You should know more about vitamins

This week’s lesson is about vitamins. Before you let out a big yawn, let me assure you that eating foods rich in a variety of vitamins can make your life pretty darned exciting. After all, who wouldn’t like to reduce their risk of disease and feel more energized? Good, now you’re paying attention.

Vitamins are essential nutrients that play a central role in maintaining good health. Vitamins are “team players,” and understanding their functions is easier if you think about their roles in important bodily functions, such as antioxidant activity, maintaining healthy blood, bone growth and maintenance and energy metabolism.

Beta-carotene, Vitamin C and Vitamin E are antioxidant vitamins, because are able to neutralize free radicals (unstable oxygen molecules) that are generated in the body from normal metabolic reactions, pollutants in the environment, cigarette smoke and even sunlight. The free radicals can wreak havoc in the body and contribute to chronic disease and cancer, as they damage cell membranes, DNA and even oxidize LDL-cholesterol so that it invades artery walls.

It is recommended that smokers get more vitamin C than nonsmokers, since the cigarette smoke the person inhales generates more free radicals. Vitamin C is also needed for collagen production, which forms the foundation of our bones, teeth, skin and tendons. The jury is still out regarding vitamin C and curing the common cold, but some people swear by it. I say you’ll never go wrong adding a few extra oranges to your diet!

Healthy blood is dependent on the B vitamins, folate, B12, B6 and vitamin K. Specifically, folate and B12 are necessary to form new red blood cells. A deficiency of either of these will result in anemia. However, a prolonged deficiency of B12 alone will also lead to nerve damage, since B12 is needed to maintain the integrity of nerve fibers. Folate also plays a critical role in the prevention of neural tube defects in a developing embryo.

B6 is needed to make hemoglobin, the molecule that carries oxygen in the blood cells and is a player in protein metabolism. Vitamin K is needed for blood to clot normally after an injury, and people on blood thinners need to moderate their intake of vitamin K-rich foods, so their medication can do its job.

Our bones require a number of vitamins, along with minerals (calcium and phosphorus) and hormones. Most notably, vitamin D helps regulate calcium absorption from the gastrointestinal tract, to allow bones to get the calcium they need. Vitamins K and C also assist with bone health. Foods are not the sole source of vitamin D since, we make it in the skin when we are exposed to sunlight.

Although vitamins do not provide calories, they are needed to derive the energy from the foods we eat. The B vitamins — thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, pantothenic acid and biotin — are able to do this job well by assisting the enzymes that control the metabolic pathways.

Experts say that the best way to get your vitamins is from foods, because they work in synergy with other compounds in the food to give you benefits nature intended. Most processed foods (like ready-to-eat cereals and breads) are fortified with vitamins, to ensure their presence in the food supply.

Vitamin supplements are usually not necessary for people who eat adequate calories and a balanced diet. Certain individuals who benefit from vitamin supplements are pregnant women, the elderly and people who have special nutrient requirements.

Take the time to read more about good food sources for each vitamin, and choose your foods with these vitamins in mind. Remember that mixing up your diet will help you achieve good vitamin balance; not too much of this or too little of that.

Here’s a list to get you started:

Beta-carotene: carrots, sweet potato, spinach

Vitamin C: papaya, cantaloupe, orange

Vitamin E: almonds, sunflower seeds, peanut butter

Folate: lentils, asparagus, broccoli

B6: baked potato, chicken breast, banana

B12: chicken liver, ground beef, egg

Vitamin K: kale, Brussels sprouts, spinach

Vitamin D: sunshine, salmon, fat-free milk

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