Dieting and Your Health
Americans, now, are on average 26 pounds heavier than they were in the 1950s. Eating a lot of highly processed junk food is an obvious culprit. Even those who are doing their best to avoid junk food may be affected by the changes in how food is produced these days. This includes the intensive use of pesticides and other chemicals in the production and processing stages.
When it comes to losing weight or maintaining a healthy body weight, which is more important, diet or exercise? That’s a question that has spawned a bit of controversy just lately among health and nutrition experts. This fuss came as a the result of a declaration made by authors of a recent editorial in the British Journal of Sports Medicine that have challenged the conventional wisdom that both are equally important. According to them, diet is the main factor behind overweight and obesity; and, exercise will not prevent weight gain in people with poor dietary habits.
The trio of authors, led by cardiologist Dr. Aseem Malhotra, suggest that the emphasis on sedentary lifestyles as the main culprit of the current obesity epidemic is misplaced. As rates of obesity have soared over the past 30 years, they found that there has been little change in the activity levels among people in western nations. This led the authors to conclude that the type and number of calories consumed is the wrongdoer in the increasing pandemic of weight gain.
Obesity is not the only issue of concern when it comes to poor dietary habits. Citing reports published by The Lancet on global burden of disease, Dr. Malhotra and his team emphasize on the powerful role played by our daily diet on our health. They explain that by just following a poor diet, one may have many adverse health consequences such as a higher risk for developing more diseases and deficiencies than by being inactive, smokers and alcoholics, altogether. They also explain that up to 40 percent of people who are not overweight suffer from metabolic abnormalities that are typically associated with obesity, including high blood pressure, high cholesterol, cardiovascular disease and fatty liver disease. These findings are not belittling the importance of exercising; but, suggesting that your food has more ramifications to your body’s wellbeing. What such a thorough analysis aims at is to clarify that a healthy, well-balanced diet has been shown in numerous studies to be essential to good health, as well as weight control. Sedentary lifestyles have been shown to contribute significantly to the development of a long list of diseases and health conditions, so getting at least 30 minutes of moderate exercise, 5 times per week is also essential to good health – whether it helps with weight loss or not. Given the rates of metabolic issues cited above, regular visits to your doctor for checkups and health screening tests – including cholesterol and diabetes testing – are also essential to good health. Also, and since some metabolic conditions, such as thyroid dysfunction or insulin resistance, can cause weight gain and/or inhibit weight loss, detecting and treating them can aid weight control efforts.
In short, the body of evidence available today about the influence of lifestyle factors on health shows that neither diet nor exercise alone is a magic bullet to your weight control or overall health. All components of a healthy lifestyle, including diet, exercise, regular health monitoring and avoidance of harmful habits, like smoking or excessive alcohol use, are equally important. Each of these factors play an important role in promoting an overall health and well-being. All your life choices are working together to aid in preventing diseases, promoting physical, mental and emotional health, and supporting in effective weight control.
Nutrition and Fast Food
When it comes to nutrition and health, fast food certainly has a bad rap; and, most nutrition experts advise steering clear of it. However, fast food is everywhere these days and is ingrained in our culture. So, cutting it out completely probably isn’t a realistic goal for most Americans. Cutting down is a much more attainable goal, and since too much junk food can be dangerous to your health, it is a very important one. So, how much is too much? Here you find facts about fast food that can help answer such a question.
What is it about Fast Food Consumption and Americans: what is all the fuss?
Fast food is a major part of the average American diet, according to a nationwide poll on the topic conducted by Gallup, despite the fact that this same poll showed that three-quarters of Americans feel that fast food isn’t good for them. In that poll, 8 out of every 10 people report eating fast food at least once a month, and nearly half say they indulge at least once a week. Only 4 percent of Americans avoid fast food completely.
Fast Food Nutrition Information: What do I need to know?
Stopping at your local fast food restaurant for a meal is not, as most people know, your best bet in terms of balanced nutrition. That one fast food meal can contain as much or more calories, fats, sugars and sodium than you should eat all day. The typical fast food meal, made of highly-processed ingredients, offers limited value in terms of vitamins, minerals and other essential nutrients that could have possibly balanced the amount of ‘bad’ nutrients. In short, junk food is long on unhealthy ingredients and short on the vital nutrients your body needs to function properly and stay healthy.
What are the Potential Consequences of Overindulging?
Studies have shown that people who eat fast food regularly, twice per week or more, have a much higher risk of obesity than those who indulge it less frequently. They also nearly have double the risk of developing insulin resistance. Both of these conditions greatly increase the risk of type 2 diabetes.
Research has also linked regular fast food consumption with adverse effects on the cardiovascular system, including increased risk of high blood pressure, high cholesterol, heart disease and stroke; and, the high sodium content of these foods can increase risk of kidney stones and kidney disease.
Studies have shown that these foods are not only short on nutrition themselves, but also tend to replace healthy, nutritious foods that are normally taken within your daily diet. For example, it will lead to lowering the consumption of milk, fruits and vegetables, a combination that often leads to nutritional deficiencies. Other conditions that have been linked in studies to regular fast food consumption include depression, headaches, tooth decay as well as osteoporosis.
Healthier Fast Food Choices, can they Limit the Damage?
So, given these facts about fast food, should we be eating it at all? Probably not, but the fact is that most of us aren’t willing to give it up entirely. After all, fast food tastes good and we all have very busy schedules that make us run towards the drive-thru on the way home. Fast food is quick, easy and inexpensive.
What we can do is limit how much of it we are eating, making a fast food meal an occasional indulgence – once or twice a month –rather than a regular habit. When you do indulge, don’t supersize your meal, and consider switching your usual favorites for more healthy fast food choices: a grilled chicken or fish meal instead of a bacon cheeseburger, for instance. Substituting a side salad for your usual fries can add beneficial nutrients to your meal and cut down on fat and salt, and choosing juice or milk instead of soda can greatly reduce sugar and calories.
Been Eating Too Much Fast Food? How do I Check for Common Health Effects?
If you have been drawn to the habit of stopping for fast food meals more often than you should, you may well be concerned about some of those health effects mentioned above. Many of these health issues, when caught early, can be improved or even reversed with treatment and lifestyle changes. So, if you have been on a frequent fast food diet, getting checked over by your doctor would be wise.
With a few blood tests, you can find out whether your cholesterol levels have suffered from too much fast food, placing you at risk for heart disease, check your blood sugar levels for signs of diabetes, screen for signs of kidney trouble, and see just where you stand in terms of nutritional deficiencies. You will also want to have your blood pressure checked, as well as have an evaluation of your body mass index and bone density, especially if you have been a daily fast food consumer.
Hormones and Your Weight
If you have been taking all the right steps to lose weight such as cutting calories, eating healthy, wholesome foods and exercising nearly every day and no satisfactory results are surfacing up; then, it may be time to have some lab tests done to check your hormonal status. Hormones are powerful little chemical messengers that aid in regulating nearly every function and system in the body. Many of them, when out of balance in your body, can affect your metabolism, making weight loss difficult. So, which hormones can cause hormone related weight gains; and, how do you find out which ones are to blame for foiling your weight-loss plan?
Changes in the levels of sex hormones have been shown to affect the metabolism in a number of ways. For instance, estrogen levels affect the way a woman’s body stores fat. According to a research done by Concordia University, low estrogen levels increase the activity of certain proteins and enzymes in the body related to fat metabolism, causing the body to store more fat and burn less. Low testosterone levels alter metabolism as well, according to research done at the UCLA School of Medicine, reducing muscle mass and increasing fat storage in the abdominal region. Low levels of sex hormones in both men and women have also been shown to decrease insulin sensitivity, making the metabolism of sugars and starches less efficient, another mechanism that can inhibit weight loss.
Chronic stress leads to the chronic boost of stress hormones, such as adrenalin and cortisol, which can prompt hormone weight gain. A body of research has shown that chronically high levels of cortisol can slow the metabolism and contribute to insulin resistance. Both factors promote an excessive storage of body fat and inhibit weight loss. High levels of stress hormones can also make you crave high calorie foods, making it difficult to stick to a healthy eating plan.
