food choices have a tremendous impact on the amount of minerals consumed. For example, consider two athletes at a food court at a shopping mall. One orders a popular fast-food meal— six pieces of chicken nuggets, large fries, and a large soft drink. The other decides to eat a Mediterranean plate, which consists of hummus, pita bread, lentil pilaf, tabouli (bulgur, tomato, onion, and mint salad) and feta cheese, and a mango smoothie. Table 8.3 shows the difference in mineral intake between the two meals.

Table 8.3
Meal 1: Fast-food chicken meal
Energy (kcal) Calcium (mg) Iron (mg) Zinc (mg) Magnesium (mg)
Six pieces of chicken nuggets 296 31 1.81 1.24 26
Large fries 540 20 1.44 1.23 57
16 oz (480 ml) cola 195 17 0.72 0.05 5
Total 1,031 68 3.97 2.52 88
Meal 2: Mediterranean plate and smoothie
Energy (kcal) Calcium (mg) Iron (mg) Zinc (mg) Magnesium (mg)
1/2 c hummus 218 60 1.93 1.34 36
1 pita bread 170 10 1.96 0.97 44
1/2 c lentil pilaf 122 17 2.23 0.82 41
1/2 c tabouli 100 15 0.62 0.24 18
1 oz (30 g) feta cheese 74 138 0.18 0.81 5
16 oz (480 ml) mango smoothie 334 67 0.72 0.20 16
Total 1,018 307 7.64 4.38 160


The two meals have approximately the same caloric content, but the amount of minerals that each athlete consumes is considerably different. The Mediterranean plate has a much greater variety of foods, and many of them are minimally processed. Foods that are not as refined typically contain more minerals because fewer minerals are lost in processing. The Mediterranean meal also contains grains and legumes, which contribute several minerals. Many typical fast-food meals, such as chicken or a burger with fries and a soft drink, lack fruits and vegetables, foods that contribute small amounts of several minerals.

How Do Food and Supplement Sources of Minerals Compare?

Minerals occur naturally in foods, are added to foods via fortification, and are obtained from supplements. When minerals occur naturally in foods, minimal processing results in a higher mineral content. A good piece of advice is to eat foods that are less processed and more like the original farm-grown product. Table 8.4 compares whole wheat and bleached white flours and illustrates just how many minerals can be lost in the processing. A recommendation for greater mineral intake is to eat whole-grain breads and cereals rather than highly processed grain products.

Table 8.4 Mineral Content of Whole Wheat and Bleached White Flours
Calcium (mg) Magnesium (mg) Zinc (mg) Selenium (mg)
1/2 c whole wheat flour 20 83 1.74 42
1/2 c white, bleached flour 9 14 0.44 21


Consuming all the necessary minerals in the proper quantities from foods in which those minerals naturally occur is possible and desirable. However, people often choose foods that have a lower nutrient content. For example, when white bread became available in the United States, it became so popular that many people began to suffer from vitamin and mineral deficiencies. This prompted the government to pass food enrichment laws, which mandated that some of the vitamins and minerals lost in processing, such as some of the B vitamins and iron, be added back. The majority of bread sold in the United States today is still made from white flour, but enrichment has resulted in fewer cases of malnutrition.

At first minerals were added singly to foods in response to widespread deficiencies. For example, iodine was first added to salt in the 1920s as a way to prevent goiter and is still added to salt today. The fortification of breakfast cereal began in the 1970s.

Learn more about Fundamentals of Sport and Exercise Nutrition.

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