Optimal Nutrition

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Pros and cons of vegetarianism

Dear Reader,

It's a great idea to plan consciously when switching over to a vegetarian diet. Not eating meat can offer many health benefits, as well as addressing environmental and ethical concerns you may have regarding eating animals. However, before making the switch to a meat-free lifestyle, it is important to get a sense of the pros and cons.

Here’s the best news of all: with a well-planned diet, vegetarians can live a totally healthy lifestyle and help contribute to a better planet. The following list describes various benefits of vegetarianism:

  • Plant foods are abundant in nutrients, including vitamins, minerals, and protein. They also contain phytochemicals — plant chemicals that are not essential to life, but may help protect against disease — such as beta-carotene. Eating a variety of colors of fruits and vegetables can help ensure that the benefits nature provides are reaped.
  • Reduce your risk of type 2 diabetes. Vegetarians benefit from eating less saturated fat and cholesterol, and higher amounts of complex carbohydrates, dietary fiber, certain minerals, and phytochemicals. Cholesterol is only found in animal foods, so vegan diets are completely cholesterol-free.
  • Contribute to the vegetarian cause! Whether you have aim to respect animals, lessen your carbon footprint on the environment, or just want to make a lifestyle change, as a vegetarian you are making your own positive impact on the world. You can be proud that you are living according to the beliefs that you stand for.

Whenever you cut a food group out of your diet, it is important to understand how to replace the vital nutrients that go along with it. While the positives are all fine and dandy, it is important to be aware of the challenges of being a vegetarian:

  • It can be harder to get the protein you need. Protein is important formaintaining and repairing muscle tissue, and manufacturing blood cells, antibodies, hormones, and enzymes. Fortunately, there are plenty of non-meat proteins to supplement your diet.
  • Possible vitamin and mineral deficiencies can develop without a balanced eating plan. Cutting out dairy, meat, fish, and poultry reduces your intake of vitamin B12 (important for nerve transmission and necessary for life), calcium (for strong bones, among other functions), iron (for blood), and zinc (for immunity and healing), just to name a few.
  • Depending on where you live, it may be challenging to adhere to a meat-free lifestyle. For example, living in a big city may provide you with endless veggie options, while a small-town lifestyle may make it more difficult to find healthy substitutions for meat.
  • You may have difficulty explaining your eating habits to family and friends.While it may seem that being a vegetarian is relatively mainstream, certain cultures leave little room for herbivores. You may encounter some sticky situations where people have prepared for you a meaty meal, or perhaps, your friends and family may challenge your decision to remain meat-free.

Remember, what is included in your diet (rather than what is excluded) is what counts. It is extremely important to incorporate a balanced eating plan full of nutrient-rich foods. For help in selecting a healthy eating plan appropriate for your state of health, age, size, activity level, preferences, and moral and ethical values, consult with a registered dietitian. Informed choices are the best choices!

Alice

For more information or to make an appointment, check out these recommended resources:

Medical Services (Morningside)

Medical Services (CUMC)


How to eat your veggies, even if you don't like them

Dear Reader,

Eating fruits and vegetables is an essential part of maintaining good health. In 2011, the USDA launched its most recent food guide called Choose My Plate. Most health professionals and health promotion organizations, including the USDA, recommend eating at least five servings of fruits and vegetables daily. Or, in the case of the Choose My Plate campaign, make half of your plate fruits and vegetables.

Since eating vegetables is not very appealing to you, let's start by discussing ways to incorporate some essential vitamins and minerals into your diet via fruit. Look to a wide variety of fruits to take in more vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals, which are plant substances that may ward off heart disease and certain forms of cancer. For example, a fruit salad composed of oranges, assorted berries, grapes, kiwi, bananas, apples, and peaches with fresh lime juice squeezed over it can be enjoyed as a delicious part of any meal or on its own as a snack. A piece of fruit, such as an apple or a pear, is also an excellent dessert and can be paired with protein, such as nut butter or cheese, to make a well balanced snack.