Insulin, a hormone produced by the pancreas, plays an essential role in the metabolism, aiding the proper absorption of glucose, or sugar, from the bloodstream into the cells for use as energy. Changes in insulin levels, or decreased insulin functions in the body, can disrupt the proper metabolism of glucose, affecting your body weight. For example, insulin resistance, a very common condition in which the body becomes less able to use insulin efficiently, impairs the absorption of glucose into the cells. As the cells become starved for glucose, the metabolism will slow in order to conserve its resources, using fewer calories and storing them as body fat, as a survival reaction.
Thyroid dysfunction is a leading cause of hormone weight gain. Thyroid hormones triiodothyronine (T3) and thyroxine (T4), secreted by the thyroid gland, regulate metabolism – or how your body uses energy. If levels of these hormones in the body become abnormally low – a condition referred to as hypothyroidism or under-active thyroid – the rate of metabolism will slow, decreasing calorie usage and increasing fat storage.
Detecting Hormonal Problems That May Be Affecting Your Weight Loss
A wide variety of lab tests can detect hormonal problems. Sex hormone levels can be measured with blood tests or saliva tests, detecting deficiencies or imbalances in estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone. Men who are concerned about low testosterone should be tested for both total testosterone and free testosterone to accurately diagnose any hormonal deficiencies. Cortisol levels can be measured via saliva or blood tests. These latter can also be used to evaluate the function of the thyroid gland, measuring levels of T3, T4 and thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH). Issues with insulin levels or function can be detected via a number of tests, including blood or urine tests to measure blood glucose levels – providing a current level – and blood tests that offer an overview of glucose levels over two to three months or measure how much insulin the body is producing. Hormonal issues that impair weight loss are a very common and frustrating problem; but, finding out exactly what you’re up against can help. Hormonal imbalances can be treated once they’re properly diagnosed, so see your doctor if your best attempts at weight-loss haven’t proved fruitful.
Trending Diets: What You Should Know About Them
The Ketogenic Diet
The ketogenic, or keto, diet is an eating plan based on high fat intake, adequate levels of protein and very low intake of carbohydrates. It is designed to change the way the body sources energy, forcing it to burn fats as energy, rather than glucose obtained from carbohydrates. Developed as a treatment for epilepsy in 1924, the keto diet is still used today to control the disorder. It is also used in the treatment of other medical issues, and has become very popular for weight loss. Given the high intake of fats, questions have been raised about cholesterol and the ketogenic diet, a concern that we’ll look into here in detail.
About The Ketogenic Diet
A typical Ketogenic Diet plan involves getting most calories from fat (70-90%), a small amount from protein and very minimal carbohydrate intake. The high fat, low carbohydrate makeup of the diet is designed to mimic the fasting state, stimulating a metabolic state called ketosis. This is a state in which the lack of sufficient carbohydrates in the diet forces it to turn to fat as a fuel source. In order to use those fats, the liver includes High Fat Foods with few Carbohydrates converts them into fatty acids and ketones, and the ketones then replace glucose as the body’s main source of energy.
The ketogenic diet was first developed by Dr. Russell Wilder at the Mayo Clinic to control epilepsy. It is still considered a very effective treatment for reducing seizures in patients who suffer the disorder. While it has been largely replaced by anticonvulsant drugs today, it is still used to treat patients with drug-resistant seizure disorders. According to the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, there is strong medical evidence that the keto diet is also beneficial for weight loss, improving insulin resistance and blood glucose levels, and reduction of cardiovascular disease risk factors, including lowering blood pressure and improving cholesterol and triglyceride profiles.
Over the last 15 years, low carbohydrate diets like the Atkins and paleo diets have become increasingly popular. Some critics argue that these diets are not well tested. The keto diet has the advantage of almost 100 years of use and there are many long-term studies of the consequences of the diet. Even so, it is not without side effects and high cholesterol can be one of them.
Ketogenic Diet and High Cholesterol
While many studies – including several cited in the journal article mentioned above – have shown beneficial effects in lipid profiles with the ketogenic diet, cholesterol levels have been shown to rise with use of this diet in others.
For instance, in a 2003 study, researchers at Johns Hopkins Children’s Center found that cholesterol levels rose significantly in children with epilepsy who were treated with a keto diet. After 6 months on the ketogenic diet, more than 60 percent of the group of 141 children had high cholesterol. On the other hand, when researchers studied the long-term effects of a ketogenic diet in obese patients, the results were very different. In a study published in the journal Experimental and Clinical Cardiology, they found that, over a period of 24 weeks, the diet reduced total cholesterol, increased HDL (good) cholesterol, and decreased triglyceride levels in these patients.
Those conflicting results are representative of the body of research available on the issue of cholesterol and ketogenic diets – withmany studies showing benefit in terms of lipid profiles and many others showing detrimental effects. They also mirror the experiences of people who have used the diet, many reporting changes for the better in cholesterol levels, and others finding that the diet worsened their cholesterol profiles. So, when it comes to the ketogenic diet and cholesterol levels, the relationship between the two seems to vary significantly from one person to the next. In particular, people with certain metabolic disorders should avoid the keto diet and it may not be the best diet for those interested in muscle building.
What that means to you, the average person who might be considering this diet, is that it is not one you should undertake on your own. The potential risks and benefits of the ketogenic diet should be discussed carefully with your doctor – as should any radical change in eating habits. Additionally, since the keto diet has been shown to raise cholesterol in a certain percentage of individuals, having your levels checked frequently throughout the process to safeguard your cardiovascular health is wise.
How to Avoid Hitting the Wall: Nutrition Guide for Athletes
Most athletes, especially endurance athletes, have had the experience of hitting the wall in terms of performance during a sporting event or while training. So, what does hitting the wall mean? It is a physiological reaction to long periods of strenuous exercise when the body starts rebelling against itself in one or more of several ways. Your body does not like to be pushed to its limits. Here, we will get into the details of this frustrating problem, including what happens when athletes hit the wall, what can cause it and how to avoid it.
What Is Hitting the Wall?
The term hitting the wall means a lag in performance that cannot be resolved at that moment, no matter how hard one pushes the body and mind. It is the reason that many marathon runners take an average of two minutes longer to complete the second half of a race than they do the first half. So, what happens when an athlete hits the wall? For some athletes, it is about the muscles rebelling, where the mind is still willing; but, the body (the legs, for instance, in runners) gives out. For others, mental exhaustion could take hold, impairing coordination and performance.
What Can Cause It?
There are many potential causes for this problem. The most common one is glycogen depletion. Glycogen, which is metabolized from carbohydrates, is stored in the muscles and liver. When glucose in the bloodstream begins to drop as muscles demand energy, that stored glycogen is released into the bloodstream as glucose, replenishing energy supplies. However, there is a limit as to how much glycogen can be stored by the body, and once that backup supply begins to falter, so too does performance. Other causes of hitting the wall can include poor hydration and/or nutrition before and during endurance exercise and insufficient or improper training or conditioning. Certain nutritional deficits and underlying health issues that affect muscle function or energy and/or oxygen metabolism, can also contribute to this problem, reducing stamina and endurance.
How to Avoid Hitting the Wall
If you’re having a problem with hitting the wall, whether it is during routine training sessions or endurance events, the first thing to do is see your doctor to rule out underlying health issues that could be causing you to run out of steam. Among the potential problems you’d be wise to investigate – for the sake of both your athletic performance and your overall health, are:
Anemia – This common blood disorder impairs the absorption of oxygen from the lungs, lowering levels in the bloodstream, which can definitely take the wind out of your sails when you’re pushing your body to the limit. The most common form is iron deficiency anemia, which happens when there isn’t enough iron in the body to be used by red blood cells to absorb and transport oxygen.
Electrolyte imbalance – Electrolytes, which include calcium, chloride, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium and sodium, are minerals that are essential to muscle function, metabolism and other vital bodily functions. As any athlete probably knows, these essential nutrients can be depleted by exercise, but they can also be depleted by stress, absorption issues or metabolic disturbances.
Common nutritional deficits – Low intake or poor absorption of B-vitamins, which are essential to energy metabolism, can cause endurance issues, as can low levels of vitamin D, which can cause muscle weakness. Getting vitamin levels checked can detect these issues.
