The Facts About Nutrition

Here's how to get the vitamins and minerals you need.

From the WebMD Archives

Good nutrition is much more than something to fill your stomach -- what you eat can affect your health, energy, and well-being in so many ways.

The most important feature of a good diet is variety. We all know variety is the spice of life, but did you realize that unless you eat a wide variety of foods, you may be missing out on important vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients? Eating the right mix of vitamins and minerals will help you feel and look your best at any age.

Color Rules

To make sure your eating plan contains all the nutrients you need, choose a rainbow of colorful foods. The pigments that give foods their color are also the nutritious substances that can reduce your risk of cancer and chronic diseases like heart disease.

Of course, foods with the most "pigment power" are mostly fruits and vegetables -- yet another reason to fill your plate with these fiber-filled, low-calorie, fat-free, super foods! Eaten together, fruits and vegetables pack an even bigger punch in reducing free radicals -- unstable molecules in the body that damage cells and are thought to contribute to the development of many diseases.

Vitamins in the News

The hottest vitamins these days are the antioxidants (E, C, and A, along with the mineral selenium) and the "sunshine" vitamin, also known as vitamin D.

Antioxidants help gobble up those nasty free radicals. A diet rich in antioxidants has been linked to a host of health-promoting, disease-fighting activities in the body.

Antioxidant-rich foods include:

  • Vitamin A and beta-carotene: Pumpkin, squash, carrots, spinach, sweet potatoes, cantaloupes, dark leafy greens, and mangoes
  • Vitamin C: Citrus fruits, strawberries, bell peppers, cauliflower, broccoli, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, asparagus
  • Vitamin E: Vegetable oil, almonds, whole grains, wheat germ, sweet potatoes, yams
  • Selenium: Salmon, haddock

Vitamin D has been in the news lately as studies have shown that people living in northern latitudes (such as much of the northern U.S.) may not get enough of this nutrient. Without adequate vitamin D, your body can't properly absorb calcium, leading to a higher risk of broken bones -- especially in the elderly. A recent Swiss study suggests that elderly folks may be able to reduce their risk of injury from falls with vitamin D supplementation.

The best source of this nutrient is sunshine. Other good sources include:

  • Fortified milk and some orange juices. Juice manufacturers are now adding both calcium and vitamin D for better absorption.
  • Salmon and mackerel
  • Eggs
  • Liver

Continued

The Calcium Connection

Calcium is the sweetheart of minerals these days because of its weight-loss power. Research has shown that foods rich in calcium and protein can enhance weight loss by revving up your metabolism.

Calcium is also the super-nutrient for keeping bones and teeth strong and preventing osteoporosis. The best sources of calcium are dairy foods, though it's also found in:

  • Dark leafy greens
  • Fortified products like cereal and orange juice

Food or Pills?

Supplements are not the secret weapon to better health, nor can they make up for a poor diet. While vitamin and mineral pills can help round out a healthy diet, they cannot take the place of the many nutrients and fiber found in whole foods.

At the WebMD Weight Loss Clinic, we recommend taking a daily multivitamin and mineral supplement for nutritional "insurance." Depending on your food choices, even the best eating plans can fall short of meeting all your nutritional needs. Taking a daily multivitamin/mineral supplement is safe, and may offer additional health benefits. According to a study published in the August 2003 Journal of Nutrition, a daily multivitamin can reduce your risk of having a first heart attack. Other studies have suggested that daily supplements can help maintain good health and reduce the risk of chronic disease.

But remember that more is not always better: When you are choosing your daily multivitamin/mineral, make sure it contains no more than 100% of the Recommended Dietary Allowance for any nutrient.

It's a much better idea to get your nutrients from food and take a simple vitamin/mineral supplement once per day -- unless your physician recommends otherwise. (Keep in mind that that certain health conditions, such as pregnancy, call for specific supplements, so check with your doctor if you have health issues).

The Basics

Every day, scientists are discovering substances in food that promote health and protect against diseases. As time goes on, they will likely uncover even more exciting links between nutrients and health.

In the meantime, here are some basic things we know for sure about vitamins and minerals:

  • Vitamins and minerals have no calories.
  • All vitamins and minerals can be found in foods.
  • If your diet has too little of a vitamin or mineral over a long period of time, you will develop a deficiency.
  • The best form of most vitamins and minerals is the kind you get from food.

So go ahead: Add any or all of the foods mentioned in this article to your grocery list. Choosing foods and beverages that are loaded with vitamins, minerals, and other healthful substances will help satisfy hunger, ward off chronic diseases, and keep a zip in your step.

WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Expert Column Reviewed by Kathleen M. Zelman, MPH, RD, LD on August 01, 2005

Sources

SOURCES: Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, February 2002. Journal of Nutrition, August 2003. The Journal of the American Medical Association 2002; 287. The New England Journal of Medicine, 2001; 345.

© 2005 WebMD, Inc. All rights reserved.

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