My curiosity was piqued when I heard about a new service to help athletes dial in their nutrition through the analysis of blood. Over the years, both formal studies and practical experience have shown me the crucial role nutrition plays in feeling good and performing well. So when I found out that a company called InsideTracker is making the type of lab testing usually reserved for elite athletes accessible to athletes everywhere, I decided to give it a try.
The way it works is you go to a local LabCorp location to have a blood sample drawn. There are about 1,500 locations in the US and I found one a few miles from my home. This easy accessibility is one of the really attractive aspects of the service.
Your blood is then analyzed for up to 20 different “biomarkers.” These include hemoglobin, cholesterol, calcium, vitamin D, potassium, sodium, testosterone, white blood cell count, c-reactive protein, among others. You can choose how many biomarkers you want analyzed and the cost varies by the number you choose. I chose the “performance plan” to have all 20 biomarkers analyzed—and most athletes would want to do the same since this includes biomarkers key to athletic performance.
A few days after my visit to LabCorp to have my blood drawn, my results were available on the InsideTracker website. As a generally healthy eater, I was curious what the results would reveal. Like any busy athlete that trains and works, I experience periods of low energy. In the past, I’ve speculated that my iron intake might not be up to par—perhaps causing me to be a bit anemic due to the common issue among runners of foot strike hemolysis plus the fact that I don’t eat red meat. As a result, I even experimented with iron supplements from time to time with little success (an approach, I should add, that I do not advise—and I’ll explain why further below).
But my results from InsideTracker showed my levels of ferritin (a protein that stores iron) and hemoglobin (the iron-containing oxygen-transporter in red blood cells) are within the “optimized zone.” The screenshots below illustrate the graphics provided on the InsideTracker website. On the left is a graph that shows where my results lie; on the right is a description of the biomarker and its importance for health and performance.
The blood work did indicate other biomarkers that were less than optimal, though, as well as some that were too high. One of the less than optimal biomarkers was vitamin D. Given that time in the sunshine allows the body to produce vitamin D and being someone who spends several hours outside most days, I was surprised to learn that my vitamin D levels were low. But the nice thing about InsideTracker is that you not only learn the results of your blood test, you are provided with specific food recommendations for improving your problem areas. Along with the details illustrated above, another piece of information is provided for each biomarker: nutrition recommendations (illustrated in the screenshots below).
As a result of these and other recommendations provided by InsideTracker, I was able to make some subtle yet valuable changes in my already healthy-by-most-standards diet. I also added a vitamin D supplement and began to notice a favorable difference in energy levels and mood. I often joke that I’m “solar powered” and need abundant sunshine to sustain my energy. I’ve never enjoyed the short days of winter and a few years ago purchased a full spectrum lightbox for those cloudy winter mornings to help with the winter blahs. But vitamin D, I’ve learned, is another important element I need to pay attention to for sustaining energy levels and positive mood.
The solution to optimizing my vitamin D was simple and easy, yet without taking a look into my blood profile I had no way to properly determine whether Vitamin D (or iron or any other type of) supplements were advisable or not in my situation. After all, as an athlete that spends ample time outside, I had no reason to believe I would benefit from more vitamin D in my diet.
And whether or not to take a supplement is something everyone should question, with the ultimate answer being based on empirical evidence (rather than speculation). Despite the abundance of vitamin and mineral supplements on the shelves of supermarkets—and the culture of popping multivitamins that begins at a young age with flavored Flinstones chewables—simply taking vitamins without knowing whether you need the supplement is not a wise approach. Just because one person needs more or less of a particular micronutrient doesn’t mean you necessarily do.
Fat soluble vitamins, like vitamin D (along with vitamins A, E, and K) are stored in the liver. An overconsumption of these vitamins can be toxic and lead to side effects. The same goes for minerals, such as taking iron when it’s not needed. Excess amounts of water soluble vitamins, like vitamin C are eliminated from the body on a daily basis through urine, although side effects can still occur from excessive consumption. In addition, taking unnecessary amounts of water soluble vitamins results in expensive urine as you literally end up flushing them down the toilet. Why spend money on supplements that you simply flush down the toilet if you don’t actually need them? Why take any supplement without objective evidence as to whether it will be helpful or harmful in your individual situation?
In line with the general consensus among nutritionists and coaches, I always advise athletes to get their micronutrients (i.e. vitamins and minerals) through food rather than supplements—and to only take a supplement if they have a genuine reason to do so (e.g. when a blood test determines it would be advisable). Eating a healthy diet with a variety of whole foods typically ensures one will get the proper amounts of vitamins and minerals. Yet sometimes an athlete in training can benefit from more individually tailored information to optimize menus for health and performance. This is where a blood test can help guide you toward healthier eating choices based on your own situation. A healthy diet is great, but a healthy diet optimized to your unique nutritional needs is even better. And here’s where InsideTracker is really useful. It pulls from a database of over 7,500 different foods to provide you with personalized eating recommendations that take into account your likes and dislikes so you can create a menu (such as the one below) that is both palatable to your tastes and provides you with the nutrients you need.
If you’re unsure about what foods you should be eating to support your athletic lifestyle or if you are looking for individualized nutrition advice to improve performance, the tools provided by InsideTracker are worth considering. I was impressed enough with InsideTracker that I teamed up with them to make the tools accessible to Alp Fitness athletes (learn how to take advantage of the discount).
Train (and eat) smart!