Insulin resistance – This is a disorder in the body’s ability to use insulin, which inhibits absorption of glucose into the cells to be used as energy.
Cardiovascular problems – Recent studies have shown that endurance athletes may experience detrimental changes in the cardiovascular system caused by years of extreme exercise.
With the exception of cardiovascular changes, which will require advanced testing, screening for these health issues can be done via a few simple blood tests. If health problems are ruled out, the next area to focus on is your diet. Carb loading during training and the week leading up to an event is recommended – rather than fat loading – according to active.com, as is drinking lots of fluids. However, loading up on either just before an event or training session can cause you to hit the wall. Steady carb consumption during endurance exercise – about 100 to 250 calories per hour – can help keep your energy up, as can avoiding last minute changes in diet before an event. Additionally, when it comes to nutrition for endurance athletes, everyday diet matters as much as pre-event and training nutrition. Seeing a sports nutritionist for help with a long-term nutrition plan can optimize health, increase energy and aid in preventing that frustrating feeling of hitting the wall as you strive for athletic excellence.
Vitamins and Your Health
Those who are keen to maintain good health have found that changes to their diet, sometimes including specific supplements, can make them look and feel better and provide extra protection against illness or injury.
Are you wondering, “which vitamins should I take?” – if so, here are five important vitamins that are essential for good health and wellbeing:
Babies get their vitamin A (retinol) from breast milk while children and adults get theirs from vegetables and fruits such as carrots, broccoli, sweet potatoes, peaches, papaya and apricots. Crucial for a range of important functions, such as promoting a good vision and boosting the immune system against infections and managing a proper reproductive health for both male and female, the World Health Organization has found that deficiencies in vitamin A is the leading cause of blindness in children. They also explained that pregnant women who are vitamin A deficient have higher infant mortality rates. As with other vitamins, a blood test can measure the amount of retinol; and, indicate if your body’s levels are too low or not.
Vitamin B6 assists with the absorption of protein and carbohydrate metabolism. It promotes brain and nerve function, helps form red blood cells and works to strengthen skin, muscles and teeth. Vitamin B6 is found in animal protein rich foods and green vegetables such as spinach, as well as in fruits including cantaloupes, lemons, bananas and alfalfa; it is not stored in the body and needs to be consumed daily.
Symptoms of mild deficiency of vitamin B6 include irritability and sometimes patches of itchy, scaly skin. A more serious lack can cause anemia and convulsions. Taking the correct dose is important as too much can cause nerve damage.
If constant tiredness is a problem, many healthcare professionals decide to test for a range of conditions and anemia is generally one of the first on the list. There are numerous causes of anemia, which in the United States affects 3.5 million people. It can be a symptom of a very serious disease, so blood testing and evaluation is the first step if it is suspected.
Vitamin B12 is found in fish, liver and eggs and a deficiency can cause pernicious anemia, which is a disorder of the red blood cells. Unfortunately, even if an individual includes in their diet sources of B12 and folic acid (found in leafy green vegetables, kidney and liver), it may be the case that their body is not processing the vitamins efficiently and this is when an extra boost may be needed.
Red bleeding gums might be associated with a dental problem, but not many people realize that they are also symptoms of a vitamin C deficiency, which may in turn lead to more serious conditions. People who bruise easily or have little red dots appearing on their skin are likely to need more vitamin C (ascorbic acid). There are a number of tests that can determine if lack of this vitamin is the problem including a positive capillary fragility test. Eating foods that are high in vitamin C, such as fruits and vegetables, liver, kidney, fish and fresh milk and taking supplements, is very effective.
Vitamin D is made in the skin when it is exposed to sunlight and is important for strong bones and growth. A mild lack of vitamin D might cause general pains and aches and, commonly, tiredness. A severe deficiency can cause softening of the bones – osteomalacia in adults and rickets in children, who may also suffer bone deformities.
A healthcare professional who suspects this is a problem may recommend that liver function, calcium and phosphate levels are tested at the same time as vitamin D levels, as these may also encounter changes if vitamin D is low. Very little vitamin D is found in food so supplementation is generally recommended. As well as adults and teens, it is particularly important that babies and young children, pregnant and breast-feeding women, and older people aged over 65 years, obtain sufficient vitamin D.
Vitamins: Why Should You Get Tested?
Over the past few decades, a body of clinical evidence has emerged showing a close association between nutrition and health. Through that accumulated evidence, it has become abundantly clear that providing the body with nutritious foods containing vitamins, minerals and other essential nutrients is important to the maintenance of optimal health and well-being, and that poor nutrition can have detrimental effects on the body, increasing a person’s risk of developing a long list of diseases and health conditions. Many have started to measure the levels of nutrients and vitamins through testing the levels in their blood.
Does that mean that you should be taking vitamins to ensure optimal nutrition? Not necessarily. Physicians and nutrition experts agree that getting your nutrients from foods is best, and that a well-balanced diet can provide everything we need for good health. However, they also agree that supplements can be beneficial when specific vitamin deficiencies or other nutritional deficits exist. So how is the average person to know if they have nutritional deficiencies? Blood tests can be used to evaluate a person’s nutritional status, measuring the amounts of essential nutrients in the body to detect nutritional deficits, including vitamin deficiency.
Why Knowing Your Nutritional Status Matters?
Knowing your nutritional status is important to your overall health, since nutritional deficiencies can occur even in the most health-conscious among us. For instance, vitamin deficiency can be caused by poor absorption of nutrients, an issue that can be caused by digestive problems, aging and certain health conditions and medications. Vitamin and mineral levels in the body can also be affected by stress levels, pollution and other environmental elements and hormonal changes, among countless other factors. So, while eating right can significantly lower your risk of vitamin deficiency and other nutritional issues, it is not an iron-clad guarantee that you’re getting optimal nutrition.
Common Nutritional Deficiencies
Several vitamin deficiencies are quite common among Americans, even those who are eating widely varied, well-balanced diets. Topping the list is Vitamin D deficiency, which according to Harvard School of Public Health, affects over 1 billion people worldwide and can increase risk of a host of chronic diseases, including osteoporosis, heart disease, multiple sclerosis, some cancers and infectious diseases, ranging from tuberculosis to common colds and flu. The primary source of vitamin D in humans is sun exposure, which triggers synthesis of vitamin D in the skin. Since many Americans avoid unprotected sun exposure due to very real concerns about skin cancer from UV radiation, many, if not most, are not producing adequate levels of vitamin D.
Vitamin B-12 is another essential nutrient that many Americans may lack, since absorption problems are quite common–especially in older adults. B-12 deficiency can have very serious consequences, including anemia and neurological damage. According to Harvard Medical School, 3.2% of adults over age 50 have seriously low levels of B-12, and up to 20 percent may have a borderline deficiency. B-12 is found in animal products, such as meats, eggs and dairy, which are not generally lacking in the American diet, so most cases of B-12 deficiency in the U. S. stem from malabsorption issues rather than inadequate B-12 intake. Malabsorption of B-12 is common, according to the CDC, in people over the age of 50, those who have intestinal issues, such as Crohn’s disease, colitis or celiac disease, or people who have had gastric bypass surgery.
Other common nutritional deficits, according to the CDC, include deficiencies in vitamins A, C, E and B-complex vitamins, especially folate and B-6. Minerals that many Americans may not be getting in sufficient amounts include iron, magnesium and zinc.
Blood Testing to Detect Vitamin Deficiency
A variety of blood tests are available that can determine whether your body is receiving appropriate levels of essential nutrients. Among the most effective at assessing overall nutritional status are comprehensive nutrition panels, which measure levels of vitamins, minerals, enzymes and other nutrients essential to health and well-being. Additionally, if you have concerns about specific nutrients – such as those common deficits listed above – individual blood tests are available to test levels of vitamins, minerals and other nutrients that include vitamins A, D, C, K, and B-complex vitamins B-12, B-6, B-1 and folates, minerals like magnesium, calcium, selenium and zinc, as well as antioxidants, beta carotenes and essential enzymes, like CoQ10.
