While studies will continue to debate whether certain foods or specific vitamins and minerals can prevent cancer and other diseases, one thing is clear: Eating a diet that provides these nutrients is certainly healthier for you than not. On the most basic level, the body needs vitamins and minerals just to function.
Vitamins you need: A, C, D, E, K and the B vitamins—B1/thiamine, B2/riboflavin, B3/ niacin, B5/pantothenic acid, B6/pyridoxine, B7/biotin, B9/folic acid and B12/cyanocobalamin.
Minerals you need: the macrominerals—calcium, chloride, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, sodium and sulfur—and trace minerals (needed in small amounts)—cobalt, copper, fluoride, iodine, iron, manganese, selenium and zinc.
Another debate is whether you can get all these necessary nutrients in food or if supplements are needed. Certainly the more you can get through your diet, the better. Problem is, according to the US Dietary Guidelines for Americans, many people consume more calories than they need without taking in the recommended amounts of certain nutrients, and that’s cause for concern.
For older adults, these AWOL nutrients are oftencalcium, needed for bone health; potassium, needed to regulate sodium; and magnesium which with these two other minerals helps lower blood pressure; and vitamins A, C, and E. Vitamins A, C, and E are important because they appear to deter plaque from forming on artery walls. Plaque forms because oxygen and the so-called bad LDL cholesterol combine in a process called oxidation. Vitamins A, C, and E are called "antioxidants" because they slow or stop the plaque-forming process. Vitamin A also helps prevent night blindness.
In addition, everyone over age 50 may be coming up short on vitamin B12, which helps prevent memory loss, because the body doesn’t absorb it as well in later years; you can get it through protein sources, fortified foods or supplements.
If you don’t have any exposure to sunlight, the main natural source of vitamin D (either because it’s not always possible or if you’re prone to skin cancer), you’ll need to get D from fortified foods and/or supplements (or about 15 minutes of unprotected sun exposure a day). Vitamin D is needed for the interaction with calcium for bone health. Taking vitamin D and calcium supplements is a question for the primary care physician if osteoporosis, or the risk of it, is an issue—it might not be possible to get all the calcium needed naturally through foods, about a quart of milk or the equivalent in dairy products every day.
Getting most of your vitamins and minerals through food doesn’t have to be overwhelming or require piled-high plates. Usually it’s a matter of picking powerhouse foods before the bagel or slice of cake. And, since many foods supply an assortment of vitamins and minerals, you can add up required amounts faster by eating what’s called nutrient-dense foods first. (Of course, stay away from any foods that the doctor has said to avoid if following a restrictive diet for health reasons.)
MAKING SMARTER CHOICES
Make up as many of the day’s meals as possible from a variety of these top food choices.
Vegetables, like asparagus, broccoli, peas, and zucchini provide: B7 and E, magnesium, phosphorus and potassium. In addition:
· Orange vegetables, like carrots, pumpkin, sweet potatoes, squash provide: beta-carotene used as vitamin A
· Green vegetables, like broccoli, celery and cabbage provide: B2 and selenium
· Green leafy vegetables, like spinach provide: A, B9, E and K, calcium and magnesium
· Onions and garlic in particular (if tolerated) provide: selenium and sulfur
Fresh fruit like apples, melon, pears and plums provide: B vitamins, potassium and copper. In addition:
· Citrus fruit, like oranges (also a source of B7), grapefruit and tangerines provide: vitamin C
Whole grains, like barley, brown rice, buckwheat (kasha), oats, rye and whole wheat provide: B vitamins and E, chromium, magnesium, manganese, selenium and zinc
Beans and legumes, like dried peas, lima, kidney and garbanzo beans and lentils provide: B1 and B7 and magnesium
Nuts, like almonds, cashews, walnuts and hazelnuts provide: B1, B7 and E, copper, magnesium and manganese
Seeds, like flaxseed, pumpkin, sesame and sunflower seeds provide: B1 and E, copper, iron, magnesium, manganese, phosphorus, potassium and zinc
Dairy products, like lowfat milk, yogurt and cheese provide: A, B2, B7 (milk), B12, D (fortified milk) and K, calcium, phosphorus and sulfur
· Eggs provide: B5, B9, B12, D and E, phosphorus and sulfur
· Fish, like cod, halibut, salmon and tuna provide: B2, B3, B12, D (fatty fish), iron, phosphorus and zinc. In addition, shellfish provides: copper and iodine
· Meat provides: B1 (lean pork) B2, B3 (lean meats), B6, B7, B12, chromium, iron, phosphorus, sulfur and zinc
· Organ meat, like liver provides: A (liver, fish liver oil), B1, B12, B9 and D (liver), copper, iron and selenium
· Poultry provides: B2, iron and phosphorus
Vegetable oils, like sunflower, safflower and olive oil provide: vitamin E
Wheat germ provides: B6, B9 and E and magnesium
Brewer’s yeast: B5, B6 and B7, chromium, selenium and zinc
A note about the other essential minerals in the diet: salt—which most people get too much of—provides chlorine, sodium and iodine; and we get fluoride from fluoridated water.