Can food give us all the nutrients we need?

Many of us take antioxidant pills daily. Antioxidants, scientists agree, can act as a counter to the effects of “free radicals” which are connected to heart disease, cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease. The role of antioxidants is to effectively ‘hoover up’ these free radicals and remove their potency. That’s no easy thing to do, considering free radicals are in all manner of pollution, and can even be triggered by heavy exercise.

Intitially diets with plenty of antioxidants, such as beta carotene and vitamins C and E, along with selenium (a mineral) seemed a good answer – in other words, plenty of vegetables and fruit. That eventually birthed the idea of an antioxidant pill. It was quick and easy, and some believed it would be as effective, if not even more effective, than antioxidants in a diet.

About 37 percent of American adults take a multivitamin supplement each day because they think the food they eat lacks needed nutrients. With the quality and variety of food available in the United States, however, healthy people can get the vitamins and minerals they need from food.

  • Healthy people can obtain all the vitamins and minerals they need from eating a variety of foods.
  • Taking supplements does not guarantee protection against disease.
  • Large doses of either single nutrient supplements or high potency vitamin-mineral combinations may be harmful.
  • Vitamin deficiency is rare unless a person’s diet is limited and lacks variety.
  • Do not take self-prescribed single nutrient supplements without first consulting a physician or registered dietitian.

Recent studies – some quite controversial – have given rise to new theories. Some of the supplements we’ve been taking to make ourselves more resistant and healthier could be having the opposite effect. If you have a higher risk of developing lung cancer (if you smoke, for instance), then a beta carotene supplement could actually increase your chances of getting the disease, whilst Vitamin C supplements had absolutely no useful effect on those who had normal levels of it in their bodies.

Perhaps the scariest speculation is that high doses of Vitamin E might even increase the risk of death. It’s far from proven, and many scientists have cast doubt on it, but it does offer pause for thought.

One study suggested that supplements of vitamins A, C and E did nothing to prevent stomach and bowel cancers, and that even taking them could shorten lives. Again, there was nothing conclusive, but even the idea is worrying.

Fortunately, the supplements in question are found abundantly in nature. Here’s how to dose your diet the natural way for maximum protection and minimal risk:

Beta-carotene: butternut squash, pumpkin, cantaloupe, carrots, kale, spinach and apricots.

Vitamin C: red bell peppers, papaya, citrus fruits, kiwis, broccoli.

Vitamin E: almonds, dark green leafy vegetables, vegetable juice cocktail, whole grains, corn.

Who Needs Supplements?

Some nutrients, like calcium and iron, may require careful food selection but can be obtained from adequate amounts of foods.

Certain individuals have special needs and may benefit from taking a supplement. They include the following:

  • People with limited food intake, such as chronic dieters and some elderly, have difficulty meeting their nutrient needs.
  • Some vegetarians, especially strict vegans who eat no meat, dairy products or eggs, may not receive adequate amounts of iron, calcium, zinc and vitamin B-12.
  • Individuals with certain diseases or physiological conditions may require supplementation.
  • Newborn infants are given vitamin K to help their blood clot.
  • Pregnant or breastfeeding women require higher levels of many nutrients, especially folacin, iron and calcium.

Individual recommendations for supplementation should come from a physician or a registered dietitian. If you have a special need for iron or calcium and are taking it in pill form, see the following.

Calcium

To estimate the absorbability of calcium tablets or multivitamins that contain calcium, place the tablet in 6 ounces of vinegar for 30 minutes. If it disintegrates, the calcium in the pill can be effectively absorbed by your body.

Calcium is best absorbed in several doses, rather than all at once. The most popular calcium supplement, calcium carbonate, contains more calcium per tablet than calcium lactate, calcium gluconate or calcium citrate. Be sure to take calcium carbonate with meals because stomach acids help calcium absorption.

Calcium from food is better absorbed and used than calcium from pills. The best food sources of calcium are low-fat milk, cheese, yogurt, and canned fish with edible bones such as sardines and salmon. Tofu, some dry beans, tortillas made with lime-processed cornmeal, and dark green leafy vegetables like broccoli, kale and collards also provide calcium. Spinach is high in oxalates and its calcium is not absorbed well.

Iron

The most common iron supplement is ferrous sulfate, although other ferrous salts such as ferrous lactate, fumarate, glycine sulfate, glutamate and gluconate are also absorbed well. Ferrous succinate may have a 30 percent higher absorption rate than ferrous sulfate.

If you take iron tablets on an empty stomach, you get the best absorption but you also may experience constipation, diarrhea or stomach upset, depending on the dosage. Taking iron supplements with meals reduces iron absorption by up to one-third.

Vitamin C aids iron absorption whether the iron comes from food or a pill. Try meal combinations such as orange juice and iron-fortified cereal or salsa and bean burritos. Other good food sources of iron are meat, dried apricots, and iron-fortified bread.

Sources: Ext Colostate, Safes Limming

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