Most Americans don’t meet their nutritional needs from food, and as a result, depend on dietary supplements. Although multivitamins contain high quantities of various key vitamins and minerals, the quality of the sources is often less than ideal.
Many vitamin pills are made with artificial versions of vitamins and minerals, and may contain genetically modified ingredients, gluten, other allergens, and/or artificial colors and flavors. So what are your options? Here we will explore ways to get natural, balanced sources of your daily nutrient requirements.
Why people take vitamins
Most Americans don’t get the nutrients their bodies need to maintain proper health. When one looks closely at the standard American diet, it contains large amounts of fried foods, refined sugars and carbohydrates, and pre-packaged meals high in artificial ingredients. What do all these foods have in common? They are unhealthy and highly addictive.
Some people become addicted to their poor eating habits, and instead of choosing healthier foods, supplement their diet with vitamin pills or fortified foods, such as fortified cereals or juices.
According to Tara Gidus, RD, a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association, those who are actually concerned about their health often make the mistake of only watching for what they can’t eat, rather than focusing on what they should eat. The most recent US Dietary Guidelines reveal that there are seven key nutrients that are found in most foods that the average American is not consuming regularly. These include calcium, fiber, magnesium, potassium, and vitamins A, C and E. Vitamin deficiencies can be caused by poor nutrition, digestive disorders, pregnancy, illness and many other conditions.
Although a simple and healthy way to obtain these nutrients would be to make modest changes to your diet, most Americans opt for a pill. Before you decide to supplement your diet with a multivitamin, however, there are a few things you need to consider.
Health risks of supplements and fortified foods
Many dietary supplements and fortified foods are full of synthetic ingredients, including the vitamins themselves! These pills, and some cereals, often include artificial dyes and flavors that may lead to serious side effects in sensitive individuals.
Other toxic ingredients found in common vitamin supplements include monosodium glutamate (aka MSG, often listed under “natural flavors”), hydrogenated oils (may encourage heart problems and stroke), magnesium stearate (an immune suppressant), carnauba wax (found in shoe polish and car wax), and titanium dioxide (a possible carcinogen).
Vitamin pills may also contain common allergens such as gluten or dairy. Some people have an allergic reaction to various ingredients in vitamins, with symptoms such as hives, difficulty breathing, upset stomach, headaches, an unusual or unpleasant taste in the mouth, and swelling of the face, tongue, lips, or throat.
Aside from all these additives, however, the most potentially harmful substances within multivitamins and vitamin supplements are the vitamins themselves.
High-potency synthetic vitamins are not the same as vitamins in their natural state. As a result, they are not absorbed by our bodies the same way. These artificial forms of vitamins are known as isolates. Our bodies only absorb a fraction of the amount of isolate vitamins, and only a portion of this fraction is actually usable. Foods, pills, and powders full of synthetic vitamins do not contain the natural fibers found in whole-food vitamin sources, and thus the vitamins are lacking a buffer, making it easier to overdose.
Also, if you ingest fortified foods and vitamin tablets, you could actually be overdosing on certain nutrients and still lacking in others. While it may be okay to consume some nutrients in excess, vitamins A, D, E, and K can cause serious or life-threatening side effects if over-ingested. Other artificial forms of vitamins can have adverse side effects even if not consumed in abundance.
Even water-soluble vitamins B and C are potentially unsafe to consume in their artificial forms. Vitamin C is considered the safest of the water-soluble vitamins, and yet its isolated form, ascorbic acid, doesn’t work the way it is supposed to in the body. For instance, vitamin C can prevent scurvy and boost the body’s immune system. Vitamin C is also an antioxidant that helps to protect the muscles from oxidative stress.
Ascorbic acid, on the other hand, may not protect against scurvy, may inhibit the body’s own antioxidant enzymes, may disrupt the body’s immune system, and may work to shatter muscle performance by creating oxidative stress while suppressing critical cellular regeneration after exercise.
Due to the risk of overdosing on vitamin isolates, some doctors recommend against taking them during pregnancy, as some vitamins and minerals in excess can cause harm to an unborn baby. If you take vitamin supplements, consuming dairy products and other sources of natural or isolate forms of calcium can make it harder for your body to absorb the nutrients. If you take a multivitamin, avoid fortified foods, and vice versa, in order to prevent a vitamin overdose.
If you do decide to take a vitamin supplement or a multivitamin, try to take vitamins in their natural forms. These may be hard to find and are often expensive, however, and many vitamins that claim to be natural only contain natural additives and not natural forms of the vitamins and minerals themselves.