Now let's move to the incorporation of vegetables in a positive way. Vegetables can taste bitter, particularly when eaten raw. A good place to begin may be experimenting with roasting a few different vegetables to see what you may like. Roasting vegetables brings out their sweetness via a process called caramelization, which reveals the sugars in vegetables, causing them to taste sweeter. This works particularly well with root vegetables, such as onions, potatoes, sweet potatoes, turnips, and carrots. To roast vegetables, simply cut them into one-inch squares, toss with olive oil, salt, and pepper, place on a baking sheet, and put in an oven at 450 degrees for 30 to 40 minutes, tossing and turning throughout cooking. You will know they are done when they are golden brown, slightly crispy on the outside, and soft on the inside. Broccoli and cauliflower are also delicious when roasted. Feel free to experiment by adding grated parmesan or other cheeses, herbs, and spices to the vegetables after roasting. You can also look to "sweeter" vegetables, such as corn, peas, tomatoes, and carrots and incorporate them into pasta or rice dishes or put them together to make a salad. The get balanced! nutrition initiative offers some recipes to get you started, such as the Cilantro Corn Tomato Salad.

It is also possible to disguise vegetables in your food, similar to the way some parents do when their children don't eat their veggies. This is typically done using vegetable purees, which can be made at home simply by microwaving a vegetable and then pureeing it, or can be found in the freezer section (most often found are pureed sweet potatoes or squash) or as jars of baby food in the children's section of your grocery store. Purees can be added to stew, soup, pasta sauce, baked goods, etc.; the options are endless. There are several good cookbooks available that offer recipes that incorporate vegetable purees. You can also sneak in an extra veggie by making fruit smoothies with spinach added in — all you'll taste is the fruit!

In addition to purees, you can also incorporate vegetables into other foods. Examples include:

  • Make omelets with tomatoes, peppers, and/or mushrooms — be sure to sauté the vegetables first before adding the eggs.
  • Add broccoli and/or olives to your pizza.
  • Add chopped spinach and/or grated carrots and onions to turkey burgers or meatloaf.
  • Mix chopped carrot and celery into tuna or chicken salad.
  • Choose soups rich in vegetables, such as Minestrone or Gumbo.
  • Add peas, carrots, and/or zucchini to rice pilaf.

It's difficult to "force" yourself into liking a specific food, especially if you are turned off by the taste. Luckily, you can choose from a variety of vegetable options and cooking methods. Keep an open mind (and mouth), and perhaps you will come to enjoy some of these foods!

For more tips about healthy eating, fruits, and vegetables, check out the Optimal Nutrition section of the Go Ask Alice! archive, learn more about the tools from Choosemyplate.gov.

Alice

Weight loss with pyruvate or chitosan?

Dear Curious,

Many weight loss supplements come and go with dizzying regularity. Two that are currently being sold in the marketplace are pyruvate and chitosan (among others). Pyruvate is a substance made in our bodies as a result of glucose metabolism. Promoters of this supplement claim that it helps in losing weight. One lab, led by R. Stanko in Pittsburgh, PA  studied the effects of pyruvate in obese women over the course of three weeks. The subjects were divided into two groups -- both followed a 1,000-calorie liquid diet, but one group took 36 grams of pyruvate per day. The women taking pyruvate lost an average of 13.0 pounds (versus an average of 9.5 pounds for the non-pyruvate group -- a 3.5 pound difference). Here's the catch: pyruvate usually comes in 500 to 1,000 mg capsules. You would have to take anywhere from 36 - 72 capsules a day to match the amount administered in the study. Besides being inconvenient, the cost of these supplements would be around fifteen or twenty dollars every day. In addition, some people taking as little as 30 - 100 grams per day experience diarrhea and some stomach upset. Apparently, pyruvate is not a bargain when it comes to losing an extra three pounds. And, the results of this study may not even apply to you, if you are not an obese woman - others may not experience the same effects seen by the study participants.

Chitosan is made from chitin, which forms the shells of crabs, shrimp, lobsters, etc. It's similar to fiber, in that it passes through the intestinal system unabsorbed. Chitosan also takes a little recently consumed fat along with it for the ride, but it doesn't remove the fat deposits already on your body. Some very small European studies (only one of which was published in a peer-reviewed journal) have been done looking at this substance. It's unclear if chitosan can excrete enough fat to make a difference in weight loss. However, if chitosan binds and excretes fat that's consumed, then it will prevent the absorption of important fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E, and K) and some valuable phytochemicals, which help to prevent disease. Another important point to consider is that some medications are fat-soluble and their effectiveness may be compromised. Women need to know this because oral contraceptives and estrogen fall into this category.