Nutritional testing can help you ensure that your efforts to optimize your health through good nutrition pay off, identifying any nutrients that you may not be getting enough of, as well as any you may be consuming to excess. Why operate in the dark when it comes to optimizing nutrition when real, concrete answers are as easy as a few blood tests?
Vitamin D and Your Health
Vitamin levels in the blood have long served as a barometer of overall health; but, there’s one nutrient gaining a reputation as the vitamin to watch when it comes to cancer, heart disease and other major illnesses. Often referred to as “the sunshine vitamin,” vitamin D is produced naturally when the body is exposed to sunlight. It’s been shown to be crucial to bone, skin and mental health. But it could even prolong your life. Though many people take it as a supplement, it can be found naturally in fish, eggs, fortified daily products and organ meats like liver.
Vitamin D not only helps the body absorb calcium; but, it plays an important role in the immune system. Deficiencies in vitamin D levels can have serious adverse effects. A 2014 study conducted by a team of scientists at Harvard, Oxford, among other major universities, found that adults with reduced levels of the vitamin had a 35% increased risk of death from heart disease, a greater likelihood of death from cancer, especially liver and colorectal cancer, and a higher mortality risk overall. Researchers stress that more studies are needed to determine a solid link between vitamin D and the protections it may provide.
Lowered blood levels of the vitamin can be the result of lifestyle choices like smoking and obesity, but can also be caused by malnutrition and inflammation. Recommended daily allowances for children and most adults under 70 are 600 units of vitamin D daily, with up to 800 units needed per day for people over 70.
Children, in particular, who have vitamin D deficiencies, are at greater risk for rickets, a bone disorder that causes softening of the bones and a bowing of the legs. Adults who don’t get enough vitamin D are at higher risk for osteoporosis. Some researchers say that vitamin D deficiency can also contribute to high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes.
How do you know if you or your child needs more vitamin D? Watch for these predispositions and signs:
- Age is a factor. If you’re over 50, your skin is not as likely to absorb as much vitamin D as when you were younger, spent more time outdoors and were more active. In addition, some studies have shown that as many as one-half of all menopausal women are deficient in vitamin D.
- Head sweats, particularly in young children. A sweaty head is still considered a classic sign of vitamin D deficiency.
- Your gut hurts. Those with inflammatory bowel disease (celiac or Crohn’s disease) may be at higher risk since gastrointestinal disorders affect fat absorption, including fat-soluble vitamin D.
- You suffer from depression. It’s been shown that vitamin D can improve levels of serotonin, which affects mood.
- Your weight is above normal. Being overweight or obese affects the concentration of vitamin D in the body. The more body fat you have, the more “diluted” fat-soluble vitamin D will be. Heavier people may require more daily levels of vitamin D to offset the loss.
- Your skin is dark. Since skin pigment is a natural sunscreen, those with very dark skin need more sun exposure to absorb vitamin D than a fair-skinned person.
- Watch your tongue. One of the first signs of any vitamin deficiency is found in the tongue and oral cavity.
In severe case of vitamin D deficiency, the following may occur:
- Bone and muscle pain with muscle weakness. Up to 25% of adults diagnosed with fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome are reportedly deficient in vitamin D.
- Hip pain with fractures, which can also be a sign of osteoporosis, a potential result of a vitamin D deficiency.
- Difficulty getting up from a chair, or walking. Frequent falls may also occur.
Vitamin B 12 and Your Health
Evidence continues to build that low levels of the vitamin B12 lead to confusion and memory problems in older individuals. These symptoms are being misdiagnosed, by doctors, as Alzheimer’s disease or as simply the cognitive decline associated with old age. The important question is why aren’t more people tested for vitamin B12 deficiencies? A B12 deficiency can occur, with little warning, causing many confusing symptoms that can be avoided with a simple nutritional testing to identify any potential deficiency that would then be easily treated.
Vitamin B12 Is Essential for Good Health
Vitamin B12 is a vitamin that is essential for maintaining good health. The body uses B12 to make red blood cells and DNA. It also plays a critical role in maintaining a healthy brain and nervous system. We absorb vitamin B12 from the food we eat, particularly from meat, shellfish, eggs, milk, and cheese, eggs. However, as we age our ability to absorb B12 declines as does our consumption of foods that are rich in this vitamin. A serious B12 deficiency typically results in anemia; but, low levels of B12 can result in symptoms such as fatigue, muscle weakness, shakiness, low blood pressure, incontinence, depression and cognitive issues including memory problems.
There is some controversy regarding what is consider a normal or healthy level of B12 in the blood. Most experts do agree that levels below 250 picograms per milliliter of blood serum is considered low. Because B12 is water soluble, like all B vitamins, your body is able to store B12 mainly in the liver and related tissue. When the stores of B12 start to get low a deficiency and related problems can develop quickly, especially in children and the elderly.
Recommendations from experts can vary regarding what are the appropriate dietary amounts of B12; but, minimum guidelines for adults are 2.4 micrograms daily, 2.6 micrograms for pregnant women, and 2.8 micrograms for women who are nursing. The ideal way to obtain these levels of vitamin B12 are eating a well-balanced diet animal protein such as red meat, turkey, fish and shellfish. Smaller amounts of vitamin B12 can be found chicken, eggs, and dairy products. B12 vitamin supplements are also a common way to obtain sufficient amounts of the vitamin.
Are You At Risk of a Vitamin B12 Deficiency?
If you adhere to a strict vegetarian or vegan diet; then, you are at risk of a vitamin B12 deficiency because vegetables are poor sources of the vitamin. Also, if you are a regular user of acid suppressing or ulcer medication such as Prevacid, Nexium, Prilosec, Pepcid, and Tagamet you are at risk of a deficiency because vitamin B12 is assisted by your stomach acid to be properly absorbed in the blood. You may also be at increased risk of developing a B12 deficiency, if you consume large amounts of alcohol which decrease your body’s ability to absorb it.
Aging causes stomach acid levels to decline; and, decreased levels can lead to insufficient acid found that can aid in the absorption of vitamin B12. It is estimated that 30% of older people suffer from this problem and require supplementation to get adequate levels of the vitamin B12.
Vitamin B12 found in supplements and fortified foods is synthetic and can be absorbed without the help of stomach acids.
Vitamin B12 Supplements
Regardless of the form of vitamin B12, the body only absorbs a limited amount of what is consumed. This means that if you are addressing a vitamin B12 deficiency, you must ingest larger doses than what your body’s recommended dose. Daily supplementation with 25 to 100 micrograms of B12 is recommended for people over the age of 50. To treat a deficiency, vitamin B12 can be obtained through oral supplements, injections, skin patches or sublingual (under-the-tongue) tablets. In cases of dramatic deficiencies or absorption problems such as pernicious anemia, doctors will usually recommend B12 injections.
If you have chosen to take a daily supplement to address a vitamin B12 deficiency; then, 2,000 micrograms are recommended for the first month, then 1,000 micrograms for the next month. After this preliminary period, a smaller dose, taken daily or weekly, is recommended. To ensure that you are not suffering ongoing detrimental effects of a deficiency, a simple Vitamin B12 blood test can be obtained periodically. This will ensure a correct level of supplementation.
COQ 10 and Your Health
Co-enzyme Q10 (Coq10) is a fat-soluble, vitamin-like enzyme that is found in the mitochondria – or power plants – of the body’s cells. It plays a vital role in the ability of cells to produce the energy they need for proper function, including those in virtually all the body’s vital organs and systems. It also functions as a powerful antioxidant, helping to protect against oxidative damage to cells. Given the essential functions Coq10 performs in most every part of the body, low levels can affect health and well-being in a number of ways. Here we’ll look into the impact of low Coq10 levels, including Coq10 deficiency symptoms, how to determine if your levels are low, and how deficiencies can be treated.
About Coq10: How Deficiency Happens
While a percentage of the Coq10 that the body needs is obtained from foods, the main source of this vital compound is the body itself, which produces it naturally. However, a number of mitochondrial and genetic diseases can impair the body’s ability to produce Coq10, leading to severe deficiencies, and production within the body typically slows with age, leading to mild to moderate deficiencies. Certain diseases, health conditions and medications can also deplete the body’s supply of the enzyme.
