If you’re like most Americans, you probably take a daily vitamin or other supplement. But are you really getting what you need, or could you be taking in too much of a good thing? We sorted through the hype and confusion to provide you with the essentials on essential nutrients — what, and how much, is necessary for good health.
Vitamins and minerals, also known as micronutrients, are vital to good health. But how much do you really need? And is it best to get them from food or from supplements? To help you decide, here’s a rundown of some essential nutrients.
Choosing Vitamin and Mineral Supplement
Take a look in any supermarket or high street chemist and you will find a daunting array of vitamin and mineral supplements. The big question is which preparations will do you the most good? Because without doubt you are more than spoiled for choice. To assist you here are some basic guidelines:
It is best to take multiformulas (multiminerals and multivitamins) as a foundation if you are self-prescribing: there is the risk that taking high levels of single supplements can disturb your metabolism or increase the chances of toxicity. This is especially the case with vitamins A & D.
Opt for the multiformulas, which provide a broad range of nutrients per tablet/capsule. Always check the labels on multiformula products and aim for the following safe levels of vitamins and minerals:
Vitamin A 7,500 iu
Vitamin B1, B2, B6 25-50 mg
Vitamin B12 50 mcg
Vitamin B3 (Niacin) 50 mg
Folic Acid 400 mcg
Vitamin B5 (Pantothenic acid) 50 mg
Vitamin C 100 mg
Vitamin D 200 iu
Vitamin E 50 iu
Boron 2 mg
Chromium 50 mg
Copper 0.5 mg
Iron 0.5 mg
Manganese 0.5 mg
Selenium 50 mcg
Zinc 10 mg
Don’t be swayed by price, and plump only for the cheapest. In the case of supplements the old adage “you get what you pay for” is very true. Prices generally reflect level of research, preparation and ultimately quality control invested in the product.
Never attempt to self-treat health problems with specific vitamin or mineral formulas without first gaining the advice of your family doctor or a qualified nutritionist.
Take care when reducing doses. If you are taking regular supplements, and have been doing so for some time, never abruptly stop taking them: gradually reduce your dose and allow your body to adjust gently.
It is best to take multiformulas (multiminerals and multivitamins) as a Foundation.
Vitamins C and E
In recent years there has been a hullabaloo over the purported benefits of antioxidants, including vitamins C and E. These vitamins, as well as other antioxidant nutrients such as beta-carotene, have been associated with protection from some chronic conditions, including heart disease, cancer, and cataracts. As yet, however, there is no scientific proof that antioxidants prevent these diseases.
The recommended daily intake of vitamin C, also called ascorbic acid, is 60 mg, although research is ongoing to determine whether higher doses protect against disease. High concentrations of vitamin C are found in several vegetables and fruits, including green and red peppers, collard greens, broccoli, spinach, tomatoes, potatoes, strawberries, and citrus fruits. So, it’s relatively easy to get vitamin C from food, especially if you eat the recommended five servings of fruits and vegetables each day.
Vitamin E, however, is more difficult to get from diet alone, since it’s found mainly in vegetable oils, nuts, seeds, and wheat germ — not exactly staples of the American diet. The recommended dietary allowance for vitamin E is 30 IU (international units) per day. But research has shown that levels of 100-400 IU per day, which are nearly impossible to get from the typical diet, may protect against heart disease. The best bet is to see your doctor to determine your risk and whether a vitamin E supplement is right for you.
Adequate intake of folate, a B vitamin, is important in preventing neural tube birth defects. It may also offer protection against heart disease by lowering blood levels of a substance called homocysteine. The recommended daily intake is 400 mcg. Folate is found in fruits and vegetables, especially leafy greens , legumes, and orange juice. Grain-based foods, such as wheat flour, breads, and cereals are fortified with folic acid, which is the synthetic form of folate. Public-health experts recommend all women capable of becoming pregnant take a daily supplement containing 400 mcg of folic acid. For others, eat a variety of foods rich in folate and fortified with folic acid, and supplement if your diet is falling short.
The mineral calcium is vital to bone health and can help protect against bone-thinning osteoporosis and fractures. The recommended daily intake for adults is 1,000 mg for people aged 19 to 50, and 1,200 mg for people older than 50. The best food sources are low-fat milk, yogurt, and cheese, and calcium-fortified orange juice. Eat at least three servings a day of these foods to reach the recommended dose, otherwise take a supplement to make up for what you’re missing.
