Issue 12  •  Spring 2013

Vive Le Vitamin!

Written by Julie Fishkin
VITAMINC.jpgA big salad with tons of pretty colors and textures is like a perfect outfit. It’s beautiful, slimming, and its components go so well together. We love our veggies because they’re good for us, low in calories, refreshing, and delicious. No secrets about the goodness of vegetables, but what exactly does that alphabet of vitamins mean? And you’ve heard of antioxidants but should you eat them, drink them, or rub them on your face? And should we buy all that stuff we hear about mega doses of vitamins and minerals to ward off scary diseases? 

The ABC’s of vitamins bring us to the beginning, the kindergarten of eating, if you will. Food is good, and good food is not just delicious but important for every little component of the great, big, complicated machine that is our body. Its efficiency is amazing, indeed, even if a little tune up here and there is in order. We need to eat because the calories from food give us energy. Each calorie is literally broken down to a chemical, usable form of energy for all our cells. We must have carbohydrates, proteins and fats (yes, FATS) every single day, and vitamins, found in a ton of foods, are equally important. They don’t just add extra boosts of health, make our hair shiny and nails strong, they perform vital functions inside our bodies without which the great biochemical machine of our body simply couldn’t run. There’s a bunch of different vitamins and minerals, most of which we must have daily. How much of each is determined in the US with a set Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) or, when that RDA has not been established, the Adequate Intake (AI). But before you break out your weights and measures or spend your savings on exorbitantly priced supplements, let’s discuss what this means and how it affects what you eat. Or, rather, how what you eat affects you. 

Ok, but seriously, what is a vitamin exactly? Vitamins are essential organic (not in the farmer’s market sense but in that they contain carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen) compounds that your beautiful body needs to carry out its basic body duties such as metabolism, growth, and general health. Minerals are inorganic elements found in nature but can’t be made by plants or animals. Think back to chemistry class and the Periodic Table; all our minerals found on that table come from the earth. You need both every day in very small amounts, which is why they are called micronutrients. Carbs, proteins and fats – the substances that we eat, digest and break down for energy and structural components of our body – are macronutrients. To spare you a snooze-fest lesson in microbiology, you can think of vitamins as helpers in complicated reactions going on in your body. Certain proteins known as enzymes ensure that these reactions happen, while vitamins and minerals act as coenzymes and cofactors, respectively. Each one has a distinct role and some have several, but you need them all every day. 

We have two types of vitamins: water-soluble and fat-soluble. Water-soluble vitamins are the B-complex vitamins and vitamin C, while vitamins A,D,E, and K are fat-soluble. This scrabble draw of letters differs in the way your body absorbs each one. The water-soluble go through your GI tract and eventually end up circulating in your blood. Your body uses what it needs and excretes the rest through your urine, not storing any excess. For example, you know how when you take a multivitamin and then your pee is neon yellow? Well, that means your body has a sufficient amount of riboflavin, with the unnecessary remnant discarded (Riboflavin: “ribo” is a form of sugar; “flavin” comes from Latin flavus, meaning yellow). Think of it as your body’s clever reference to the minimalist artist Dan Flavin’s neon light sculptures. Only confirms the body’s creative brilliance! Fat-soluble vitamins, as the name states, require fat to be absorbed. This whole complicated process is similar to dietary fat absorption. When you take in these vitamins, you need fat too. Your body does store these so an overdose is a possibility, not the junkie kind but the liver damage kind. 

The whole list that comprises B vitamins is as follows: thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, biotin, pantothenic acid, vitamin B6, folate, and vitamin B12. Good sources of thiamin are whole-grain products or enriched and fortified grains. Riboflavin is found in milk products, whole-grain products, enriched and fortified grains, and in liver. Niacin and B6 are in all protein-rich foods. Biotin is really widespread in foods and some is even synthesized in your GI tract. Pantothenic acid is also widespread in foods. Folate is in legumes, vegetables, and fortified grain products, and is especially important to have in the diet of women trying to become pregnant. B12, however, is only found in animal products. Lastly of the water-soluble vitamins is vitamin C, which is found in many fruits and vegetables, not just citrus fruit. For the fat-soluble vitamins—A,D,E,K—the sources are equally varied. Milk and dairy products are good sources of vitamin A, while dark leafy greens and yellow/orange vegetables are great sources of beta-carotene, a precursor to vitamin A, which is converted to its active form in the body. Vitamin D is made in your body with a little help from Mrs. Sun or you can drink it in fortified milk. Vitamin E is in all vegetable oils, K can be found in green leafy vegetables or synthesized in your GI tract. 