Coq10 Deficiency Symptoms
Severe Coq10 deficiencies are not common, are typically related to rare genetic and mitochondrial conditions, and generally become apparent in childhood. When they occur, they can result in serious, even life-threatening symptoms, including seizures, mental retardation, growth retardation, severe muscle weakness and motor delays, heart failure, kidney failure and visual impairments among many others.
Mild to moderate deficiencies are much more common, and are most likely to occur in people over the age of 40. Since Coq10 is essential to energy production in the body, symptoms of insufficient levels can include mental and physical fatigue. A person with low Coq10 levels may feel tired all the time or become exhausted after short periods of activity. They may have difficulty concentrating, have memory problems, and experience mood swings, irritability, depression and anxiety. Muscle pain is common, as is joint pain and frequent headaches.
Over the long term, chronically low levels of Coq10, according to the Mayo Clinic, can lead to conditions that include heart failure, high blood pressure and chest pain. According to a study published in the December 2009 issue of Pharmacology and Therapeutics, low Coq10 levels promote inflammation that increases the risk of high cholesterol, atherosclerosis, coronary artery disease and other forms of cardiovascular disease.
Detection and Treatment of Coq10 Deficiency or Insufficiency
Given the potential health effects of low Coq10 levels, maintaining optimal levels of this essential enzyme is important. However, since symptoms of mild to moderate deficiencies can be very subtle, they are often overlooked. For this reason, Coq10 deficiency is most often diagnosed via blood tests that measure levels of the enzyme in the bloodstream. So, if you are over 40, suffer from chronic diseases or health conditions, or are experiencing any of the symptoms mentioned above, requesting a blood test to screen for Coq10 deficiency is wise.
If your blood test confirms Coq10 deficiency, treating that deficiency is generally done with a combination of dietary changes and Coq10 supplementation. Adding food to your diet that contains this vital enzyme, such as organ meats, beef, fish, poultry and eggs, can help. However, if your levels are significantly low, supplements are usually recommended, since it can be very difficult to get enough COq10 to restore healthy levels from dietary sources alone. Coq10 supplements are easily available without a prescription, and recommended dosages for adults’ range between 30 and 200 mg daily.
Your doctor may recommend a higher dose of Coq10 under some circumstances – extremely low levels, for instance, or regular use of medications that deplete Coq10 – especially statin drugs. Additionally, higher doses may be recommended if you are affected by chronic health problems. There is good evidence, according to the Mayo Clinic, that Coq10 supplementation can help lower blood pressure in hypertension patients and may be helpful in the treatment of chronic heart failure, and some evidence that it may be useful in the treatment of some eye diseases, asthma and certain forms of cancer.
Folate and Your Health
Folate is one of the B-complex vitamins, a family of vitamins essential to human health. Also commonly referred to as folic acid,folate performs a number of important roles in the body. Given that fact, maintaining proper levels of it important. Here we’ll look into what can happen if you do not, detailing the symptoms of folic acid deficiency and its potential consequences, as well as how you can find out if you’re at risk.
Folate plays a variety of vital roles within the body. It is necessary for the production of red blood cells and to make and repair DNA. It is vital to proper brain and nervous system development in babies during gestation, and to maintaining brain and nervous system health and function in children and adults.
Folate is a water-soluble vitamin found in foods that include legumes, such as lentils and garbanzo, lima, kidney and pinto beans, dark green vegetables, including spinach, asparagus, broccoli and turnip greens, and citrus fruit, like oranges, grapefruit and tangerines. Additionally, many breads, cereals, flours and grains are enriched with folic acid in the U.S.
Causes of Folate Deficiency
Inadequate dietary intake of folate is the most common cause of folic acid deficiency. If you are not getting enough folate in your daily diet, deficiency can develop after just a few weeks. Pregnancy creates a higher than normal demand for folate, which can lead to deficiency. Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis and celiac disease, certain medications and a number of genetic diseases can also impair folic acid absorption, leading to deficiency.
Symptoms of Folic Acid Deficiency
Symptoms of folate deficiency are often subtle, and may include:
- Mouth sores
- Swelling of the tongue
- Growth problems in children
- Premature graying of the hair
Clinical folate deficiency typically results in folate deficiency anemia, which is a blood disorder characterized by a low red blood cell count, as well as the presence of abnormally large and improperly formed immature red blood cells. Symptoms of folate deficiency anemia may include:
- Chronic fatigue
- Pale skin
- Appetite loss
- Tongue tenderness
Potential Complications of Folate Deficiency
The most common complication of folate deficiency is, as mentioned above, anemia. However, there are other important complications that can occur. During pregnancy, low folate levels can cause serious birth defects, called neural tube defects that affect the spinal cord and brain of developing babies. Folate deficiency also increases risk of other pregnancy complications.
How to Find Out Your Folate Status – And What to Do If You’re Deficient
If you have low folic acid symptoms, suspect that you may not be getting adequate amounts of this essential nutrient in your diet, or are pregnant, you can check your folate levels with a blood test that measures levels of this vital nutrient in your bloodstream. Should that test show that your levels are low, another blood test, called a Complete Blood Count (CBC), can help determine if you have developed folate deficiency anemia. Other testing may also be done to determine the causes of your deficiency. Treatment will depend on those causes, but most frequently will include folic acid supplements along with healthy dietary and lifestyle changes.
Iron and your Health
Since the beginning of time, humans have used food to prevent or cure disease, long before they had any knowledge of what we now call nutrition. Scourges like rickets, scurvy and beriberi were eventually eradicated with diets that provided the necessary nutrients to stay healthy. Among the most critically important nutrients – then and now – was iron.
Iron makes hemoglobin, the red substance in the blood that carries oxygen. It also helps obtain energy from food, so it’s a major element in good nutrition. Necessary for growth, development and normal cell functioning, iron is not only essential for good health, but for life itself.
Without iron, hemoglobin can’t do its job, carrying oxygen from the lungs to the cells throughout the body. A second compound, myoglobin, grabs the iron from the hemoglobin and stores it in the muscles, allowing the muscles to function properly. In addition, iron carries carbon dioxide to the lungs, which we expel as we exhale. Iron is also part of the chemical makeup of several vital enzymes and proteins, playing a major role in energy metabolism.
There are two types of iron:
- Heme iron, which is easily absorbed and accounts for 40% of iron found in meats
- Non-heme iron, found in vegetables and not as easily absorbed
How well the body absorbs iron depends on several variables, including whether there is sufficient vitamin C used in the absorption process, the presence of calcium that can interfere with absorption, and certain health conditions. In adults, iron loss can result from peptic ulcer, hiatal hernia, diverticulitis, cancer, and even normal monthly menstrual cycles if excessive amounts of blood are lost.
The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that about half of the 1.62 billion cases of anemia worldwide are due to iron deficiency. More common in developing countries, it usually results from pathogens and blood loss from parasites.
What is Iron Deficiency or Depletion?
Defined as depleted reserves of iron in the body, an iron deficiency can lead to anemia (reduced levels of hemoglobin) because with less iron, blood cells can’t ferry sufficient oxygen from the lungs to the body tissues.
1. Iron depletion usually progresses in stages:
2. Mild deficiency with iron concentrations showing a decrease.
3. Marginal deficiency in which iron stores are depleted, but hemoglobin levels are still within normal range.
Iron stores are exhausted with declines in hematocrit and hemoglobin levels. Anemia can follow, characterized by small red cells and low hemoglobin concentrations.
What are the Symptoms of Iron Deficiency?
Among the more common symptoms:
- Fatigue in which even routine tasks require more effect
- Difficulty sleeping and restlessness
- Inability to concentrate
- Rapid heart rate
- Shortness of breath
Any of these symptoms can appear before a blood test confirms a lack of iron, especially in children. Keep in mind, however, that iron deficiency is uncommon in the U.S. because most children and adults normally obtain adequate amounts of iron from their diets. Iron levels also change constantly, depending on food intake and activity level.
Who’s at Risk for Iron Deficiency?
