Your body is an amazing vehicle. It automatically recognizes what it needs to function in top form -- and all without consulting an instruction manual! It already knows, for example, that to maintain eye health requires vitamin A, and that proper bone formation needs vitamin D. How about bolstering your metabolism and maintaining healthy skin and muscle tone? Your body ingeniously calls for the B-complex vitamins. It also knows it needs iron to make red blood cells, calcium to keep bones strong, and chromium to help convert blood sugar into energy.
Unfortunately, everyday stress and lack of regular exercise can rob your body of essential vitamins and minerals. And even the most health-conscious among us are guilty of grabbing "fast food" when there's not time to prepare a nutritious meal. So how can you ensure that you're giving your body all it needs to avoid the wide range of health problems caused by vitamin and mineral deficiencies?
Two words: Eat healthfully. Good health begins with proper nutrition, and proper nutrition requires your eating a balanced diet. Of course, a daily vitamin and mineral supplement is always a good idea if you're unable to follow proper dietary guidelines, but the best place to start giving your body what it needs is in the kitchen.
Because the body can only manufacture vitamin D, all other vitamins and minerals must be derived from your diet. The fat-soluble vitamins (vitamins A, D, E and K) can be stored in body fat, so you don't need to consume them every day. The water-soluble vitamins, however, can't be stored in the body; these (the eight B vitamins and vitamin C) should be consumed frequently, preferably every day.
If you opt for vitamin supplements, remember that they work best when taken along with food. (Typically, fat-soluble vitamins should be taken before meals and water-soluble vitamins should be taken after meals.) It's best, of course, to obtain your daily vitamins from the foods you eat. Wondering which foods are the best sources of the nutrients you need each day? Check the following list of vitamins and minerals. Your body will thank you for it.
Vitamin A helps in the formation and maintenance of healthy skin and hair; promotes proper bone growth and tooth development; aids good vision; and maintains the protective lining of the lungs, intestines, urinary tract and other organs. It's believed that nearly one-third of Americans consume less than the recommended allowance of vitamin A, but proper amounts can generally be obtained in a balanced diet rather than through supplements. Because vitamin A is stored in the body, it's important not to take too much. Excess vitamin A can interfere with growth, stop menstruation, damage red blood cells, and cause skin rashes, headaches, nausea and jaundice. Vitamin A can be found in dairy products (such as milk, butter and cheese), egg yolk, liver, dark green leafy vegetables, and deep orange or yellow fruits and vegetables.
Vitamin D is essential for normal growth and development. Although a healthy dose of sunshine is a good way to get the vitamin D you need, major dietary sources include fortified milk, liver, fatty saltwater fish, butter and eggs.
Vitamin E is important for cell health and the proper functioning of the immune system. Major dietary sources include vegetable oils, wheat germ, whole-grain cereals, legumes, nuts, seeds, green leafy vegetables and eggs. Because many of these sources are high in fat, however, some health experts recommend a daily supplement of vitamin E. It's generally accepted that a natural E supplement is better than the synthetic variety, so look for "d-alpha-tocopherol" (the most active form of vitamin E). The synthetic form begins with "dl."
Vitamin K is necessary mainly for the coagulation of blood. Dietary sources include all leafy green vegetables, tomatoes, egg yolks, soybean oil and liver.
Vitamin C aids the formation and maintenance of collagen (the protein that supports many body structures), acts as an antioxidant and aids in the absorption of iron into the body. Many fruits and vegetables are an excellent source of vitamin C -- citrus fruits, fresh strawberries, cantaloupe, pineapple, guava, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, tomatoes, spinach, kale, green peppers, cabbage and turnips.
