Michael van Straten
Michael van Straten

The Vitamin Maze

One again the critics claim that vitamin and mineral supplements are a waste of money and that no one needs them. The Government’s own figures show just how many people miss out on some essential nutrients and even the NHS recognises that there are times when good health depends on getting an extra boost. With more families than ever relying on food banks isn’t it time that supplements were given free to help prevent the diseases of malnutrition, especially for the young and old?

Is it better to get vitamins from food or pills? At a time when everyone talks about the importance of vitamins and minerals, and even your cornflakes list them on the box, it’s hard to believe that it’s now well over a hundred years since Casimir Funk and Sir Frederick Gowland first discovered these essential micro-nutrients. Now, in the 21st century, the shelves in health stores, pharmacies and supermarkets groan under a vast array of supplements. So how do you decide? Many experts say that no one in the UK needs them, but even our own Department of Health maintains that there are circumstances when they do make a difference.

A survey of 800 British people in 500 households revealed that 93 per cent of men and 98 per cent of women between the ages of 18 and 54 were deficient in folic acid. 60 per cent of women were short of iron, 90 per cent of men and women were missing out on vitamin B6, 50 per cent of women were short of vitamin A and most were missing out on other minerals like calcium and zinc. My own research shows that many people don’t get enough vitamin E and D and even the vital vitamin C is often deficient in the diets of men, women and children and hardly any of the thousands of diets that I have analysed over the years provided enough iodine!

With autumn just a few months away it’s really important to start boosting the immune system now and prepare yourself to battle against all those winter ills and chills, especially with the prospect of a flu epidemic. Vitamins play a key role in maintaining your natural resistance and it’s not hard to top up these vital vits. There’s a day’s dose in these quantities:

Vitamin A; essential for growth, skin, night and colour vision. 5 g of liver, 40 g of old carrots, 70 g of spinach or butter, 120 g of broccoli in cheese sauce.

Vitamin C; prevents scurvy, aids wound healing and iron absorption, boosts immunity and is a protective antioxidant. 1 dessertspoon of blackcurrants, a lemon, half a green pepper, an orange, half a grapefruit, a kiwi fruit, 90 g coleslaw.

Vitamin D; essential for bones, prevents rickets and osteoporosis. 1 teaspoon cod liver oil, 45 g herring or kipper, 55 g mackerel, 80 g canned salmon or tuna, 135 g canned sardines. Nearly 20 per cent of daily need from 2 boiled eggs.

Vitamin B1, Thiamine; essential for energy. 60 g cod roe, 70 g wheat germ, 100 g brazil or peanuts. Oatmeal, bacon, pork, offal and bread are good sources too.

Vitamin B2, Riboflavin; Vital for growth, skin and mucous membranes. 6 eggs, 1½ pints of milk, 65 g of liver or kidney, 250 g cheddar. Beef, mackerel, almonds, cereals and poultry are also good sources.

Vitamin B6, Pyridoxine: Essential for growth, helps prevent PMS. A large banana and ½ an avocado, a good helping of cod, salmon or herring. Meat, liver and cheese are good sources.

Folic Acid vital to prevent birth defects, and heart disease in adults. Any sort of liver, apportion each of Brussels sprouts and spinach, a watercress and beetroot salad, black eye beans, peanuts.

Vitamin E, a powerful antioxidant essential for the protection of body cells, skin, muscles, nerves, blood vessels, the heart and important for fertility. 15 ml wheat germ oil, 2 dessertspoons sunflower seeds, a large baked sweet potato, 50 g hazel nuts. Blackberries, tomato purée, wheat germ, avocados and olive oil are excellent sources too.

Vitamin B12, essential for healthy blood and preventing anaemia. Roast beef sandwich, scrambled eggs, grilled plaice, duck, or one portion of liver a week.

The wider variety of foods that you eat, the less likely it is that you’ll miss out on vitamins, which is why cutting out any major food group risky. Around 20 per cent of the population wrongly believe they’re allergic to wheat and dairy products, often on the basis of dubious allergy tests performed by unqualified people and which have no scientific basis. Of course there are those with serious allergies to these foods.

Extreme diets are also dangerous, like the Atkins and Dukan diets, which can lead to raised cholesterol and blood pressure and serious permanent kidney damage. It even excludes potatoes, which are one of the healthiest of vegetables providing energy, vitamins C and B6 and lots of essential minerals.

But good food provides things which you don’t get in a vitamin pill. These phytochemicals protect against heart and circulatory diseases, many forms of cancer, premature ageing, Alzheimer’s disease, arthritis and even wrinkles. They’re in all fruits and vegetables with the vitamins. Prunes, raisins, blueberries, blackberries, garlic, kale, cranberries, strawberries, spinach, broccoli, beetroot, avocado, red peppers, cherries, kiwis, onions, grapes, sweetcorn, peas, potatoes, and even baked beans are the most protective foods.

But even if your diet’s good you may need a daily multivitamin. Those most at risk are:
• The very active like athletes, dancers and regular vigorous exercisers
• Children and teenagers whose main diet is junk food
• Anyone preparing for or recovering from surgery
• People with chronic diseases or getting over an acute illness
• During pregnancy and breast feeding
• Those living with long term stress
• People with chronic bowel disorders
• Anyone with mouth or throat conditions that make eating difficult
• Women in the menopause
• The elderly who eat less and digest inefficiently
• Anyone with eating disorders
• Anyone who can’t or won’t make time to eat regularly

With the exception of vitamin C which is a great natural immune booster and quite safe to take at 1000 mg a day, avoid single dose supplements without professional advice. Some like vitamins A, D and B6 can be toxic and if you get the balance wrong it’s possible to reduce the amount of nutrients actually absorbed.

Getting your five portions of fruit and vegetables a day is easier than you think. Count a fresh juice as one portion, a vegetarian pizza as another and spread the rest with or between your meals - a portion is the size of your fist. Most importantly get back to the joy of eating and stop equating pleasure with guilt.

Food is not just fuel. It’s there to be relished, enjoyed and whenever possible, eaten in the good company of friends and family. It is part of the cement that binds social groups together, part of the social structure that helps children learn how to communicate and, just as importantly; acquire both knowledge and love of food and cooking.


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