Though iron deficiencies occur throughout populations mostly in developing countries, some groups of people everywhere are more at risk than others. For example, one study from the CDC reported that a surprising number of women 50 and older have an iron deficiency. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) say the following groups are most likely to have inadequate intakes of iron:
Pregnant women – more iron is needed during pregnancy.
Infants and young children – due to rapid growth, infants need an adequate amount of iron for normal development.
Frequent blood donors – donations are allowed every eight weeks, which can cause depletion of iron.
Cancer patients – especially those with colon cancer; primarily due to blood loss.
Those with gastrointestinal disorders – due to dietary restrictions, blood loss or iron malabsorption.
People with heart failure – about 60 percent of patients with chronic heart failure have an iron deficiency due to poor nutrition, malabsorption or medications.
What are some Good Sources of Iron?
The list is long, but here’s a partial list of foods that are naturally rich in iron:
- Molasses (especially blackstrap)
- Iron-fortified cereals and breads
- Calf liver
- Dried beans
- Dried prunes and the juice from prunes
- Meat and poultry
- Broccoli, beet, kale and spinach. Escarole, related to both chicory and endive, is also rich in iron.
- Cantaloupe and strawberries
- Nuts and cheese
- Dark chocolate
What Are the Recommended Daily Allowances for Iron?
A Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) is defined as the average daily level of intake sufficient to meet the nutrient requirements of nearly all healthy individuals. The RDAs for vegetarians have been adjusted at 1.8 times higher than for those who eat meat. While the U.S. Food and Nutrition Board recommend a minimum daily intake of 8 mg or iron for men and women, other experts, including the NIH Office of Dietary Supplements suggest the following RDA breakdown:
Infants, birth to six months: 0.27 mg Infants, 7 – 12 months: 11 mg Children, 1-3 years: 7 mg Children, 4 – 8 years: 10 mg Children, 9-13 years: 8 mg Children, 14- 18 years: 11 mg (boys); 15 mg (girls) Adults, 19 – 50 years: 8 mg (men); 18 mg (women) Adults, 51 and older: 8 mg Pregnant women: 27 mg
Can You Have Too Much Iron?
Yes, though it’s uncommon in adults with normal intestinal function. When it does occur, iron overload increases the risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer, particularly of the colon. Excess iron bonds with free radicals, which can damage cells. Acute (short-term) intake of more than 20 mg of iron from supplements or medication can lead to gastric problems, including constipation, nausea and stomach pain, vomiting and faintness.
Therefore, most nutritionists agree that if you’re healthy and eat a well-balanced diet, you should not take iron supplements (exception: if you’re pregnant and your doctor prescribes). A few researchers’ advice that you eat less red meat, exercise regularly and become a blood donor to lower iron levels.
There is a disease, hemochromatosis, caused by a mutation in a specific gene that is associated with the buildup of iron. About one in ten Caucasians carry the mutation but those who develop the condition are far fewer. Without treatment, people with hereditary hemochromatosis can develop signs of iron toxicity, causing damage to the liver, heart and pancreas.
Common causes of high iron levels include:
- Certain genetic disorders
- Frequent blood transfusions
- Overuse of iron supplements
- Liver conditions that impair function, such as hepatitis or cirrhosis
- Certain medications
Excessive iron levels can cause a variety of symptoms, including:
- Abdominal pain
- Joint pain
- Weight loss
- Muscle weakness
- Low energy and/or diminished sex drive
- Heart problems
- Darkening of the skin
Should I Take an Iron Supplement?
Experts disagree on this topic, with some saying it depends on lifestyle and environment. Factors to consider are stress, pollution, eating habits and exposure to secondhand smoke as variables that can affect your overall health. Furthermore, as we age, we don’t always regulate and properly store metals, including iron, which can end up in the brain in places where they don’t belong. Alzheimer’s risk can increase with high or low levels of iron.
Can you meet all of your nutritional needs through diet alone? If not, take a multivitamin as “nutritional insurance” that could help prevent disease. Consider an iron-free version if you already have an adequate amount of iron in your diet. It’s been estimated that 14 – 18 percent of Americans use a supplement containing iron, including up to 72 percent of pregnant women.
Is it Safe to Cook with Iron Utensils?
Yes. There is only a marginal add-on of iron to the body when food is cooked in cast-iron skillets and other iron cookware. Few people use heavy, cast-iron cookware often, so there’s little danger of iron overload.
Diagnosis and Treatment of Abnormal Iron Levels in Blood
Diagnosis of abnormal iron levels is typically done by an evaluation of symptoms and the use of several blood tests. Among these are the complete blood count (CBC), which measures hemoglobin, hematocrit, red blood cells (RBC), white blood cells (WBC), and platelets. Abnormal CBC results often prompt more testing, which may include a serum iron test, which directly measures iron levels in the bloodstream, and a serum ferritin test that measures levels of iron stored in the body, among others.
Treatment varies widely according to the underlying causes of high or low iron levels, and success often depends largely on identifying and treating those underlying conditions.
Gluten Testing: What You Need To Know
Celiac Disease is an autoimmune disorder that results from the inability to digest gluten, a compound found in grains that include wheat, barley and rye. In people with celiac, undigested gluten causes an abnormal immune system response that can damage to the lining of the small intestine. Celiac disease is a genetic condition that affects three million Americans. Definitive diagnosis of the disease, which is done through blood testing and gastrointestinal screening, is important to help guide treatment.
About Celiac Disease
Celiac disease is a form of intestinal illness, often referred to as gluten-sensitive enteropathy (which means ‘disease of the intestine’). It affects the body’s immune system, causing it to attack the small intestine, damaging the villi that line the intestinal wall. Villi are tiny, finger like protrusions in the small intestine that are vital to the absorption of nutrients through the intestinal walls into the bloodstream.
Damage to these vital structures leads to poor absorption of nutrients and eventually, malnutrition. Some celiac sufferers exhibit lifelong symptoms, while in others, the onset of the disease is triggered by surgery, pregnancy, childbirth, viral infection or periods of severe stress.
Celiac Disease Symptoms
The type, number and intensity of celiac disease symptoms vary greatly from one affected individual to another. Some with this common disorder display no obvious symptoms, while others suffer severe, debilitating ones.
Common symptoms in infants and children include:
- Abdominal bloating and pain
- Chronic diarrhea
- Pale or fatty stool with a foul odor
- Weight loss
- Failure to thrive in infants
- Slow growth
- Delayed puberty
- Dental enamel defects
Adults may display many of the same digestive symptoms as children as well as other common celiac disease symptoms such as:
- Unexplained iron-deficiency anemia
- Bone or joint pain
- Depression or anxiety
- Unexplained infertility
- Recurrent miscarriage
- Irregular or missed menstrual periods
- Tingling or numbness in hands and feet
- Mouth sores
- Itchy skin rash
Potential Long-Term Complications of Celiac Disease
Untreated celiac disease is associated with a number of long-term health effects. Individuals with celiac disease also have an increased risk of developing other autoimmune diseases, such as:
- Insulin-dependent type 1 diabetes
- Autoimmune liver disease
- Thyroid disease
- Addison’s disease
- Sjögren’s syndrome
- Neurological disorders
Celiac disease can also lead to long-term complications, including osteoporosis, anemia and cancers of the esophagus, intestine and lymphatic system.
Celiac Disease Treatment
There is just one effective treatment for this condition: a strict gluten free diet. The majority of patients who adhere to such a diet, faithfully, are able to resolve celiac disease symptoms and heal intestinal damage. However, it can be difficult to achieve optimal nutrition on such a diet; so, it is important to seek the assistance of a dietitian to formulating a healthy, well-balanced eating plan.
Why Definitive Diagnosis Matters
Individuals who are experiencing celiac disease symptoms should never self-diagnose. A long list of other diseases and health conditions can cause issues that resemble celiac disease symptoms or can coexist with it, requiring more extensive treatment than the dismissal of gluten from the diet.
One way for a definitive diagnosis of celiac disease is blood testing that will detect antibodies associated with the condition. The blood test must be performed while you are still exposed to gluten in order to detect gluten antibodies.