Vitamin D. Vitamin D is also crucial for bone health because it helps the body absorb calcium. The recommended daily intake is 200 IU for people younger than 50; 400 IU for people ages 51 to 70; and 600 IU for people older than 70. Few foods contain significant amounts of vitamin D and the ones that do, such as liver, butter, cream, and egg yolks, are generally not eaten in large amounts. A good source is milk, since it’s fortified with 100 IU of vitamin D per cup. Fortified breakfast cereals and fatty fish are also good choices. Your body can synthesize vitamin D from sunlight but not if you use sun block and not in the winter in northern climates. So, unless you eat enough vitamin D-rich foods (and many people don’t), take a supplement to reach the recommended level for your age.
As long as you realize a “multi” isn’t a magic bullet for health and won’t correct for a poor diet, it’s fine to take one – and it can help make up for days when your diet isn’t exactly perfect. Skip the high-potency versions and stick with a basic multi that offers no more than 10% of the daily value for each nutrient.
Important caveats to remember when considering supplements:
Supplements don’t contain some of the other good stuff supplied by a balanced diet, such as fiber and phytochemicals, and supplements won’t correct for a diet high in saturated fat and sodium.
Some is good, but more isn’t better. Too much of certain nutrients, including vitamins A and D, can be toxic, so don’t overload.
Fancy, expensive supplements aren’t necessarily a better buy. Check the label and don’t be lured by “special” ingredients or outlandish claims. A generic or store brand is usually as good as a name brand.
Be sure to tell your doctor of any vitamin, mineral, or other dietary supplements you are taking, especially if you are taking any medications.
If you have specific questions about the overall nutrient content of your diet, see a registered dietitian. The American Dietetic Association can help you find one in your area.
Don’t Forget the Water!
During any fitness regime it is important to maintain your body’s fluid balance. This is something that can be so easily overlooked, and the effects of water depletion will place considerable stress on the ability of the body to cope with exercise, ultimately reducing performance.
Our body weight consists of about 60% water; muscles are 72% water. Even during mild exercise it is possible to become considerably dehydrated, as fluid is lost in sweat and from the lungs as we breathe. Prolonged dehydration can result in symptoms ranging from nausea and fatigue to — at its most severe — heat stress.
During moderate exercise, to ensure you replace fluid loses sufficiently, follow these guidelines:
Before exercising: drink a large glass of water (300 – 450 ml) During exercise: drink 150 ml of water every 15 minutes After exercising: a further 1-2 large glasses of water
The more strenuous the exercise the more fluids you will require, so increase the above amounts to suit; but remember, never wait until you are thirsty to drink – your body will not always signal thirst until well after fluids are needed.
Eating Before Exercise
It is generally recommended that you should never eat a large meal for between two to three hours before exercising. This recommendation is well based on scientific fact.
Following the ingestion of any meal, there is an increase in the flow of blood to the digestive system, supporting the absorption of nutrients. At the same time the blood supply to the muscles is significantly reduced, thus making them less efficient during exercise at this time. This effect is very much dependent on:
The time, which has elapsed following the meal.
The amount of food eaten.
The degree of exercise.
Professional sports people aim to eat no later that three to four hours before competing. They therefore ensure complete digestion of food and a relatively empty stomach.
“Essential Fatty Acids”
The fats and oils in our diet are made up of chains of fatty acids. These fatty acids are classified as “essential” or “non-essential” according to whether or not they can be produced by our bodies. Essential Fatty Acids (EFA) is those that we can not make ourselves and must obtain from our diets.
There is much evidence that modern diets are relatively deficient in EFA and that this can have broad implications for our health.
The two EFA of significance for humans are linolenic and linoleic acids. These are more commonly known as “omega 3” and “omega 6” oils respectively. Both are involved in a wide range of body functions and to ensure these are running efficiently we should try to increase in our diets the following excellent sources of omega oils:
Linseed oil (flax seed oil)
Nuts and seeds
Sunflower seed oil
“The Oh So Essential Fatty Acids”
Essential fatty acids (EFAs) have wide ranging functions in the human body. These include:
Control of cholesterol
Transportation and metabolism of other fats
Conversion to prostanglandins – highly important substances with a regulatory role.
Equally, deficiency of EFAs, and consequently prostaglandin deficiency, can manifest in many ways:
Skin disorders e.g., eczema.
Pre-menstrual Syndrome – particularly breast pain.
In supplementation the aim is to correct these deficiencies by providing substances which are breakdown products of the EFAs and therefore are readily converted to prostaglandins. The most commonly used supplements are:
Gamma – Linolenic Acid (GLA) – the active ingredient in blackcurrant seed oil, borage oil and evening primrose oil.
Eicosapentaenoic Acid (EPA) – found in fish oils. Studies show that consumers of large amounts of EPA have lower rates of heart disease.