As with all supplements, these substances aren't regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), so purity and safety aren't guaranteed. Even if you were to lose weight on either of these supplements, it would surely return if you revert back to unhealthy habits. There's no magic answer for permanent weight loss, except a reasonable healthful eating and exercise program. Save your money for some healthy food and perhaps a new pair of sneakers!

Alice

Quick and healthy bag lunches

Dear S,

If you are what you eat, being healthy and time efficient sound like great qualities to have! Whether your motivations include saving time or money, improving your nutrition, maintaining or losing weight, or fostering your culinary skills, preparing your own lunch is a grand idea! Doing so can be a way to cater to your individual needs, nutritionally and conveniently, and to energize you through your busy days at school and beyond. With everything else that’s on your plate, preparing nutritious foods may seem like a challenge. However, with a few easy and balanced tips, you’ll be savoring a tasty lunch in no time.

First, a little review of the food groups may serve up some hot and cool lunch options. Main food groups include:

  • Fruits, naturally sweet and juicy, are great as salad ingredients, sides, or snacks. Grab a fruit that comes with its own wrapper (e.g. apples, oranges, bananas) or a small container of grapes or cut melon. Dried and canned fruits may also make for portable options.
  • Grains come as whole and refined grains. Whole grains use the entire kernel of the grain (e.g., whole wheat flour items, brown rice, oatmeal, popcorn). Refined grains have been milled to remove their bran and germ (e.g., white flour, white rice, white bread, pasta, noodles). They're great for sandwiches, wraps, noodle or rice dishes, and snacks.
  • Vegetables (raw, cooked, fresh, frozen, or canned) are easy to transport and are nutritious! Convenient versions include bite-sized vegetables (think baby carrots or cut celery sticks), salads, wrap fillers, soups, and potato dishes.
  • Meat and beans make great sandwiches or wraps with turkey, lean ham or roast beef, nut butter, fish (e.g., tuna, salmon), or hummus (chick pea spread/dip). They're hearty and complement most grains and vegetables.
  • Dairy products like milk, yogurt, and cheese (e.g., string cheese, cottage cheese) make for portable lunch items high in calcium. Try incorporating low-fat versions with less or no added sugar. Calcium-fortified non-dairy products may also be an option.
  • Oils and fats are part of a healthy diet, but use oils, fats, and their products (e.g., mayonnaise, butter, margarine, lard, animal fat, shortening) sparingly. Avoid trans-fat and limit the amount of food items high in oils and fats, such as some baked items (e.g., cookies, cakes), deep fried foods, and some packaged foods.

Suggestions for compiling easy and healthy lunches include:

  • Make it a combo meal! Try incorporating three or more food groups into a meal. Focus on fruit, vary your vegetables, consume calcium-rich foods, and make half of your grains whole ones. A sample menu may be a whole wheat pita stuffed with chicken breast, hummus, and spinach with a side of a low-fat yogurt cup and an apple.
  • Keep it simple. Whole, unprocessed ingredients make for easy preparation and high nutrition. Try having a sizeable stock of fruits, vegetables, nuts, beans, grains, and lean meats as basics for your lunch combinations.
  • Limit sweets and fats. Try to limit food items high in added sugar and fats, such as soda, cookies, candy, some snack bars, and deep fried items.
  • Make it up ahead of time. If you’re a top chef, make bigger batches of your famous dishes so that you can portion out meals for several days or freeze some for later use. Not a cook? No problem! Give wraps and salads a try.
  • Rotate your menu. Doing this will ensure that you won't get bored of eating the same thing each day, and this may help you incorporate a full range of food groups.
  • Remember: Safety first! Wash your hands while preparing and eating. Properly prepare your foods to appropriate temperatures before eating them. If you have access, store your lunch in appropriate temperatures to avoid having your food spoil. An insulated, reusable lunch bag with a reusable cold pack may help you keep your lunch safe and stay green!