Individuals who have a family history of celiac disease may choose to be screened for the disorder by means of blood testing, even if no symptoms are present. For many, celiac is a silent disease, producing no obvious symptoms or very mild ones. While these individuals do not suffer the daily celiac disease symptoms that others do, the small intestine is still progressively damaged by gluten ingestion, and the risk of long-term, sometimes life-threatening complications, is still an issue.
Health Testing Centers offer antibody testing for celiac disease screening. Consumers can order tests quickly and easily online and samples are collected at one of 1700 convenient LabCorp locations.
Dietary Supplements: Friend or Foe?
For decades, we’ve been told that supplemental vitamins and minerals can make us healthier and ward off certain diseases. Americans are so convinced of that message that they spend more than $28 billion a year on vitamins, minerals and other supplements, with nearly half of all Americans taking a multivitamin daily.
Historically, there was good reason to embrace supplemental dietary aids. Lack of vitamin D, for example, was known to cause rickets; lack of niacin caused pellagra (a disorder of the nervous system characterized by a scaly skin rash) while lack of vitamin A resulted in blindness. Pregnant women were warned for decades that lack of folic acid in the diet could mean a crippling spine disease for their unborn child. Vitamin deficiencies could even kill.
But, better nutrition and vitamin-fortified foods have resolved many of these problems, say health experts. Today, new evidence is mounting that supplemental vitamins and minerals really don’t do much to improve our overall health. In fact, a number of studies are showing that not only do most people not need them — they can actually be harmful to some. Dietary supplements don’t, for instance, prevent chronic disease or death. In a few studies, they’ve actually been shown to increase the risk of heart disease and certain cancers; more on that later.
What you should know is that a huge debate is ongoing between nutritionists and the supplement industry about the pros and cons of supporting a normal diet with what might turn out to be an unnecessary product. To date, it remains a contentious issue and to date, many people are still confident that ingesting a multivitamin each day is beneficial at most and harmless at the least.
First, let’s define “dietary supplement.” According the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), a dietary supplement is a product intended for ingestion that adds further nutritional value to the diet. It can be a vitamin, mineral, herb, fiber, fatty acids or amino acids, taken by way of capsules, gels, tablets, liquids or powders. The most common dietary supplements are multivitamins.
There are more than 50,000 dietary supplements available today. Some are classified as drugs; others as dietary products. Now let’s see what all the fuss is about.
What’s the case for taking a dietary supplement?
While it’s true you can obtain all the vitamins, minerals and nutrients you need from a normal healthy diet, our degraded food supply, say some preventive health experts, doesn’t allow a diet that is rich enough in vitamins and minerals for optimal health. In addition, the term “recommended daily allowance” (RDA) has reduced certain diseases to a minimum (scurvy and rickets, for example) but should not be used as a standard guide for the highest level of nutrition.
Producers of a booklet titled The Benefits of Nutritional Supplements say vitamin and mineral deficiencies can be easily be corrected with a multivitamin. According to their data, more than 97 percent of women and 95 percent of men receive less than the RDA for Vitamin E, with 70 percent of girls ages 14-18 getting less than the RDA for iron.
In New Zealand, about 12 percent of those over the age of 50 (five percent of the total population) get state-funded vitamin D supplements, while 74 percent of elderly residents in residential care facilities receive dietary supplements.
One young New Zealand mother, who has a newborn baby, reported she took Vitamin D after she learned her Vitamin D levels were low. “If the mother has low levels, then so can the baby,” she said. “I stand by my decision and definitely don’t feel that I’ve wasted my money.”
Vitamins and a good diet – some say – are the best of both worlds. Others say that changing a long-term mind shift about dietary supplements is hard: even with no proven benefits, taking a multivitamin can’t hurt. Media and marketing support this argument, contributing to the steady increase in vitamin sales ($28 billion and counting).
Certain populations remain at risk and certain vitamins supplements can help, says the Centers for Disease Control (CDC): Mexican-American women and young children are more likely than the general population to be low in iron; young women tend to be low on iodine. But their overall numbers are also low – less than 11 percent of children and 13 percent of women within that particular population.
What’s the case against?
A number of recent studies have concluded that not only are supplemental vitamins and minerals a waste of money and don’t live up to their claims; but they can actually do more harm than good. Too much beta carotene and vitamin E can cause cancer; excess vitamin A can cause liver damage, coma and even lead to death.
Most people who take multivitamins and other supplements don’t need them as they don’t have a deficiency, according to numerous studies. The focus, instead, should be on fruits, vegetables, nuts, beans, low-fat dairy and spending more time and money on exercise.
In a widely reported July, 2013 Atlantic article by Paul Offit, several prior studies dating back decades had already shown that vitamins could increase the risk of cancer and heart disease, shortening lives. Even the sacred cow of cold and flu remedies – vitamin C – was debunked after Linus Pauling, who literally wrote the book on vitamin C, was proven wrong by study after study. Researchers concluded that vitamin C doesn’t treat the common cold and certainly doesn’t (as Pauling also claimed) treat or cure cancer.
Other vitamin and mineral studies versus diet were used for comparison at cancer research centers, including the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle where, in 1996, 18,000 subjects were studied who had been exposed to asbestos. Therefore, they were at higher risk for lung cancer. The study was ended when investigators found those who took vitamins and supplements were dying at a higher rate than those who weren’t. In 2007, the National Cancer Institute studied 11,000 men, some who took and some who didn’t take multivitamins. The men who ingested multivitamins were twice as likely to die from advanced prostate cancer.
Bottom line: there is plenty of evidence to support the fact that vitamins can and are beneficial; but, only to those individuals who have documented nutritional deficiencies. According to numerous studies that are now gaining national attention, supplementation with extra vitamins or other nutrients do nothing to benefit the general population. When in doubt, check with your healthcare provider and consider a Vitamin profiling to determine your nutrient levels.
Overdosing on Vitamins: Too Much Of A Good Thing Is Possible
Nutritional supplements and fortified foods/drinks have become very popular in recent years and can offer beneficial insurance against nutritional deficits or deficiencies, when used properly. However, when it comes to supplementing essential nutrients, too much of a good thing is definitely possible, with excess use of some nutrients capable of causing health problems. Here we’ll explore which vitamins can cause trouble, how much is too much, how overdoses can happen, vitamin overdose symptoms, and how to avoid vitamin overdose.
Fat Soluble Vitamins
Fat soluble vitamins include vitamins D, E, K and A. Since these vitamins are stored by the body in the fatty tissues and liver, they present the highest risk of vitamin overdose with excessive daily intake. However, it is extremely rare to achieve toxic levels of these nutrients through diet alone. Typically, overdose occurs due to an overuse of supplements or fortified foods and drinks. For that reason, if you are taking vitamin supplements, it is important to be aware of and adhere to the dietary reference intake and tolerable upper intake levels (UL) of these vitamins – guidelines established by the Institute of Medicine to aid in reducing risk of vitamin overdose. Here are the guidelines for these fat-soluble vitamins, along with the potential health effects of exceeding recommended intake levels, and common vitamin overdose symptoms that can occur if you do:
Vitamin D – Recommended daily intake of vitamin D is 600 IU for most adults, and 800 IU daily for those over age 70. The tolerable upper intake level – or the most the average adult can take daily without adverse effects – is 4,000 IU. Getting too much vitamin D on a regular basis can cause hypercalcemia, or high levels of calcium in the blood, which increases the risk of cardiovascular disease and osteoporosis, as well as kidney stones and some typed of cancer. Symptoms of vitamin D overdose may include nausea, poor appetite, frequent urination, feeling thirsty all the time, abdominal pain, irregularity including constipation or diarrhea, muscle aches or weakness, general fatigue and even weakness.
Vitamin A – Recommended daily intake of vitamin A for adults is 3,000 IU for men and 2,300 IU for women. The tolerable upper intake level is 10,000 IU daily. Overdosing on vitamin A can lead to hair loss, liver damage, bone loss and confusion. Symptoms of too much vitamin A can include drowsiness, irritability, severe headache, bone pain, blurred vision, nausea and vomiting.
Vitamin E – Recommended daily intake of this fat-soluble vitamin is 22 IU daily for natural vitamin E and 33 IU for synthetic versions. Tolerable upper intake for adults is 1,500 IU of natural vitamin E and 1,100 IU of synthetic. Taking too much can inhibit blood clotting in the body.