Where Diets Go Wrong
Strictly speaking, diets don’t fail, people fail to stick with a diet. Following any reduced calorie diet will result in weight loss. The problem is sticking with it. Unfortunately, most diets have built-in failures which trip up the dieter.
Diets go wrong by being too restrictive.
Many conventional diets demand a fairly low calorie intake in order to lose weight. They are based on a fairly simple concept: in order to lose weight one must eat less. Although true, for people who have a large amount of weight to lose, reducing their usual daily intake by 1000 – 2000 calories a day is a depressing task. Such dieters feel deprived before even starting a new diet.
Even for people with small amounts to lose, cutting their usual intake from 2200 or 2500 to 1200 calories, can be a shock to the system. A quick glance at any women’s magazine reveals at least one sample menu for weight loss. Upon comparison, the amounts of food seem very small and usually include uninteresting foods such as yogurt, cottage cheese and chicken breasts.
Diets go wrong by requiring the dieter to change the type of food eaten.
Humans are creatures of habit and usually eat the same foods over and over. Granted, overweight folks are eating too much of the wrong foods. But, in an effort to promote eating a variety of healthy foods, conventional diets suggest new dishes which often include exotic and hard to find foods or just plain boring foods. Using a sample week’s menu of meals can result in buying unusual ingredients, using a small amount for one recipe, then often wasting the rest.
Diets go wrong by making it difficult to eat.
Most diets suggest using fresh foods, cooked from scratch at home. This requires more meal planning, shopping and preparation time. It’s easier and quicker to rely on fast food or convenience foods. The drawback with fast food is in controlling exactly what is eaten since the ingredients are not easily known. Even with the new improved labeling on convenience foods, there’s no guarantee the totals at the end of the day will be within healthy ranges. And who has the time to keep track?
But trying to eat less and prepare strange new dishes can be discouraging. New recipes can take longer to prepare, making it tempting to revert to old eating patterns and simply give up. Eating at a favorite restaurant or at social gatherings is difficult at best. The required food is not available and making substitutions is tricky.
Diets go wrong by feeling like a punishment.
Diets require the reduced intake of food, cutting out favorite foods, learning to like new foods, spending more time planning and preparing food. All these changes can make the dieter feel punished by the very process which is supposed to improve life.
However, people usually approach a diet with the attitude: ‘this is just until I lose x number pounds.’ This is where people fail diets. Any change required to lose weight will need to continue after the pounds are gone. When dieters revert to old habits, the weight creeps back on.
Diets go wrong by creating a repeated failure record.
Every time a dieter fails at a diet, stops trying and returns to old eating habits, the chances of succeeding at the next attempt is reduced. The dieter becomes fatalistic about the possibility of ever losing weight.
How to win the ‘diet’ battle?
The real answer to the shortcomings of diets seems to be: eat the foods you are accustomed to, but reduce the amount of everything eaten. Rather than learning new ways of cooking, suffering through painful shopping trips for food you don’t like, spending hours cooking and tracking the amounts eaten, simply fill your plate as usual, put part of it back and eat the rest with a clear conscience.
A reduction of only 500 calories a day will result in a weight loss of one Pound a week which adds up over time. (When was the last time you lost 52 Pounds a year?) This approach automatically cuts the amount of fat consumed as well as reducing the intake of sodium, sugar and concentrated calories.
“Wonderful Vitamin C”
Much has been written about the effects of vitamin C (ascorbic acid). A few vital acts, however, highlight how important this vitamin is, particularly when it is often far below optimal levels in our modern diet.
Of all creatures on earth, humans are one of the few unable to produce vitamin C in their bodies. Instead, we have been designed to absorb our requirements from fresh fruit and vegetables.
Vitamin C performs many functions, including:
Aids absorption of other nutrients, e.g. iron.
Acts as an antioxidant.
Promotes healthy bone and connective tissue formation.
Enhances our immune systems – hence the recommendations for extra vitamin C if you have a cold or ‘flu’.
Promotes wound healing.
To ensure we have sufficient vitamin C levels, we should consume fresh fruit and vegetables regularly — most desirably 5 portions daily. Among the best sources of the vitamin are broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, citrus fruits, green peppers, kiwi fruit and tomatoes.
In order to maximize vitamin C intake, follow these simple guidelines:
Never boil vegetables — vitamin C will rapidly leak into the cooking water and is wasted. Steaming or cooking vegetables for a short time reduces losses e.g. stir-frying for a minute or two.
Eat fresh fruit and vegetables as soon as possible after purchasing. Both lose vitamin C at the rate of 10% per month when stored.
Reduce alcohol consumption and stop smoking – both deplete vitamin C levels in our bodies.