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The nutrients you need: how to boost your diet with key vitamins and minerals for women

How to boost your diet with key vitamins and minerals for women

As a sister who strives to eat her fruits and vegetables and who power-walks each day to stay fit, I never thought I'd be popping vitamin and mineral supplements. But when my doctor ran a routine blood test late last year, he found unexpected problems: slightly elevated levels of cholesterol and glucose, or blood sugar. I knew that if left unchecked, high cholesterol could raise my risk of a heart attack or stroke, and high blood sugar could trigger diabetes--conditions prevalent among African-American women. The doctor's orders? Keep up the good eating and exercise habits and take nutritional supplements like vitamin E and folic acid to protect the heart, plus the mineral chromium to help prevent diabetes. After following this regimen for several months, my glucose level returned to normal and my cholesterol count dropped 17 points.

The supplements may not have been solely responsible for my improved health status, but they certainly didn't hurt. And I'm not alone in seeking a nutritional boost from them. In response to the latest medical reports, more and more people are turning to vitamin and mineral pills for that added insurance against everything from hypertension to osteoporosis. In 1997 nearly half of all Americans spent, combined, an estimated $6 billion--up from $3 billion in 1990--on these preventive measures.

Nutrition experts and recent research support the notion that, though not panaceas, nutritional supplements can be a significant part of a healthy diet-and-exercise plan. "Even when we eat plenty of fruits and vegetables and grains, it is often difficult to get all the nutrients we need to target the prevention of a specific disease," says Joycelyn Valentine, a nutritionist for the New York City Department for the Aging. "Supplements can provide that extra protection."

So which nutrients do you need most? And how should you get them in your diet?

The Evidence

A steady accumulation of studies have pointed to the preventive powers of specific nutrients found in foods or supplements. Last February a 14-year Harvard University study of more than 80,000 female nurses reported that daily consumption of folic acid and vitamin [B.sub.6] cut the women's chance of having a heart attack by nearly half. Taking these vitamins appeared to be as important in reducing the risk of heart disease as quitting smoking and lowering cholesterol. And last spring, for the first time, the National Academy of Sciences recommended the use of folic acid supplements to all women of childbearing age to prevent birth defects like spina bifida.

Other findings? A 1993 study revealed a 41-percent reduction in heart disease among women who took vitamin E for more than two years. Research is under way to see if this antioxidant protects against certain cancers. Last year, a study known as DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) found that high calcium intake--in addition to a low-fat diet rich in fruits and vegetables--helps reduce hypertension. Researchers are also investigating whether vitamin C--long known for its benefits to the immune system--helps cut the risk of stomach cancer and cataracts.

The Bottom Line

Though dietary supplements can help combat disease, they are not substitutes for healthy eating. "Fruits and vegetables are composed of hundreds of substances that interact with each other," says Maudene Nelson, a nutritionist. "When you isolate those nutrients and make capsules or supplements, you lose fiber and other substances found in foods that provide good health." And, according to Dr. Marion Nestle, chairwoman of the department of nutrition and food studies at New York University, you can create an imbalance by taking too much of one vitamin at the expense of others. Taking high doses of some supplements-like iron and vitamins A, [B.sub.6] and D--can be toxic, she warns.

So before you start on supplements, Nestle suggests, have a complete medical examination to determine the status of your health. Then take stock of your eating habits, either by keeping a food diary or with the help of a registered dietitian, who can guide you in making nutritional changes and recommend supplements, if necessary. Contact the American Dietetic Association (ADA) at (800) 366-1655 to find a dietitian near you. Also check out The ADA'S Guide to Women's Nutrition for Healthy Living by Susan Calvert Finn, Ph.D., R.D., F.A.D.A. (Perigee, $14).


The nutrients below are considered part of a woman's best defense. Include them in your daily diet:


What it can do: Protect against birth defects, heart attack, stroke and cervical cancer. Food sources: Leafy green vegetables, dried peas and beans, brewer's yeast, wheat germ, brown rice, liver, dates, oranges, whole wheat bread and fortified cereals

RDA(*): 180 micrograms

VITAMIN [B.sub.6]

What it can do: Protect against heart attack and stroke.

Food sources: Brewer's yeast, carrots, chicken, turkey, fish, wheat germ, spinach, sunflower seeds, whole grain cereals

RDA: 1.6 milligrams


What it can do: Protect against cancer, heart attack and stroke.

Food sources: Dried beans, whole grains, dark leafy vegetables such as collards and mustard greens, brown rice, wheat germ, oatmeal, sweet potatoes, vegetable oils, eggs

RDA: 12 international units (IUs) or 8 mg


What it can do: Protect against osteoporosis and hypertension.

Food sources: Low-fat milk and cheese, yogurt, buttermilk, cottage cheese, leafy green vegetables, beans, sardines, salmon with bones, dried peas and beans, figs, blackstrap molasses

DRI(**): 1,000 mg for adults up to age 50; 1,200 mg for adults 51 and over


What it can do: Protect against heart disease, cancer, cataracts, macular degeneration, colds and flu. Food sources: Citrus fruits and juices, mango, papaya, broccoli, collard greens, brussels sprouts, sweet peppers, chili peppers, strawberries, tomatoes, watermelon, cabbage, cantaloupe

RDA: 60 mg

Note: RDA(*) refers to the daily recommended dietary allowances of nutrients to prevent deficiencies. DBI(**) refers to dietary reference intakes, a new standard developed by The National Academy of Sciences to reflect nutrient requirements for optimal health.

Joyce White is the author of Soul Food: Recipes and Reflections From African-American Churches (HarperCollins, $25). She lives in New York City.

Absorption of Liquid Vitamins

"Liquids, aside from offering the obvious benefit of being easy to swallow, have another very important trait. According to the Physicians Desk Reference,

Liquid is absorbed at a 98% rate, versus

Only 10 – 20% in hard capsules or tablet forms.

This very important distinction is extraordinarily important. It is not uncommon to have [hard] capsules pass right through the body in a way that the product name is still visible after the pill has left the body completely. This does not happen with liquids, as they are absorbed completely and are not wasted."

The National Advisory Board states that:

'100 mg consumed in tablet form translates to a minute stabilized 8.3 mg or 8.3% concentrated in the blood.'

This is simply not the case with liquids!"

"Pills and capsules may cost less, but in reality you get far less absorption for your money. No wonder they cost less!

Liquids are fast--you do not even have to wait for them to dissolve. They start working as soon as you swallow and

Many have very pleasant flavors."


Why Liquid Multivitamins are Superior
Why is Nutritional Absorption a Concern?

Articles about Vitamins & Health

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