Check out the side of a can of vegetables and chances are you’ll understand what the calorie count is all about, but the vitamin and mineral breakdown may make you cross your eyes.
While high school science or health classes may have covered what nutrients our bodies need to function optimally, many of us have forgotten the details. If you’re like more than half of U.S. adults, you are taking vitamins and other supplements in hopes of improving your health or making up for any of those deficits in your diet.
Dietary supplements are a multi-billion dollar, unregulated business without clear proof as to whether or not the supplements make people healthier. To make your quest for a healthier lifestyle easier, we asked area experts to give us an overview of what essential vitamins and minerals women need and how to best incorporate those nutrients into their diets.
Use this guide as a conversation starter with your physician and for inspiration to make the most of summer’s plentiful fresh food options. By optimizing your diet’s health boosting properties, you won’t just make your high school health teacher proud, you’ll make your body thrive.
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In 2006, 39 percent of U.S. adults used a multivitamin, but there isn’t solid scientific evidence that shows a multivitamin is the best solution for the average adult.
“I always tell people that if you have a good diet, there is no need for you to take a multivitamin,” explains Dr. Temple Day, a physician with North Charlotte Medical Specialists in Huntersville.
“Many studies have shown that diets that are high in veggies and fruits have decreased incidence of disease. People have a misconception that vitamins make you healthy; sometimes it is the food that delivers those nutrients that make you healthy.” The best general rule for women who are striving to make healthy decisions is to get the nutrition they need through their diets.
“Our bodies were designed to extract these vitamins and micronutrients from food,” says Carol Goodman, a health educator with Total Nutrition Technology in Cornelius.
“Don’t take a multivitamin in place of fruits, veggies, grains, and lean meats. The more whole foods you eat, the more vitamin-enriched and nutrient dense choices you are making for your body.”
Lisa Westfall, a registered dietitian with Presbyterian Hospital in Huntersville, agrees.
“In order to help prevent the onset of disease or, at least, keep anything from worsening while making sure we are getting all the nutrients, we need to eat a diet that is rich in fruits and vegetables,” she says.
The breakdownExperts say before reaching for an alphabet of vitamin bottles on the drug store shelf, realize first that there are ways to consume essential nutrients through food:
Vitamin A: A fat-soluble vitamin, vitamin A is believed to boost the immune system and reproductive, skin, and eye health. How to get it: Carrots, cantaloupe, pumpkin, squash, mango, sweet potatoes and green leafy vegetables.
The B vitamins: “This is a complex group of vitamins that are all similar, but have slight differences,” says Goodman with Total Nutrition Technology. “They are the ‘energy vitamin’. Their function in our body is to help our body get and provide energy so that our body can rebuild and restore itself.” How to get it: Fortified cereals, orange juice, kidney beans, asparagus, whole wheat, lentils, black-eyed peas, lean meats, dairy, eggs and soy.
Calcium: “Calcium is one of the most important minerals for skeletal integrity, muscle contraction, and nerve conduction,” says Goodman. “Our body is neat in that it has a storage depot for calcium: our bones. But if we don’t get enough in, our body will leach it from our bones.” How to get it: Dairy products like yogurt, bony fish like tuna and salmon, eggs and broccoli.
Vitamin D: Needed for calcium absorption; it aids with bone mineralization, muscle contraction, cellular function and nerve conduction. Day with North Charlotte Medical Specialists notes that she almost always discovers vitamin D deficiencies in her patients, except for outdoor exercisers like runners. How to get it: Fifteen to 20 minutes a day out in the sun without sunscreen. If you need to avoid the sun entirely, you can also get it from Vitamin-D fortified food such as milk, orange juice and cereals.
Vitamin E: An antioxidant, vitamin E protects the structure of our cell walls. How to get it: Wheat germ, sunflower seeds or oil, palm oil, peanut oil, olive oil, corn, almonds, raw spinach, peanut butter and avocados.
Iron: “Iron is an important nutrient because it helps with fatigue,” says Westfall, the registered dietitian. “Iron helps produce red blood cells, which transport oxygen to the body. Without the proper amount of iron, our red blood supply is reduced, increasing our chances to get sick and can make us feel weak.” Women who are menstruating might want to be especially deliberate about eating iron-enriched foods and vegetarians and vegans should talk to their doctors about whether they should use an iron supplement. How to get it:Lean cuts of steak and chicken, spinach, raisins, pumpkin seeds, prunes, whole grains, eggs, and dairy.
When vitamins are necessary
Of course, there are cases when even the best food diet doesn’t cover all. Some people may have health conditions that require a nutritional supplement.
Day, Goodman and Westfall advise all patients to speak to their doctors about how they are feeling, their diet, and supplements to see what makes sense for their individual health. And Day points out that because calcium and vitamin D are so vital for bone health as women age, she sometimes has her patients who are nearing 40 begin supplements for those two nutrients.
Finally, don’t feel as if all the foods you incorporate into your diet need to be fresh. That isn’t always affordable and some may not be available given the season. Day often talks to her patients about trying frozen fruits and vegetables as an affordable, accessible way to diversify their diets. And, remember, eating a healthy, diverse diet can be far less expensive then supplementing your diet with multiple pills.