For more information about creating a healthy lunch, check out ChooseMyPlate.gov for more tips and a personalized eating plan. You might also get your friends involved in the planning process. Ask them about their favorite quick and healthy lunches and trade ideas. These make for nutritious conversations and fruitful times with others. Bon appétit!

Alice

For more information, check out this recommended resource:

get balanced! Columbia University's Guide for Healthier Eating


Recommended dietary allowances (RDAs) of nutrients?

Dear Reader,

RDAs (Recommended Dietary Allowances), prepared by the Food and Nutrition Board of the National Academy of Sciences, have been around for over 50 years, with periodic updates. The RDA is the average daily dietary intake level that would adequately meet the nutritional needs of nearly all (98 percent) healthy persons. RDAs include nutrients for which there is sufficient scientific evidence that they are required for good health. Their intention has always been to establish "standards to serve as a goal for good nutrition." RDAs provide the basis for evaluating the adequacy of diets of population groups. They are set at a level that includes a safety factor appropriate to each nutrient; so, this level actually exceeds the requirement for most individuals.

The Food and Nutrition Board has established Dietary Reference Intakes (DRIs). In addition to RDAs, DRIs include recommendations for food components for which RDAs cannot be established. Some of these include fat, carbohydrate, fiber, and plant estrogens, among others. DRIs also include maximum intake levels. Three dietary intake reference values for DRIs are:

  • Adequate Intake — the dietary intake level that would adequately sustain health when an RDA cannot be determined because of insufficient scientific evidence.
  • Estimated Average Requirement — the estimated dietary intake level that would maintain the health of half of a specified age and sex group.
  • Tolerable Upper Intake Level — the maximum level of daily nutrient intake that's apparently safe and unlikely to cause negative health effects in most healthy individuals.

DRIs and RDAs are not developed for specific individuals, but are for the making of policies for feeding programs, food labeling, and food fortification. The numbers signify levels of each compound that are appropriate for most healthy people in each category. To access information on RDAs and DRIs, check out the United States Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Food and Nutrition Information Center website.

Vitamin supplements may contain an amount equivalent to the RDA for DRI, but you'll probably not find a supplement with every imaginable nutrient, vitamin, and mineral. There are innumerable substances that keep us healthy, many of which cannot be packaged in a pill. In addition, many nutrients are difficult for the body to absorb when they come in pill form. Obtaining nutrients directly from a balanced diet of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins is still the recommended manner of giving your body all it needs to be healthy.

To assess whether your current diet is filled with nutrients, check out ChooseMyPlate.gov. You can also speak with your health care provider about whether you need a multivitamin or if the food you eat is sufficient. Students at Columbia can also make an appointment to speak with a registered dietician or a health care provider either through Medical Services (Morningside) or the Student Health Service (CUMC). Take care,

Alice

Ginkgo — what d'ya thinko?

Dear What D'Ya Thinko About Ginkgo,

Gingko (Latin name, Ginkgo biloba) has been part of Chinese traditional medicine for thousands of years. It is extracted from the leaves of the hardy ginkgo biloba tree and is available in a variety of forms, including teas and tablets. Proponents of ginkgo believe that consuming the leaves increases cerebral blood flow and prevents the lumping of platelets in brain tissue. They also believe that ginkgo has other health benefits, such as slowing memory loss, improving cognitive ability, and curing conditions such as asthma, PMS, multiple sclerosis, and sexual dysfunction. For one herb, that's quite a resume!

While some claims on the Ginkgo plant may have some merit, not all are backed by research. Some studies have found that ginkgo biloba has positive effects on cognitive ability, though others have found that this may not be true. Ginkgo has been found to have possible antioxidant properties, which means that it may help the body fight free radicals. Free radicals in the brain attack healthy cells, stealing the cells' electrons. As an antioxidant, ingested ginkgo provides a target for these hungry cells, allowing them to steal ginkgo's electrons rather than from the healthy cells. Ginkgo has been found to be helpful in some patients with claudication (painful legs due to clogged arteries) and dementia. Despite these findings, more research is needed to establish ginkgo as the panacea that it's believed to be.