Instead, the most simple, safe, inexpensive, and enjoyable way to take your daily vitamins is through whole foods. This way, you can have the fiber to help break down the nutrients, the antioxidants remain intact, and the natural components of your food will work together to provide your body with optimal fuel and health. It is very hard to overdose on vitamins if you are only consuming them in their natural form.
By simply increasing the variety of foods you ingest, you are less likely to form a vitamin deficiency, and you will be helping to prevent diet-related diseases.
Whether you have an illness, digestive disorder, or poor diet that prevents you from absorbing essential vitamins and minerals, ingesting them in their natural forms will make them easier to assimilate into your system. Using the U.S. Dietary Guidelines’ list of vitamin deficiencies, I have constructed a list of natural, whole foods that are abundant in nutrients that Americans commonly lack.
Calcium is important for bone health, and can prevent the onset of osteoporosis. Adults ages 50 and under need roughly 1,000 mg each day. Adults over 50 need 1,200 mg daily, unless they have osteoporosis, in which case 1,500 mg are needed. Calcium is absorbed well when taken with lactose, a protein found in dairy products. If your body does not tolerate lactose or casein proteins found in dairy, you can still get your calcium from whole foods, such as salmon or spinach.
Potassium is important for maintaining healthy blood pressure and preserving nerve and muscle function. Adults should consume 4,700 mg each day. Sweet potatoes, tomatoes, plain yogurt, and yellowfin tuna are rich in potassium. According to Lucia Kaiser, PhD, potassium is so abundant in whole foods that it theoretically should be easy to get enough of it, but many people don’t eat enough fruits and vegetables to do so.
Fiber is another nutrient that is found in a wide variety of foods in abundance, and yet we Americans consume too little of it. Fiber aids our digestive tract, encourages regularity, encourages heart health, protects against type 2 diabetes, and helps shield our bodies against disease. Brown rice, sweet potatoes, pears, and beans, especially black beans, are all high in natural fiber.
Magnesium protects our bones, heart, muscles, nerves, and immune system. The daily recommended intake for women under 30 is 310 mg, and 320 for women over 30. For men under 30, 400 mg is recommended, and 420 mg is recommended for men over 30. Sources high in magnesium include fish, especially halibut, almonds, Brazil nuts, and brown rice.
Vitamin A is crucial for maintaining good vision, immunity, and tissue growth. Adult men need 900 mg each day, while women need only 700 mg. There are two forms of vitamin A, retinol and carotenoids. The latter is missing from most Americans’ diets. Foods rich in carotenoids include sweet potatoes, carrots, spinach, and winter squash.
Vitamin C is important for protecting the immune system and preventing cellular damage. It also helps our bodies form collagen, which improves the health of our bones, cartilage and skin. Men need 90 mg per day, while women require 75 mg. Natural sources of vitamin C include oranges, strawberries, cantaloupe, sweet red peppers, and broccoli.
Vitamin E deficiency is often a result of low-fat diets that do not distinguish between good fats and bad fats. Vitamin E is a powerful antioxidant that protects our cells from damage. Adults need only 15 mg each day. Healthy sources of vitamin E include sunflower seeds, almonds, natural peanut butter, and tomato sauce.
Some groups of people are deficient in other nutrients as a result of a specialized diet or a disorder. Iron deficiency is often a result of pregnancy or anemia. Good sources of iron include spinach, kidney beans, grass-fed beef, and free-range poultry.
Women who are pregnant also need to increase their intake of folic acid, as it can help prevent birth defects. Lentils, spinach, and broccoli are a few healthy sources of folic acid.
Vitamin D is easy to obtain by just spending 15 minutes in the sun. With Americans’ busy schedules, this is often difficult to do, but really worth finding the time in your schedule. Vitamin D is not available in high quantities from natural foods; however, it is found in varying amounts in salmon, mackerel, grass-fed beef, liver, egg yolks, tuna, sardines, and shiitake mushrooms.
Vitamin B12 is important for forming red blood cells. As people age, it can be more difficult to absorb this nutrient. Also, people on a vegetarian or vegan diet may fall short of this nutrient. Vitamin B12 is most abundant in animal products such as eggs, dairy, meat, fish and poultry (choose grass-fed, free-range, and organic for maximum benefit). It is also available in nutritional yeast, which is a vegan and vegetarian-friendly product.
