Our understanding of vitamins and minerals – and other micronutrients, compounds, and elements – and their role in our body has improved dramatically over the last decades. We now know that “micronutrition” – or the vitamins, minerals, and other health-giving components of our food, such as amino acids, fiber, enzymes, and lipids – is crucial to life, and that by manipulating our nutritional intake, we can not only ensure good health and address ailments, but prevent illness and some of the degenerative effects of aging. Exciting new discoveries related to the nutrient components of our food mean that more than half of us are now taking supplementation in one form or another, convinced that diet itself – bearing in mind that stresses on our body and the polluted world in which we live – is inadequate to supply us with our nutritional needs.
Vitamins are a group of unrelated organic nutrients which are essential to regulate the chemical processes that go on in the body – such as releasing the energy from food, maintaining strong bones, and controlling our hormonal activity. Ideally, vitamins are present in roughly the same quantity in various foods.
Minerals are inorganic chemical elements, which are necessary for many biochemical and physiological processes that go on in our bodies. Inorganic substances that are required in amounts greater than 100 mg per day are called minerals, those required in amounts less than 100 mg per day are called trace elements. Minerals are not necessarily present in foods – the quality of the soil and the geological conditions of the area in which they were grown play an important part in determining the mineral content of foods. Even a balanced diet may be lacking in essential minerals or trace elements because of the soil in which the various foodstuffs were grown.
There is evidence that “sub-clinical” deficiencies – in other words, a deficiency which is not extensive enough to be life-threatening or to produce large-scale symptoms – may be the cause of certain forms of cancer, heart disease, weight and skin problems, and a host of other health conditions.
An amino acid is any compound that contains an amino group and an acidic function. There are 20 amino acids necessary for the synthesis of proteins, which are essential for life. These 20 amino acids form the building clocks of all proteins and are involved in important biological processes, such as the formation of neurotransmitters in the brain. There are eight essential amino acids, which are – phenylalanine, valine, threonine, tryptophan, isoleucine, methionine, lysine, and leucine. The remaining 12 are called “nonessential”, which means that they can usually be made by the body from other substances. In some conditions, however, nonessential amino acids are necessary, for example in cases of extreme illness or a very poor diet.
Lipids and Derivatives
Lipids are commonly called “fats”, and while many fats are now know to be unhealthy, there are many that are essential to body processes and actually work to prevent the effects of “unhealthy” fats in our bodies. Many lipids and their derivatives are used to unclog arteries, work to retard the effects of aging, and to discourage heart disease and the build-up of cholesterol.
There are a number of other food supplements that do not fall strictly within the definitions of vitamins, minerals, lipids, and amino acids. These include various elements that either have healing properties or are now known to be crucial to health.
Conventional medical practitioners discuss nutrition in terms of food groups, while nutritionists tend to prescribe vitamins. Nutrition has changed from a mainly physician-led dietary therapy, also called clinical nutrition, to a more profound theory of health based on treating the patient as a whole (holistic health), and looking for deficiencies that may be causing illness, which are specific to each individual.