The key to maintaining good health is having an understanding of what your body needs. From the moment of conception and throughout your lifetime, your body needs the same 40 or more nutrients. However, the amount of each nutrient will vary with the stages of life or illness.
When looking at your nutrient and health goals, it is important to keep these objectives in mind: supply your body with enough good nutrition to avoid deficiencies, and provide your body with the appropriate amounts of necessary nutrients to maintain and support optimal health. Since no single food supplies all the nutrients your body needs, eating a wide variety of foods in moderation can help.
Why You Need Vitamins and Minerals
Scientists continue to uncover how specific vitamins and minerals work individually and together to protect health. Although, needed in small amounts, these micronutrients play a powerful role in keeping your body going each day. Vitamins are needed to transform food into energy, they help to regulate bodily processes, and they combine with other substances to facilitate chemical reactions in your body. Minerals do similar types of work, in addition to, being the foundation for many cells especially bone, teeth, and nails.
As you read news headlines, it is sometimes hard to make sense of the featured benefits of vitamins and minerals. This is particularly true for the claims about antioxidants that have them tagged as "wonder" nutrients for their wide-ranging impact from preventing heart disease and cancer to slowing the aging process. However, how do you know it's true? Well, understanding what they do and where they are found may help.
What They Do
Antioxidants work on neutralizing free radicals, oxygen byproducts in your body that can damage healthy cells. Free radicals are unstable oxygen molecules flowing through your body that have lost an electron through exposure to pollution, sunlight, and daily wear and tear. These free radicals search out healthy cells and steal their electrons to stabilize themselves, thus creating more free radicals and damaging healthy cells in the process.
Free radical damage is what can cause fat to stick to artery walls, cell mutations leading to cancer formation, and damage to eyes that may lead to cataracts. Antioxidants block this process by coming between the free radical and the healthy cell and offering up their own electrons. Therefore, they neutralize the free radicals and keep your healthy cells out of harm's way.
Where They Are Found
Antioxidant nutrients include three micronutrients: beta carotene, vitamin C, and vitamin E. These work in conjunction with several minerals such as selenium, copper, zinc, and manganese to remove free radicals from your body.
To get enough of these nutritional powerhouses focus your diet on real foods rather than supplements. Real foods are preferable because researchers are still unsure about which substances in food are responsible for the beneficial effects. Plus, they do not know whether benefits come from a combination of nutrients or one single vitamin or mineral, or a compound yet to be found.
Antioxidant and Mineral-Rich Foods
Foods rich in beta-carotene include sweet potatoes, apricots, peaches, carrots, cantaloupe and spinach. Vitamin C rich foods include peppers, cantaloupe, oranges, grapefruit, strawberries, kale and potatoes. Nuts, seeds and oils are foods rich in vitamin E, as well as, fortified cereals and leafy green vegetables.
Seafood is the best source of selenium. To ensure adequate intake of manganese, whole grain products, pineapples, strawberries and tea should be added to your weekly shopping list. For foods rich in zinc look to meat, seafood, wheat bran, whole-grains, legumes and soybeans. By including seafood and nuts in your regular diet it will also help you cover your zinc needs.
Besides building bones as we grow, calcium also helps to keep them strong by slowing the rate of bone loss as we age. What many people don't realize is that calcium also helps with muscle contraction and blood pressure. Dairy products are the best source, but some leafy greens such as kale, broccoli and bok choy contain calcium. Fortified foods and tofu made with calcium sulfate can also help meet your needs.
Without iron your body would be starving for oxygen, this mineral plays an important role in hemoglobin formation, which carries oxygen to the body's cells. Iron found in animal foods (heme-iron), such as meat, chicken, and eggs, and is better absorbed by the body than iron found in plant foods (non-heme). You can enhance the absorption of non-heme iron by combining it with foods rich in vitamin C.
Multi-Vitamin and Mineral Supplements
Evaluating whether you need a multi-vitamin and mineral supplement can be tricky and confusing for some. You should check with your doctor to determine if taking any type of supplement is appropriate for you. Most researchers will agree that taking a daily multivitamin is a good source of health insurance for those days your diet gets short-changed.
Additional supplements that your doctor may recommend include:
- 200 IU of vitamin E everyday - it has been linked with cancer prevention and reducing risk of heart disease. If you are at risk for these diseases it may be raised to 400 IU.
- For women who are planning to get pregnant, 400 mcg of folic acid supplement can reduce the risk of neural tube defects.
- Women in their menopausal years can benefit taking additional calcium, at least 600-1200 mg /day.
- Make sure there is some vitamin D available either in the multivitamin supplement or calcium supplement to aid in the absorption of calcium.