Vitamins and Minerals
Dr. Neal Pinckney
Vitamins are substances not normally produced in the body that are required for proper cell metabolism. The amounts we need are very small and are found in the foods we eat. With certain exceptions, vitamin supplements are seldom needed. Unfortunately, that's not what most people have been led to believe. Nearly four out of every ten persons in the U.S. take vitamin pills. There is no evidence that taking these vitamin supplements has any positive effect on the length of time we live or on normal physical or sexual performance. There may be little or no harm in taking most normal one-a-day dosages of vitamin supplements. If you chose to take a daily multi-vitamin, do not take "mega-dose" formulas. Men should avoid multi-vitamins that contain iron. The greatest benefits, however, go primarily to those who make and sell them.
Advertisers tell us that Americans do not consume enough of the vitamins we need, but those who do not take supplements almost never experience effects of vitamin deficiencies (scurvy, pellagra, night blindness, beriberi, etc.) The RDA (Recommended Daily Allowances) were set at very high levels, well in excess of what most persons need, to provide a margin of safety. Makers of vitamin supplements use the RDA figures to instill a fear that we may not be getting enough of these vitamins from our foods, but almost all medical and nutritional professional organizations agree that these supplements are not needed for persons eating a well-balanced diet.
One exception, for people who eat no animal products, is vitamin B12, the only vitamin not available from plant foods. When a person stops eating animal products, at least a five-year supply of B12 is usually stored in the body. B12 can be supplied by a number of fortified breakfast cereals, some special nutritional yeasts or from B12 tablets. A few micrograms (millionths of a gram) daily are all that is needed. However even among lifelong vegans (vegetarians who use no animal by-products, including egg or dairy), B12 deficiency is extremely rare.
There is some evidence that Vitamin E may help reduce the risk of heart attacks. While there is no consensus on the benefits of Vitamin E, there seems to be common agreement that taking up to 400 IU (international units) a day may be beneficial and would not be harmful to most people. If later research confirms these preliminary findings, persons with high heart risk will have gained those benefits. Vitamin E is an anti-oxidant and is also thought to be helpful in preventing some kinds of cancer. Some evidence indicates that anti-oxidants work better in combinations, such as Vitamin C, beta carotene and Vitamin E together. Vitamin E comes in capsules, tablets and soft-gels, small gelatin balls containing the liquid vitamin, allowing it to be absorbed rapidly. The gelatin in soft-gels and capsules is most often made from animal products and for that reason many vegetarians prefer vitamins in tablet form.
Minerals are inorganic compounds (not containing carbon) that make up the major part of the surface of the earth. Minerals are absorbed by plants from the soil and water and then become part of the foods we eat. Of the more than sixty minerals present in the human body, only 22 are considered essential.
Minerals make up about 4% of our total body weight. A 150-pound person's body has about 6 pounds of minerals, some present in very small amounts. The body needs only about four ten- millionths part of iodine, but calcium needs to be present in nearly two hundredths part. Although mineral deficiencies are uncommon, without proper nutrition three minerals may be lacking in some people. Additional calcium, present in green leafy vegetables and animal products, may be needed if too much protein has been ingested. Iron, present in peas, beans, green leafy vegetables, nuts and whole and enriched grains, as well as red meats, is needed for blood. Zinc, present in whole wheat, meats, shellfish and eggs, is needed to heal wounds, for sexual development and to help keep our senses of taste and smell sharp. Iodine deficiency used to be common, causing goiter and thyroid gland problems. In the past 70 years, iodized salt has supplied all the iodine the body needs, amounting to about a half teaspoon of salt a day from all sources. Much of that iodine comes from salt in processed foods.
Mineral supplements are also touted as a way to prevent and cure disease and live longer, but as is true for vitamins, all the minerals we need are well provided for when we eat a balanced diet. Some makers claim that chelated minerals, those bound to a metallic substance, provide better absorption and are better utilized, but there is no evidence that these are any more useful than any other type of supplement. Don't be led to buy these supplements by high pressure sales claims.
Mineral and vitamin supplements are a high profit, billion dollar industry. Supplement distributors take advantage of the feeling many people have that they are not getting adequate nutrition from the foods they consume. For people who get most of their meals from fast-food chains or junk foods, this is probably true. Nutritionists, physicians and medical researchers generally agree that healthy people eating a balanced diet of whole grains, vegetables, legumes and fruits do not need mineral or multivitamin supplements. Taking vitamin and mineral supplements provides some people with a false feeling of security that leads them to be less careful about what they eat.
Fiber is essential in reducing the risk of some kinds of cancer, intestinal disease, gallstones, diabetes, obesity and heart disease. There are two types of fiber. Sponge-like insoluble fiber, from grains, legumes, fruits and the outer surface of some seeds, promotes food passage and adds bulk, which reduces food craving. Processed grains and foods often have most of their fiber removed. Use whole grains, brown rice and unprocessed foods to assure sufficient fiber intake. Whole wheat bread and brown rice have three times the fiber of white bread and white rice. Soluble fiber acts as a filter to help prevent some substances, including cholesterol and glucose, from being absorbed into the blood. It also acts as a stool softener, preventing constipation, which is related to colon cancer and diverticulosis. Constipation often leads to straining to clear the bowels, a common precursor of strokes. Eating foods high in fiber may help prevent these problems and reduce cholesterol as well.
Refined and processed fruits and juices may also be low in fiber. Comparing an orange and an 8 ounce glass of reconstituted frozen orange juice, the juice has 0.848 grams of fiber while the orange has 9.790 grams, more than 11 times the fiber in the juice. A fresh orange also has a third fewer calories than a glass of orange juice. A few juices do contain high amounts of fiber; infiltered carrot juice has about 75% of the fiber of raw carrots and tomato juice may have even more fiber than raw tomatoes.
Most spaghetti and other pastas are made from flour from refined grains, which has two-thirds of the fiber removed. To get all the natural fiber, choose whole wheat pastas, bulgar wheat and other whole grain products. For maximizing weight loss, eating foods high in fiber is even more essential.