In the era of fast technology, fast food and fast living, many of us forget that our body needs adequate sustenance to keep up and keep healthy. Each time we choose to spend extra hours at work, go out for a drink instead of going home to cook ourselves something good and enjoy a decent meal or purchase trendy clothes or high-tech phones every 6 months instead of investing in food we fail to provide our body with what it needs to keep us healthy.
This is partly our fault because we choose already processed foods that we can eat out of a plastic bag but are often devoid of nutritional value. It is partly society’s fault because it forces us to keep up an insanely fast rhythm so we no longer have the time to choose our food carefully and cook it appropriately. Add the issue of soil depletion as a result of intensive agricultural practices such as pesticide use, chemical fertilizers use, etc. and the bigger picture starts to unravel.
Throughout history, people have suffered from nutritional deficiencies such as poor nutrition and malnutrition or malnourishment brought upon by various factors such as poverty, food insecurity, disease, cultural practices, high food prices and so on. Some of the most unforgiving diseases arise as a result of nutritional deficiencies: scurvy, beriberi, rickets, pellagra, etc.
Not even modern man is exempt from the risks of poor nutrition and nutritional deficiencies. Emerging research links nutritional deficiencies to some of the most diverse medical conditions and even deadliest diseases (night blindness, paresthesia, birth defects, anemia, sterility, even cancer and some forms of cardiovascular disease). It has come to a point that even though our supermarkets are filled with foods from countries all over the world at somewhat affordable prices, we are no longer getting all the nutrients our body requires in the amounts it requires. Hence the need to rely on vitamin supplements when needed.
Some of the main risk factors that lead to nutritional deficiencies include:
1) Lack of nutrition education. We are not being taught what it means to eat right even though we are now building robots smarter than us and plan on setting foot on another planet. For instance, we are not being told that the apple we get from the supermarket is maybe half as nutritious as the one our grandparent grow in their backyard.
2) Soil depletion. Intensive agriculture has depleted soils around the world of essential nutrients. Specialists estimate that crops now hold about half of the nutritional value they should be having. And with the rate of growth of the Earth’s population, we have no choice but to continue to eat from our already depleted soils.
3) Consumerism mentality. We buy what we are told to buy whether it is good for us or not. We would rather look great going out in a designer pair of jeans than stay at home and enjoy a nutritious, home-cooked meal. We would rather have the latest lip kit, high-tech phone, watch or television than spend that money on organic food. Our values are inverted.
4) Processed foods and fast food. Cakes, crackers, biscuits, chips, crisps, gummy bears, caramels, candy sticks and drops, pastry products, baked sweets and everything salty, sour or sweet in a bag and is ready to eat is not nutritious. Pre-cooked food that you only need to defrost and cook for several minutes in the microwave oven, instant soups or noodles and most dried meats are not nutritious. Eating foods like this takes up the place of healthy food options and increases our risk for nutritional deficiencies.
5) Bad lifestyle habits. Alcohol consumption (whether occasional or chronic), first hand and even second hand smoking, stress, lack of sleep all deplete our body of essential nutrients. As a result, our minimum daily requirements may increase substantially, hence the reason we might find ourselves at risk for deficiencies.
And here is where vitamins come in. An emerging body of research suggests that most people nowadays are highly likely to suffer from one or more nutrient deficiencies. Whether it’s because they are suffering from chronic stress which increases nutrient requirements or are not eating healthy, nutritious meals, deficiencies will install. And, over the years, we risk getting ill, unless, of course, we can supply our body with the missing amounts of nutrients.
There has been an awful lot of debate on the safety of vitamin supplements as well. Wherever you look, studies show that vitamins in higher amounts than recommended can help manage and even reverse the most adverse of medical conditions, from hypertension and depression to various forms of cancer. Yet we are told we shouldn’t actually be taking dietary supplements because they may be toxic. And I stress ‘may be’.