Vitamin K – Recommended daily intake of vitamin K is 120 mcg for men and 90 mcg for women. No tolerable upper intake has been determined. Overdose can cause numbness or tingling in the hands or feet.
Water Soluble Vitamins
Most water-soluble vitamins are easily eliminated from the body, making overdosing on them difficult. However, there are a few exceptions to this rule. High doses of vitamin C can cause diarrhea, nausea and stomach cramps, while excessive intake of folate – a B-complex vitamin – can mask signs of B12 deficiency, which can lead to permanent nerve damage when left untreated. Too much niacin – another B-complex vitamin, can cause nausea, jaundice and elevated liver enzymes, while too much B-6 can lead to nerve damage.
Again, if you’re supplementing these vitamins, sticking close to the recommended daily intake is your safest course of action. Additionally, knowing and adhering to the tolerable upper intake guidelines, in terms of intake from diet and supplements, is important.
Avoiding Vitamin Overdose
While both the recommended daily intake and tolerable upper intake guidelines offer some protection against vitamin overdose, it is important to realize that these are much generalized standards, indicating safe levels for the average person. Certain genetic traits, health conditions, medications and other factors can alter the body’s nutritional needs, affecting the absorption and usage of nutrients, and hidden sources of vitamins and minerals, such as drinking water, for instance, can lead to nutrient overdose.
Given these variables that can increase the risk of vitamin overdose, the best way to ensure your safety is to know where you stand in terms of nutrition before resorting to supplements that may be unnecessary or even dangerous. This can be done via blood testing, a quick, simple procedure. Among the options available are: 1) complete nutrition panels, which can give a comprehensive overview of nutritional status, including any overly high levels of nutrients or nutrient deficiencies, or 2) testing for common nutritional deficiencies, such as vitamin D, B-12, iron, calcium or magnesium.
Commonly Asked Questions about Nutrition and Vitamin Supplements
Should my family stop taking multivitamins?
That depends on where you stand with the current debate over the usefulness of dietary supplements. The sale of multivitamins and other supplements hasn’t been affected by the current debate and one dietary supplement industry group reportedly said “there is a real-life need for vitamin and mineral supplementation because we don’t live in a fairy-tale world where we’re all eating healthy diets and getting everything we need from food alone.”
If your family member has certain conditions in which the body can’t properly absorb nutrients (celiac disease, for instance) or there is a pregnancy, supplementation may well be reasonable. Some parents also say they try hard to introduce good dietary habits to their children, but until those habits take hold, they like the assurance of a daily multivitamin tablet.
When in doubt, check with your family healthcare provider. A full range of vitamin profiles through Health Testing Centers are also available to evaluate normal vitamin and minerals levels.
If I decide to take a supplement, how do I know which one is best?
In a 2003, the Nutrition Action Health report was issued on how to rate multivitamins. This award-winning publication is produced by an independent, science-based consumer-advocacy organization called the Center for Science in the Public Interest. The group has published numerous helpful articles on nutrition, food and supplemental product since 2003. The following guidelines may still prove helpful, today:
Look for 100 percent of the daily value (DV) for ten specific vitamins A, B-1 (thiamin), B-2 (riboflavin), B6, B12, C, D, E, folic acid and niacin. If over the age of 50, also look for a multivitamin with 25 micrograms (mcg) of vitamin B12, or four times the DV.
Look for 100 percent of DV for zinc, copper and chromium. Magnesium at 25 percent of DV is acceptable.
Take calcium and selenium separately to fulfill the DV.
Beware of excesses – no more than 500 mg of phosphorus, 200 mg of vitamin B6, or 15,000 IU of beta-carotene. With iron, proper dosages vary from one person to another but in general look for no more than 18 mg of DV.
For updated information from the Center for Science in the Public Interest, visit their website at www.cspinet.org.
If you’re still not sure about taking supplements, consult with your healthcare provider and follow his or her guidelines.
Can’t I get all my nutrients naturally from foods?
Numerous experts are approving such a claim. In the December 16, 2013 issue of Annals of Internal Medicine, the authors of three new studies concluded that spending your money on more fruits, vegetables, nuts beans, low-fat dairy and getting more exercise made more sense for long-term benefits than purchasing multivitamins and other supplements. Eat more foods that are rich in nutrients and maintain a well-balanced diet to help counter risks associated with cancer, heart health, brain and cognitive measures (the studies tracked multivitamin links to these diseases and disorders).
But, which foods are best for your body and mind? Many foods are rich in vitamins, minerals and fatty acids, but did you know that some have even been shown to improve your cognitive ability and improve your mood?
Calcium (may improve PMS-related moods) – consume collard greens, kale, ricotta (part skim), plain, low-fat yogurt and low-fat milk.
Chromium (helps metabolize food, regulates sugar and can regulate mood and emotions) – found in broccoli, grape juice, whole wheat bread, turkey and potatoes.
Folate (B9 or folic acid) helps with serotonin regulation and new cell production – found in spinach, asparagus, Brussels sprouts and avocado.
Iron (fights fatigue and depression) – found in fortified oatmeal, soybeans, lentils, beef and turkey.
Magnesium has a varied role in maintaining good physical and mental health. Foods rich in magnesium include spinach, almonds, peanuts, cashews and edamame.
Omega-3 (helps decrease risk of depression) – found in Atlantic salmon, herring and trout, chia seeds, broccoli and spinach.
Vitamin B6 (regulates brain function) – found in chickpeas, salmon, tuna, chicken and fortified cereals.
Vitamin B12 (supports red blood cells and nerve development) – found in meats, eggs and animal byproducts including fish and cheese.
Vitamin D – (regulates cell growth, supports immune system and can ward off depression) – found in cod liver oil, milk, salmon and swordfish, and Chanterelle mushrooms.
Zinc (supports the immune system) – found in cashews, Swiss cheese, pumpkin seeds, pork loin and Alaska king crab.
Why do some say there is some physician bias against nutritional supplements?
Physicians specialize in the treatment of diseases, not preventive medicine or nutrition. They spend a lot of time studying illnesses while pharmaceutical companies spend millions on the research and development of safe, effective products. They tend to overlook the natural way of prevention. They are meat to focus on the post disease stage and not the pre-stage.
What about over-the-counter supplements considered “natural?”
Much of the multi-billion-dollar-a-year industry includes the thousands of products found on shelves in health food stores, grocery and retail chains, and online. Some people swear by them; others consider these “natural” supplements unnecessary and wasteful.
Examples available in liquid, capsule and chewable forms:
Red clover – part of the legume family, they are promoted as a product to reduce hot flashes in women, and reduce anxiety and depression. (Note: if you have breast or uterine cancer, check with your healthcare provider before taking red clover).
Soy isoflavones – rich in plant compounds used to reduce the symptoms of menopause. (May also increase the risk of breast and endometrial cancer so check with your healthcare provider).
Omega-3 fats – protects the heart and improves your immune function; may help reduce hot flashes and improve mood.
Black cohosh – used for centuries by native tribes for women’s health; may ease symptoms and effects of menopause.
What are the latest research findings on dietary supplements?
While healthcare experts, researchers, nutritionists and advocates of the dietary supplement industry continue to debate the pros and cons of taking vitamins, minerals and other add-ons to daily diet, evidence leans much more in the direction of not doing so if a well-nourished individual eats a healthy, balanced diet.
These findings revolve around this simplified theory: The body makes its own antioxidants to help neutralize free radicals, which can damage DNA and disrupt cell membranes. Since free radicals are bad, many people take large doses of antioxidants found in supplemental products, including vitamins and minerals to enhance the neutralization.
However, free radicals also kill bacteria and can eliminate new cancer cells. So, they are not indiscriminately destructive. Furthermore, when add-on doses of antioxidants are taken through supplements along with a healthy diet that is rich in antioxidants, the theory is that the balance is tipped and the immune system may no longer be able to efficiently kill harmful invaders. Researchers have tagged this “the antioxidant paradox.”
It may also be another example of “too much of a good thing,” or as your grandmother always said: “Everything in moderation.”