The nutritional supplements section of your pharmacy can be an intimidating place.
There we’re faced with a daunting, unedited and utterly out-of-context display of every vitamin and food supplement known to man, and a few that seem like they might have been made up at random. (Saw palmetto, anyone?)
Yet the truth is many of our diets and, by extension, our bodies, are indeed missing something. The list of factors that might be to blame is long: the demise of the urban supermarket, which limits access to fresh fruits and vegetables; the rise of the fast-food culture, which turns on-the-go meals into fat-soaked, carbohydrate-rich but nutritionally poor events; or the unwillingness of people to eat healthful foods instead of their saltier, hyper-sweet, highly processed alternatives.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Delaware is among the 31 states where only 10 percent to 14 percent of residents eat the recommended five servings of fruits and vegetables a day.
The onslaught of information about what our bodies are lacking, why and what you should do about it doesn’t help the confusion.
So instead of waxing on about the benefits of obscure herbs and vitamin supplements that may (or may not) prevent everything from colon cancer to goiter, we’ve highlighted the big four, as recommended by registered dietitians Sharon Howard and Mary T. Williams, both of Christiana Care’s Preventative Medicine and Rehabilitation Institute.
Page 2: Vitamin B12
Healthy blood means a healthy body. Vitamin B12 is a critical factor in making sure the fluid that keeps our cells fed behaves as it should. Those who don’t have enough can face unpleasantness such as depression, dementia, pernicious anemia leg weakness, loss of appetite, and tingling in the hands and feet.
Thankfully, B12 is in almost every animal product we consume, so for the most part, those under age 50 who eat a varied diet that includes meat will never have to supplement their B12 intake.
There are some, however, who could benefit from B12 supplements. To be properly absorbed into the body, B12 requires the “intrinsic factor,” a chemical secreted by the body during digestion.
Page 3: Calcium
Among the minerals in the body, calcium is one of the most elemental. It is the basic building block for bones and teeth, and it helps maintain healthy blood pressure and muscle action.
In food, calcium is found mainly in dairy products and fortified orange juice. Foods such as kale, broccoli and kidney beans contain smaller amounts, but, Williams says, “The amount of those foods you’d have to eat to get your daily intake isn’t realistic.”
Calcium-fortified orange juice lacks the vitamin D necessary to help the body absorb calcium, so Howard says the best way to ensure you’re getting enough is drink milk—about 24 ounces a day.
“For most people, if you are drinking less than three cups of milk a day, you are not meeting your needs,” Howard says.
Page 4: Omega 3 Fatty Acids
Neither vitamin nor mineral, omega 3 fatty acids are associated with a world of good—lower rates of coronary artery disease, lower triglycerides, improved HDL cholesterol, and the possibility of reducing inflammation in bowel disease and arthritis.
Best of all, the sources of omega 3 fatty acids are widely known and easily acquired at your local fish market.
Alaskan salmon, albacore tuna, mackerel and halibut all contain large amounts of omega 3s, and raising your intake can be as easy as adding more of these fish to your diet.
The American Heart Association recommends that healthy adults eat two to three servings of fish per week.
Page 5: Vitamin D
While food sources of vitamin D are limited, they are not unusual or hard to find. Egg yolks, liver and the oils of fatty fish are great sources, as are two things you probably have in your house right now: milk and breakfast cereal.
“A lot of cereal manufacturers have begun adding vitamin D to their products,” Howard says. Milk has been fortified with vitamin D for decades. Yet “there have been a lot of studies that show that there are many people who are deficient in vitamin D.”
Vitamin D allows the body to properly absorb calcium, which helps build bone density and stave off fractures.
Because naturally occurring vitamin D is synthesized in human skin as the result of exposure to sunlight, deficiencies can result among those whose time outdoors is limited.