But if we cannot meet our nutritional demands from dietary sources and we should not be taking supplements, then how are we expected to prevent future deficiencies and the health problems they engender? Because these are some of the risks we expose ourselves to if we don’t meet our daily requirements:
(Vitamin A) Night blindness, hyperkeratosis or blindness due to the cornea becoming opaque, immunity problems, developmental problems in babies.
(Vitamin B1) Beriberi, low energy levels, extrasystoles, congestive heart failure, nerve impairment and other severe neurological disorders.
(Vitamin B2) Dry, scaly, cracked skin; seborrheic dermatitis, sensitivity to light, increased risk of cataract, anemia, tongue inflammation (glossitis), angular cheilitis (inflammed corners of the mouth).
(Vitamin B3) Pellagra, fatigue, digestion problems, depression, memory problems, insomnia.
(Vitamin B5) Paresthesia, fatigue, headaches, nausea, sleep problems, apathy, bad stress coping mechanisms, depression, nerve damage.
(Vitamin B6) Low energy problems, anemia, peripheral neuropathy (involving nerve damage), poor immunity, eczema, convulsions, seizures.
(Vitamin B7, B8 or H) Eczema, seborrheic dermatitis, alopecia, anemia, muscle aches, fatigue, loss of appetite, depression episodes, tingling and numbness, etc.
(Vitamin B9) Anemia, birth defects (neural tube defects), preeclampsia, skin problems, nervous system problems.
(Vitamin B12) Anemia, ataxia, fatigue, autoimmune diseases.
(Vitamin C) Scurvy, hormonal imbalances, high inflammation levels, poor immunity and increased risk of infections, high blood pressure, healthy teeth and gums, allergies.
(Vitamin D) Rickets, fatigue, increased risk of cancer and skin conditions, depression, cognitive decline, asthma worsening, poor immunity.
(Vitamin E) Sterility, increased risk of miscarriage, anemia, increased skin cancer risks, cognitive degeneration, skin problems.
(Vitamin K) Increased risk of bleeding due to coagulation problems, poor calcium absorption in bones and bone fractures, arterial calcification, inflammation.
It is important to understand that each vitamin performs hundreds or thousands of functions withing our body and readily interacts with other vitamins. In other words, a single vitamin deficiency can, in time, be the source of debilitating health problems because it affects more than one process, organ or part of our body. For this reason, taking vitamin supplements when we cannot meet our body’s requirements from dietary sources is pivotal to keeping healthy.
As far as the fear of taking too much supplements is concerned, remember not to surpass the upper recommended intake for most vitamins. Also, know there has not been one confirmed death as a result of vitamin supplements. Even more, the RDA or recommended daily allowance is only a minimum intake meant to merely prevent a deficiency and its side effects, not a recommended upper intake.
And keep up with the latest research. Because, if you didn’t know, it is now safe to up your vitamin C intake to anywhere between 1,000 to 5,000 mg a day (1 to 5 g), depending on your individual needs. Again, talk this through with your doctor because different people have different nutritional requirements depending on their diet, health status and so on.
So stay informed. Learn the signs of potential deficiencies. Change your diet first and choose your foods better. If you feel your body isn’t getting enough nutrients, then go for vitamin supplements. Despite the debate, we need vitamins and minerals to live, heal and feel well. Maybe in our distant past it was enough to eat one fruit or one root to get half of the nutrients we needed for the day.
Nowdays however we have to eat 2-4 bananas for potassium, several kiwifruit for vitamin C, a bowl of spinach for calcium and vitamin K, a handful of nuts for vitamin E, pumpkin seeds for zinc, yogurt for probiotics, one or two eggs for protein, amino acids and choline, meat for vitamin B12, whole grains for other minerals and carbohydrates and we still risk not getting the amounts we need for the day. And it’s a pretty good amount of food so we would be overeating already. Vitamin supplements are not some evil thing. They are nutrients and it’s up to us to use them to our benefit.