So, let's say you decide to ginkgo. You may be wondering about the recommended dose. For adults 18 and older, common dosage is typically around 80 to 240 mg, and may be taken two to three times a day (depending on the reason for use). It’s recommended that if you’re just starting to take ginkgo, it’s best to not take any more than 120 mg per day to avoid some gastrointestinal upset. Ginkgo might be safe for children, but it's probably a good idea not to give it to them unless it's under the strict supervision of a health care provider.

Ginkgo, though it is natural, may cause side effects, such as bleeding, headache, nausea, dizziness, diarrhea, and allergic reactions (some of which may be severe). Moreover, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not regulate ginkgo or other supplements. As such, it's recommended you ask your health care provider, if you are considering taking ginkgo, especially if you have a bleeding disorder or if you are taking any other medications/supplements. For more information about ginkgo, you may want to check out the section on supplements and ergonenic aids in the Go Ask Alice! Nutrition & Physical Activity archives.

Doing your homework on complementary and alternative medicine is a wise step to take — be proud of yourself for learning more info before you gink-go or gink-no.

Alice

A healthy model is a model of health

Dear N,

Rather than prescribing you a "model's diet," as there are probably as many of them as there are models (both healthy and unhealthy), a better suggestion would be to follow the guidelines for a model diet — that is, start by resisting the urge to compare yourself to other models. Focusing on what's healthy for you is the healthiest runway to strut on.

You have already taken a step in the right direction by taking good care of yourself and your health:

Exercising regularly is fantastic for health and wellness. For a well-rounded exercise plan, be sure to include both cardio and weight training workouts. Current recommendations for a healthy dose of exercise for adults include 2 hours and 30 minutes (150 minutes) of moderate-intensity aerobic activity (i.e., brisk walking) every week, plus muscle-strengthening activities on 2 or more days per week that work all major muscle groups (legs, hips, back, abdomen, chest,  shoulders, and arms).

Meeting with a nutritionist or dietician can help you figure out a specific eating plan tailored for your energy and nutritional needs. According to the MyPlate Plan, a healthy diet for a typical woman aged 19-30 includes 6 ounces of grains (with 3 ounces coming from whole grains), 2.5 cups of vegetables, 2 cups of fruit, 3 cups of dairy products, 5 1/2 ounces of protein (lean meats and beans) and up to 6 teaspoons from the oil group. Recommendations for a typical man aged 19-30 includes 8 ounces of grains, with at least 4 ounces coming from whole grains, 3 cups of vegetables, 2 cups of fruit, 3 cups of dairy products, 6 1/2 ounces of protein (lean meats and beans) and up to 7 teaspoons of foods from the oil group. With a balanced diet, men and women can eat still eat sweets and treats in moderation and maintain a healthy diet.

Getting your beauty sleep is important — both on and off the runway! While six solid hours can be enough for some people, others, especially people in their late teens and early 20s, need as many as nine or ten to be completely rested and alert.

Only your dietician can tell you how often you should meet with her/him in a given period of time. In addition, you might also meet with a health care provider at your university's health service for a physical or check-ups to make sure that your body stays healthy while you continue with your eating, exercise, and would-be modeling plans.

Good luck with your modeling debut. Following the above tips can help you make a lasting impression along your path to becoming a model of good health!

Alice

For more information or to make an appointment, check out these recommended resources:

Medical Services (Morningside)

Medical Services (CUMC)

Columbia Nutritional Services


Ginkgo biloba and physiological impotence?

Dear Reader,

Some people swear by Ginkgo biloba, calling it a miracle herb with the power to fix anything from Alzheimer's to erectile dysfunction. But what are the facts? Scientifically speaking the data is less clear.

According to available research, Ginkgo has been used effectively to improve cognitive function in patients with Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, as well as to improve memory in healthy adults and to treat peripheral vascular disease. Though it shows some potential with sexual dysfunction, the results have been mixed. In fact, Ginkgo’s effectiveness appears to be limited to relieving sexual dysfunction that is caused by selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRI) anti-depressants and not more generalized physiological causes. Some of ginkgo’s success with treating sexual dysfunction is believed to be the result of the placebo effect.