Vitamin B-complex is a combination of eight essential vitamins -- B1 (thiamin), B2 (riboflavin), B3 (niacin), B5, B6, B7 (biotin), B9 (folacin, also known as folic acid) and B12. The B vitamins can be found in many of the same foods and work together to:
The best sources of B-complex vitamins are:
- Bolster metabolism
- Maintain healthy skin and muscle tone
- Enhance immune and nervous system function
- Promote cell growth and division
- Combat stress, depression and cardiovascular disease
B1:brewer's yeast, lean meats, eggs, leafy green vegetables, whole or enriched cereals, wheat germ, berries, nuts, legumes
B2: milk, dark green vegetables, whole grain and enriched cereals, pasta, whole grain breads, mushrooms
B3:canned tuna and salmon, whole grain and enriched cereals, dried beans and peas, nuts
B5:yeast, eggs, legumes (dried beans), milk, whole grain breads and cereals
B6: whole grains, cereals, bread, liver, avocados, spinach, green beans, bananas
B7: cheese, kidneys, salmon, soybeans, sunflower seeds, nuts, broccoli, sweet potatoes
B9: leafy green vegetables, legumes, nuts, whole grains, brewer's yeast
B12:fish, eggs, milk
Calcium is one of the most important minerals for your good health. It builds and maintains strong bones and teeth, helps regulate blood pressure, and is needed for proper blood clotting. The best sources of calcium are milk and milk products, canned salmon and sardines (with bones), dark green leafy vegetables, legumes (dried beans) and cheese.
Chromium, one of the trace minerals, helps regulate the amount of glucose in the blood and is needed for insulin to work properly. You can get your daily requirement of chromium by eating liver, meat, cheese, poultry, whole grains, wheat germ, potatoes or mushrooms.
Iodine is another trace mineral. Its main function is to help with the regulation of thyroid hormones, and to aid normal growth and development. The best way to get the proper amount of iodine is through iodized salt, seafood, and crops grown in iodine-rich soil.
Iron is essential to the formation of hemoglobin, which carries oxygen in the blood. Iron derived from animal products (such as liver, kidneys, red meat, poultry, eggs) is better absorbed by the body than iron from plant sources (peas, dried beans, dried fruits, dark green leafy vegetables, enriched breads and cereals). If you're a vegetarian, remember that you can enhance plant-derived iron by eating foods rich in vitamin C during the same meal.
Potassium helps promote proper function of heart and kidneys. The best sources of potassium are fruits (bananas, raisins, prunes), vegetables (spinach, cauliflower, potatoes), milk, meat and poultry.
Zinc is necessary for cell division, growth and proper wound healing and functioning of the immune system. It also plays an important role in ensuring an accurate sense of taste and smell. To give your body the zinc it needs, make sure your diet includes meat, liver, shellfish, milk and whole grains.
Sources: Health Magazine August 1998, Berkeley County West Virginia Health Department, The United States Department of Agriculture, Recommended Dietary Allowances
Know When to Say When
Can too much of a good thing be a bad thing? With some vitamin supplements, yes. Taking a megadose of certain vitamins can actually endanger your health by causing the following:
blurred vision, headaches, fatigue, damage to liver and nervous system
kidney stones, high blood pressure, deafness
skin yellowing in infants
Vitamin B3 (Niacin):
ulcers, abnormal liver function
high doses produce dependency
high doses cause dependency, diarrhea
How Much is Enough?
The US Food and Nutrition Board suggests recommended dietary allowances (RDA) for vitamins. Keep in mind, however, that these RDAs are minimum requirements, not necessarily what your body needs to maintain maximum health.
Vitamin A 5000 IU 4000 IU
Vitamin B1 1.5 mg 1.1 mg
Vitamin B2 (riboflavin) 1.7 mg 1.3 mg
Vitamin B3 (niacin) 19 mg 15 mg
Vitamin B6 2 mg 1.6 mg
Vitamin B12 2 mcg 2 mcg
(folic acid) 200 mcg 180 mcg
Vitamin C 60 mg 60 mg
Vitamin D 200 IU 200 IU
Vitamin E 15 IU 12 IU
Vitamin K 80 mcg 65 mcg