By Vejay Steede
We’ve heard it all our lives: “Eat your vegetables! They’re full of vitamins!” Unfortunately, most of us were thoroughly unconvinced as children, and many of us remain unconvinced as full grown, rational-thinking adults. What’s the rub with these so-called vitamins? Where do they come from and why do so many people swear down they’re so important?
Local pharmacist, visiting Lecturer of clinical, pharmaceutical, and biological sciences at the University of Hertfordshire in the U.K., pharmacy manager at Robertson’s Drug Store in St. George’s, and President of the Bermuda Pharmaceutical Association, David Ugwuozor, MPharm, PgDip MSc, was kind enough to break it down for us:
“Vitamins and minerals are essential nutrients that our bodies need in small amounts to develop and function normally. Most of these nutrients are not produced in our bodies and must be obtained from the food we eat.
“Eating a varied and balanced diet remains the best way to get sufficient amounts of vitamins and minerals the body needs to function at its best level.
“A diet that has plenty of vegetables, fruits, protein, and healthy fats should provide the nutrients needed for good health, but some people may need to take extra supplements.”
See?! That’s why we need to eat those vegetables: they have essential nutrients in them! Vitamins, it seems, are maintenance materials for living bodies; much like gas, oil, water, and antifreeze are essential for automobiles, vitamins are essential for human bodies. Without vitamins, we’ll stall, seize up, and find ourselves on the scrap heap. Nobody wants that.
Expanding on the need for vitamin supplements, Mr Ugwuozor asserts: “There are several reasons some people may need a multivitamin or other supplement: eating a limited diet or eating less than usual due to poor appetite, following a restricted diet, certain health conditions – individual vitamin supplementation is essential in certain cases such as vitamin D deficiency or a condition that decreases the body’s ability to absorb nutrients (ulcerative colitis, celiac disease), increased nutrient needs such as being pregnant, and alcoholism can prevent some nutrients from being absorbed.”
Vitamins, of course, are required for all living organisms to survive, but humans must ingest vitamins from their environment because our bodies do not produce the essential compounds naturally. According to Yvette Brazier (in an article that was medically reviewed by Alexandra Perez, PharmD, MBA, BCGP, and published on medicalnewstoday.com in December 2020), “Each organism has different vitamin requirements. For example, humans need to get vitamin C from their diets — while dogs can produce all the vitamin C that they need.
“For humans, vitamin D is not available in large enough quantities in food. The human body synthesizes the vitamin when exposed to sunlight, and this is the best source of vitamin D.
“Different vitamins play different roles in the body, and a person requires a different amount of each vitamin to stay healthy.”
Our need to procure the vitamins our bodies need to function correctly from the food we eat and other means such as sunlight emphasize the extent to which we are inexorably connected to this planet and her natural order. We literally cannot survive without a readily available supply of vitamin rich foods and other environmental resources.
Minerals are often coupled with vitamins in nutrition discussions, but they are not the same. Mr Ugwuozor breaks down the difference between vitamins and minerals: “Vitamins are organic substances (made by plants or animals) generally classified as either fat soluble (A, D, E and K) or water soluble (B and C). Minerals are inorganic substances present in soil and water which are consumed by animals or absorbed by plants. Some examples are calcium, magnesium, iron, zinc, and sodium.
“Our lovely Bermuda chefs will know that vitamins can be easily destroyed when cooking with heat while minerals are not vulnerable to heat. So, care should be taken when cooking delicious vegetable dishes for clients.
“All vitamins are needed by the body to function normally but not all minerals are necessary for nutrition.”
Scientists have currently recognized 13 distinct vitamins. As indicated by Mr Ugwuozor above, all vitamins fall into one of two categories: fat soluble or water soluble. Depending on the type of absorption a vitamin succumbs to, our bodies will need to replenish them at different rates.
“Vitamins A, D, E, and K are fat-soluble. The body stores fat-soluble vitamins in fatty tissue and the liver, and reserves of these vitamins can stay in the body for days and sometimes months. Dietary fats help the body absorb fat-soluble vitamins through the intestinal tract.
“Water-soluble vitamins do not stay in the body for long and cannot be stored. They leave the body via the urine. Because of this, people need a more regular supply of water-soluble vitamins than fat-soluble ones. Vitamin C and all the B vitamins are water-soluble.” (Brazier, 2020)
In Bermuda, the one vitamin we seem to be lacking more than any other is vitamin D, especially since the onset of COVID-19 and the concomitant ‘shelter in place’ orders that meant staying indoors more than we are generally used to.
Mr Ugwouzor gives voice to this growing concern: “Vitamin D is essential for human health and its main function is to help with the absorption of calcium and phosphorus in the small intestine. These nutrients are needed to keep muscles, bones, and teeth healthy. Studies have showed that vitamin D supplementation can help our immune system stay balanced especially during the cold and flu season.
“Most people should be able to make all the vitamin D they need from sun exposure. Vitamin D is also found in a small number of foods such as fatty fish (example: salmon, tuna, sardines and mackerel), fortified foods (cereal, dairy), red meat, and liver.
“As more people stay indoors due to COVID restrictions, some may have been deprived of vitamin D, therefore it is important to consider taking vitamin D daily. At Robertson’s Drug Store, and at most pharmacies in Bermuda, there have been a significant increase in the sale of vitamin D, both over the counter and by prescription.
“Adults and children over 4 years should consider taking vitamin D 400 IU (10 micrograms) throughout the year if they are dark skinned individuals (African, African-Caribbean or south Asian background) due to increased amounts of melanin in their skin, which may not make enough vitamin D from sunlight, are not often outdoors, routinely wear clothes that cover up most of their skin when outdoors, or are spending a significant number of time indoors because of the COVID-19 pandemic.”
“400 IU of vitamin should be sufficient for most people if they decide to take vitamin D supplements. It is also important to note that individuals may have different vitamin D requirements based on laboratory tests. Also, some people have health conditions that mean they cannot take vitamin D supplements or should take a different amount from the standard 400 IU. You should always consult your doctor or pharmacist when deciding to start any supplement.”
So, there it is: vitamins are essential for proper bodily function. So, eat your vegetables, snack on fruit and nuts, make sure your diet is balanced and vitamin rich, and get as much sunlight as you can stand. Lastly, always consult your doctor or pharmacist for tips on what supplements will work for you.