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Guide to Vitamins

all about vitaminsOur current out of the box diet leaves a very small compartment for the colourful foods, which apart from adding aesthetics also add vitamins and minerals in our diet. When it comes to this food group we find it really convenient to add them from supplement bottles rather than our plates. Here’s a little nick-knack on vitamins which might propel you towards eating foods…. rather than popping vitamin supplements.

A vitamin is a vital, organic (contain three elements carbon, hydrogen and oxygen) dietary substance, which  is  neither a  carbohydrate, fat, protein or mineral and is required in very small amounts to perform its function. It cannot be synthesized by the body and thus must be supplied by the diet.

Vitamins are Fat soluble (vitamins A, D, E, K) and Water soluble (the B complex vitamins, vitamin C). They have many roles to play in our body. Nearly all foods contain a mixture of vitamins. However, specific foods are known to be very good sources of some vitamins. For example, citrus fruits contain large amounts of vitamin C, but they also supply small amounts of other vitamins and minerals as well. The best source of a balanced supply of all vitamins is a diet which consists of a variety of different foods.

How much vitamins do I need?

Daily requirements for vitamins has been established by ICMR (Indian Council of Medical Research) based on various researches and parameters. The Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDA) covers the daily need along with providing additional overages for period of stress (diseases, fasts, other reasons of food deprivation).

Should I take a vitamin supplement?

Most individuals eating a reasonably balanced diet do not need vitamin supplements. A person who may not absorb vitamins due to chronic disease or may not be able to consume food in sufficient quantity or type to supply the vitamins needs to be supplemented. The need for vitamins increases during pregnancy and lactation so a supplement is advised. (For more on supplementation needs)

What if I take excess vitamins?

Fat soluble vitamins (vitamins A, D, E, K) can be stored in the body. Accumulation of high levels in the body causes toxic effects and is dangerous. The water soluble vitamins have been thought to be harmless since there is little storage in the body; however, recent studies have shown mega doses of vitamin B complex might cause liver disease and epilepsy.

 Are vitamins destroyed in food preparation?

Some vitamin loss occurs the minute food is harvested. Modern methods of harvesting, storage, transportation, processing and preparation minimize these losses. Vitamin losses occur by oxidation, by light, by heat, by exposure to acids and alkali, and by leaching into water. Considerable amounts of various nutrients remain even in food which has gone through processing.

Some measures can be followed while pre-preparation and cooking to prevent vitamin loss. Care should be taken to cut out a thin peel or cook in skin wherever possible. Cut vegetables in large pieces to avoid more surface area to be exposed to heat. Use that much amount of water which will get absorbed while cooking and do not discard water used for cooking or soaking as water soluble vitamins might leach out in water leading to their loss. Cook with lid on and cook until just tender, not mushy.

Food Vs Vitamin Pills

Apart from being a source of mixed bag of nutrients, vitamin rich foods satisfy our hunger, provide energy and are a source of fibre and water. Whereas we do not get any such thing from the vitamin supplements. Vitamins are integral to life and their deficiencies can lead to diseases some of which are debilitating or even life threatening. Taking a balanced diet which includes 5-8 servings of fruits and vegetables can provide ample amounts of vitamins and minerals.

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Who Needs Supplementation?

Who Needs SupplementationYou feel tired most of the time and the Doctor suggests a multivitamin. Now you are in a fix. Should I? Do I really need to take dietary supplements? A supplement literally means something added to complete a thing or make up for a deficiency. Dietary supplement thus means a substance which when added to diet helps in making up deficiency in the diet. A supplement provides added insurance that you are getting adequate intake of necessary vitamins and other micro-nutrients.

Health care providers have had mixed views on the inclusion of dietary supplements in the daily diet. Yes we do compensate usage and losses of nutrients through diet but there are certain ages and physiological conditions which sincerely get benefited by including dietary supplements in their diet.

Who all need dietary supplements?

1. Women may need extra calcium all through their life and especially post menopause. Calcium can be added in diet using milk and milk products, ragi, sesame, and from over-the-counter calcium in the form of calcium carbonate and calcium citrate. Calcium supplements are best absorbed when taken with meals, at a dose of 500 mg once or two times a day depending on the requirement.

2. Women who bleed excessively during menstruation may need to take iron or iron and folic acid supplements to meet the daily recommendation. Pregnant and lactating women are usually given supplements by their doctors to meet their increased needs for iron, calcium and other nutrients.

3. Women planning pregnancy should take a folic acid supplement prior to conception. A recent study led by Radek Bukowski, an assistant professor of obstetrics and gynaecology at the University of Texas, suggests that women who took folic acid for one year prior to pregnancy reduced their risk of delivering a premature baby by 50 to 70 percent apart from preventing the occurrence of other congenital (present from birth) malformations. Because pregnancy is often unplanned, ideally a female should start taking folic acid when she becomes sexually active. A standard folic acid supplement contains a sufficient amount of folic acid i.e., 400 micrograms.

4. Teenagers often have irregular eating habits and may not eat a balanced diet. A multivitamin with minerals can help fill in the nutritional gaps. Some teenage girls also need daily calcium and iron supplement.

5. Strict Vegetarians (people who abstain from milk and dairy products apart from egg and flesh foods) are advised to take iron and B12 daily. Iron and B12 deficiency occurs frequently in strict vegetarians. Vegetarian sources of iron have low absorption rate as compared to non-veg sources whereas Vitamin B12 is not found in foods of plant origin which might lead to their deficiencies.

6. Dieters and people who avoid entire food groups (like milk, fat, etc.) are more likely to have vitamin and mineral deficiencies. A daily multivitamin with minerals can be taken in consultation with a physician.

7. People with deficiency diseases or malabsorption disorders due to some allergies or intolerances (e.g. people allergic to wheat or gluten or intolerant to lactose) may need multivitamins. Similarly people taking prescription medications that interfere with the absorption of nutrients may also need higher dose supplements.

The kind of diet we are into nowadays (packaged, ready to eat, convenience foods) is seriously deficient in micronutrients. But the author doesn’t encourage people to make dietary supplement their way of life. Ask yourself a question am I taking 5 servings of fruits and vegetables daily? If yes no need to go for supplements. If no try to include fruits and veggies in your daily diet. Not possible? Ask a doctor and only then go for dietary supplements.

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