If you want the insurance of having a diet rich in vitamins and minerals to protect against diseases, you don’t need fortified foods or a supplement. There are many natural, whole foods that are rich in vitamins and minerals. The following are just a few of the nutrient-dense foods that can easily replace your daily multivitamin safely and affordably.
Kale has become popular recently due to its high amount of nutrition, and how easily it can be incorporated into our daily diets in salads, kale chips, or smoothies. Kale is high in vitamins A, B6, C, and K as well as fiber, potassium, magnesium, copper, and manganese. Kale is also lower in oxalates, which prevent nutrients from being absorbed, than spinach.
Watercress is another powerful superfood that scientists at the University of Ulster found can reduce DNA damage to blood cells and help prevent damage from free radicals. Watercress is high in vitamins A, C, and K, as well as phytonutrients that strengthen bones, prevent against infection, protect connective tissue, prevent iron deficiency, and reduce damage to neurons in the brain.
Brussel sprouts may help lower cholesterol and can improve the stability of DNA in white blood cells. They are high in fiber, manganese, folate, choline, copper, potassium, phosphorus, omega-3 fatty acids, iron, and vitamins A, B, C, and K.
Carrots can help reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease, the number one killer in America. They can protect your vision and are high in antioxidants, biotin, fiber, molybdenum, potassium, manganese, and vitamins A, B, C, E, and K.
Broccoli is a good source of plant-based protein. It also contains a lot of dietary fiber, which aids both your digestive and cardiovascular systems. It is also high in thiamin, riboflavin, pantothenic acid, magnesium, iron, calcium, folate, potassium, manganese, and vitamins A, B6, C, E, and K.
Liver contains extremely high percentages of iron, phosphorus, zinc, selenium, niacin, folate, and vitamins B5 and B6. A 100 gram portion of liver exceeds the daily recommended value of copper and vitamins A, B2, and B12. Always choose organic, grass-fed liver for maximum nutrition (and to avoid supporting inhumane conventional meat practices).
Eggs are rich in nutrients, as well as healthy proteins and fats. They are high in lutein and zeaxanthin, which help protect the eyes. They also contain choline, selenium, biotin, molybdenum, iodine, pantothenic acid, phosphorus, and vitamins A, B2, B12, and D.
Fish are high in essential vitamins and minerals as well as omega-3 fatty acids. Sardines are rich in B12, selenium, phosphorus, protein, vitamin D, calcium, B3, iodine, copper, choline, and B2. Shellfish such as clams and oysters are also high in vitamins. Clams contain 16 times the daily recommended value of vitamin B12. They also have lots of potassium, selenium, iron, vitamin C, and B-vitamins. Oysters contain six times the daily recommended value for zinc, and double the recommendation for copper. They are also rich in B12 and vitamin D.
Garlic is another highly nutritious ingredient that can be easily added to most dishes. It’s high in calcium, copper, manganese, potassium, selenium, allicin (a powerful antimicrobial compound), and vitamins B1, B6, and C. Garlic may help lower bad cholesterol, raise good cholesterol, and contains cancer-fighting properties.
Spinach is rich in many nutrients, and it’s packed with flavonoids and other antioxidants. Spinach is high in thiamin, calcium, iron, folate, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, manganese, copper, and vitamins A, B6, C, E, and K.
Bok choy is right behind kale and watercress with regards to nutrient density. It’s a Chinese superfood abundant in cancer-fighting properties, and it’s high in potassium, folate, calcium, manganese, iron, fiber, phosphorus, and vitamins A, B, C, and K.
Seaweed, popular in many Asian cuisines, is full of bioactive compounds like phycocyanins and carotenoids. Seaweed is anti-inflammatory and full of antioxidants. It’s high in iodine, which stimulates the production of thyroid hormones. It is also packed with calcium, iron, magnesium, and manganese.
Potatoes may be high in carbohydrates and high-glycemic, but they are abundant in iron, copper, manganese, potassium, magnesium, B-vitamins, and vitamin C. If you allow potatoes to cool after cooking them, they form large amounts of resistant starches, which act like fiber and are full of health benefits as well.
Sweet potatoes contain even more nutrients than white potatoes, and are lower in starch and carbohydrates, making them an ideal option for people with diabetes.
As you can see, nature provides the most perfect multivitamins. Although there are natural vitamins on the market, the most efficient, affordable and healthy way to obtain the vitamins and minerals your body needs is through natural, whole foods. Which of these foods do you eat in abundance and which do you need to eat more often?
Let us know your tricks to incorporating these foods into your diet in the comments below!
—The Alternative Daily