So you know you need to consume vitamins to sustain life, but you’ve also heard about their many wonderful bonus benefits. Is it all true? You know how when you feel a cold coming on, you load up on vitamin C to boost your immunity? Well, the truth is your immune system uses its defenses no matter what to ward of any incoming infection, and in most cases, it does a pretty damn good job. You really only need about 75 mg a day (one orange has about 70 mg) so when you swallow grasshopper-sized pills of 1000 mg, your body simply uses what it needs and filters out the rest in your urine. More than the RDA isn’t bad – we can have more than the recommended dose of most vitamins daily – but only from real food, not necessarily supplements. Your kidneys are incredible filtration machines that filter out excess and waste from your blood to your urine. If it comes out in the mellow yellow, it means it went through your body and blood effectively. It’s what comes out in brown town that’s discarded, possibly without even being digested properly. 

OK, but back to vitamins. Basically, vitamin C performs a bunch of functions in the subterranean chemical depths of the body. Among them is acting as an antioxidant and in producing collagen. That’s why we keep seeing it in skincare products. Oh the antioxidant. We see that word more often that stars in the sky and yet, it’s probably as inexplicable to us. There are a few kinds of oxidants: free radicals and excited states of oxygen molecules. While they sound like awesome band names, they’re actually pretty shady characters. The oxygen we breathe is O2, but when it’s unpaired, it has a free electron that causes damage to our cellular DNA. Things like smoking, UV light, pollution or, inflammation (from natural physical responses to damage) produce these so-called reactive oxygen species (ROS), that wreak havoc on our cells, leading to wrinkles, atherosclerosis and even cancer. Antioxidants bind up these rogue ROS, putting out the fire, so to speak, by binding that free oxygen, hence the term anti-oxidant. Vitamin C, vitamin E and beta-carotene are your guys for the job. They differ in where they do their handy work. C and beta-carotene are water-soluble so they work in the blood, while vitamin E is fat-soluble so it works in cell membranes, which contain certain fats. So should you stock up on capsules, creams, and potions claiming to be powerful antioxidants that prevent aging and cancer? The answer is unless they can also turn you into a magical unicorn that lives happily ever after (or you have the money to spare), probably not. Should you eat tons of oranges, blueberries, tomatoes, kale, carrots and kiwis, among other great sources of antioxidants? Yes, ma’am! 

Other claims out there are that B vitamins give you energy. Energy drinks packed with B vitamins are also packed with caffeine and sugar, the actual energy boosters. While your body does use B vitamins to extract its usable form of energy from foods through many rounds of chemical pathways, B vitamins don’t actually give you a jolt. You’re probably tired because you stayed up late (studying *wink *wink), and it’s coffee and some food that’ll wake you up. By that same token, tanning salons are not your ideal source of vitamin D. Sure, ten minutes of the sun’s rays will allow your skin to synthesize it but unless you’re starring on Jersey Shore, stick with fortified milk and SPF 30+. Your face will thank you in a few good years. Bottom line is that supplements can sometimes do more harm than good, unless of course you have malbsorption issues, intestinal disorders or serious food intolerances such as Celiac’s disease. Also, serious alcoholics should probably take supplements too. No, seriously. If more than 50% of your daily calories come from booze, you have serious problems. Besides seeking help, you might also benefit from supplements because something is better than nothing. 

All this is not to say that you should immediately throw out your daily multivitamin. Consider it your insurance. Just don’t rely on it while maintaining bad food habits, especially since supplements do not need the FDA’s approval before a company dumps countless dollars into marketing. They can make all kinds of crazy claims, but they are synthetic and will never replace the actual food. With the facts in order, the secrets of eternal youth, health and happiness are basically at your fingertips. Fine, not quite, but at least focusing on your fabulous body has never been easier, vanity aside. Eat as many beautiful colors as you can (the raw kind that grow in the earth). Eat lean meat, fish, and poultry if you want, or don’t if you prefer a vegetarian diet. The secret is, honestly, not such a secret at all. It’s just variety and moderation regardless of your food preferences. Yes, yes, you know this part, but just remember that nothing is forbidden (in the world of food, you nut!) so go ahead and try it. A daily supplement is OK but make sure it’s a supplement, not a substitute. If you stick to earthly colors and away from chemical cocktails (i.e crazy ass energy drinks, ungodly neon sodas, or insane shakes promising to burn off fat), you’ll be good to that perfect specimen of a fantastically functional machine that is your body. After all, you only get one.

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