Though ginkgo is considered safe, there are some side effects such as headache, nausea, upset stomach, vomiting, and irritations around the mouth. Because of ginkgo’s ability to thin the blood, experts advise that you not take ginkgo if you are currently taking medication for diabetes, aspirin, ibuprofen or anticoagulant drugs such as heparin and warfarin. Doctors also advise caution to patients with bleeding disorders or those who are taking drugs, herbs (such as garlic, ginseng and red clover), or supplements that may increase the risk of bleeding.

Ginko biloba is usually sold as an extract because many of the plants parts, including its seeds, are considered poisonous and their consumption could lead to seizures and death. You may want to avoid these altogether.

Overall, Ginkgo could work for you either through the placebo effect or because of actual biochemical interactions — it just might not be your best bet. If you are interested in help with impotence you may want to speak with a health care provider. S/he can help you determine possible causes, the best treatment options, as well as answer any other questions you may have about Ginkgo biloba and its effects. Columbia students on the Morningside campus can make an appointment with Medical Services using Open Communicator or by calling 212-854-2284. Columbia students at the Medical Center can make an appointment with Student Health by calling 212-305-3400.

Alice

Echinacea

Dear Reader,

Kudos to you for exploring your options when it comes to staying healthy during cold and flu season. Many people who have tried echinacea, the purple coneflower (and relative of the sunflower) native to the Midwestern region of the United States, swear by it's ability to fight off colds, flu, and other minor infections. And though this supplement has a number of fans, not all of the research findings agree about its effectiveness (more on that in a bit). It’s also wise that you’re asking about dosage amounts and timing. There are a number of dosage recommendations and it’s good to note that echinacea is not safe or appropriate for everyone. Lastly, because nutritional supplements like this one are not regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), it’s worth doing a bit of homework to find a reputable manufacturer for this supplement.

What research has been conducted regarding the medicinal uses of this plant include boosting the immune system, pain relief, and it is also thought to have anti-inflammatory, antiviral, and antioxidant properties. As far as fighting off the cold or flu virus, not all research findings jive with these claims. Some findings have demonstrated that echinacea can help you feel better faster if taken when you’re sick with either condition. One such meta-analysis of 14 different studies found that folks who used this herb were 58 percent less likely to develop a cold and those who did get one experienced a shorter duration of symptoms (about one to four days total). It’s good to note, however, that some experts have challenged these findings due to the variance in supplement type and dosage as well as weaknesses identified in the analyses. On the other hand, other studies found no effect at all. Needless to say, additional research is needed.

So, in order to try it out for yourself, it’s good to know when and how much to take, right? Echinacea is available in liquid extract, tincture, capsule, tablet, and cream/gel forms. It may also be found in supplements that contain a combination of various herbs meant to boost immunity. It seems that in order to stave off the cold or flu, it’s best to take this supplement about three times a day when you already know you’re sick until you feel better. That being said, it’s best not to take the supplement for this purpose for more than seven to ten days. Doing so will hopefully shorten the duration of either viral infection. However, the dosage depends on what type of echinacea supplement you are using.

Echinacea is generally seen as a safe supplement that results in few side effects. However, it is noted that if you take it as an oral supplement, you may experience some tingling or numbness in your mouth. Additionally, if you’re allergic to plants in the daisy family or have asthma, it’s recommended that you steer clear of it. It’s advised that folks with a liver disorder, an auto-immune disorder (including HIV/AIDS), leukemia, connective tissue disorder, diabetes, or tuberculosis avoid this supplement. Though there’s little evidence to suggest that using echinacea during pregnancy results in any birth defects, it’s generally recommended that women who are pregnant or breastfeeding forgo taking this supplement. There are some noted drug interactions as well, so your best bet is to consult a health care provider if you’re using any medications before picking this up at a store.  

Ready to hit the supplement aisle at the market? Not so fast — be on the lookout for products from reputable manufacturers. Because the supplements are not regulated in the U.S., ingredient lists may be deceiving. One independent company, Consumerlab.com, conducted a study of eleven different echinacea products and found that less than half of the products contained the ingredients listed on their labels. Additionally, about ten percent of the products studied didn’t contain any echinacea at all! It's also a good idea to seek out the advice of a health care provider to help you determine if this supplement is safe and beneficial for you to use. For more information on echniacea and other dietary supplements, visit the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine website.

Alice

For more information or to make an appointment, check out these recommended resources:

Medical Services (Morningside)

Student Health Service (CUMC)


Why do we need vitamin A?

Dear Reader,

Vitamin A is an essential, fat-soluble vitamin that has many diverse benefits for humans. It promotes eye health and helps you see in the dark; aids in the differentiation of cells of the skin (lining the outside of the body) and mucous membranes (linings inside of the body); helps the body fight off infection and support the immune system; and, supports growth and remodeling of bone. Sounds pretty vital, right? But before you stock up on supplements or make your way to the grocery to get your vitamin A fix, it’s also good to be aware of how best to get it and how much is safe to take to get the most out of this essential vitamin.

Vitamin A can be found both in the flora and the fauna of the world — and that’s good, because it’s recommended that folks get their fill of it through their diet. Because vitamin A is fat-soluble, cooking (but not overcooking) and making sure to get some fat within the same meal will allow your body to absorb the vitamin properly. Carotenoids, the plant-based form of vitamin A, are found in dark leafy greens and in yellow and orange fruits and veggies (e.g., sweet potatoes, carrots, winter squash, mangos, and peaches). Carotenoids (including beta-carotene) are referred to as the “precursor” type of vitamin A, which means that once it’s in the body, it is then transformed into vitamin A. High intake of dietary beta-carotene has been linked to lower risk of age-related macular degeneration and lower risk of certain cancers, including cancers of the breast, colon, esophagus, and cervix. Retinol, on the other hand, is the active or “preformed” type of vitamin A, which comes from animal sources like beef and chicken liver, eggs, dairy products, and fish liver oil. Medications that are related to this type of vitamin A (called retinoids) are used to treat acne and other skin conditions such as psoriasis.

Though everyone needs vitamin A, the specific need for each person may vary. The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for adult men (ages 19 and older) is 900 micrograms (mcg) per day and for adult women (ages 19 and older), it is 700 mcg per day. Pregnant and breastfeeding women 19 years old and older have different daily dietary intakes, which are 770 mcg and 1,200 mcg respectively.

In either extreme of too little or too much vitamin A, there is potential for risks to your health. Vitamin A deficiency (when a person doesn’t have enough of the vitamin) is characterized by dry eyes, decreased night vision (which can eventually result in blindness), diarrhea, and skin issues. Those who are deficient are also more susceptible to infection. Folks with this deficiency are prime candidates for vitamin A supplements. On the flip side, excessive intake of vitamin A from food may result in a yellowing of the skin, but is not usually harmful. It is noted, however, that taking vitamin A supplements or medicines can contribute to taking too much. Symptoms of excess intake depend upon whether or not high vitamin A intake was over a long period of time (chronic) or a single excessive dose at one point in time (acute) and may include dry skin, rash, nausea, vomiting, fatigue, weakness, headaches, and hair loss. Large doses of preformed vitamin A (particularly in retinol supplements) can interfere with the function of vitamin D in the body, and increase the risk for bone fractures and birth defects. Beta-carotene supplements seem to carry less risk, but some studies have found that large doses as a supplement have been linked to higher risk of lung cancer among smokers. Both types of supplements have been found to increase triglycerides (fats in the blood) as well.

Even when vitamin A supplements are taken within a safe, recommended dose, it still may not be appropriate for everyone. Diabetics and those with liver disease need to take vitamin A supplements under the supervision of a health care provider. Smokers and heavy drinkers are advised not to take beta-carotene supplements. Women who are pregnant or hope to be soon are advised not to have additional vitamin A (there is some in prenatal vitamins already) and to avoid synthetic forms of vitamin A. Children are at a greater risk for experiencing side effects from too much vitamin A at much lower levels, so it’s good to monitor their use as well. Additionally, there are a number of recognized drug interactions that may hinder or amplify the effects of the medication when used in conjunction with vitamin A. Other medications may block the absorption of vitamin A. In any case, it’s always a good idea to talk to a health care provider before taking vitamin A in supplement form.

Hope this helps supplement your vitamin knowledge!

Alice

For more information or to make an appointment, check out these recommended resources:

Medical Services (Morningside)

Medical Services (CUMC)


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