Tag Archives: wellness

Nutrition Fact: Nutrition Labels Can be Misleading

Last time when I wrote about the difference between serving sizes and portion sizes here, I had a few people ask me about other things they should be aware about when reading nutrition labels so I thought I’d share some of the tricky things you should be aware about when reading nutrition labels so you’re best informed about what you’re buying and eating next time you’re at the grocery store.  

Soure: FoodNetwork Blog

Photo Credit: FoodNetwork Blog

Top 3 Tricks to Watch Out for When Reading Nutrition Labels:

  1. Serving size deception.  As I mentioned on my last blog post, often times food companies use a serving size that is often much less than the portion you may actually eat so while it looks like the calories and fat are fairly low, it reflects just a small serving.  For example, a serving of tortilla chips is only about 12 chips.  However, when you’re eating out of a big bag, you may easily eat twice that or more and thus end up with double the calories and fat.  Some labels are much more deceiving than others when it comes to the serving size they use. But either way it’s a good idea to first glance at the serving size so you know what amount all of the information reflects and to make more accurate calculations according to your typical portion size.  In addition, it’s also important to know that the USDA allows food companies to use a reasonable estimate for calorie and nutrition info with an allowable margin of error of 20%!  So you could potentially be eating as much as 20% more calories, fat, etc. than the listed amount per serving as well.
  2. The ingredient list. I think reading the ingredients is one of the most informative parts about a nutrition label, but unfortunately most people often don’t take the time to read this part because they don’t know what to look for.  The three main things to keep in mind when reading ingredients are:
    • The ingredients are generally listed in order of highest to lowest amount used.  For example, if the first ingredient is “Enriched Whole Wheat” and the second ingredient is “Whole Wheat” this is actually not a 100% whole wheat bread.  Unfortunately, because it does contains some whole grains, they are allowed to put the health claim “Whole wheat” or “made from Whole Grains” on it so many people may think they’re getting a really healthy whole grain bread, when they’re getting one that is more portion refined flour than whole wheat flour. I recently saw a misleading packaging for baby food where the cover and the photo makes the food seem more like it’s a serving of vegetables like peas, when in reality the first ingredient listed was apple puree. This is why it’s important to read the ingredient list and know that the first ingredient is the one in highest concentration.
    • Sometimes certain ingredients are disguised in the lis so it’s important to know what certain ingredients mean.  For example, any ingredient that contains the word “partially hydrogenated” actually means it’s a trans fat, even if the label doesn’t list any trans fat.  Also, the term “yeast extract” is sometimes a substitute for the additive MSG.  There’s also several other scientific chemicals used in processed foods that may not sound that bad but are linked to negative health effects when consumed  in large amounts like sodium nitrate, BHA, BHT, benzoates, sulfates, and sorbates that you should try to avoid if you see them in the ingredient list.
    • Again, health claims on a product don’t always properly reflect what’s actually in the food so the only way to truly know is to read the ingredients.  For example, “organic” or “natural” doesn’t mean a food is healthy.  It can still be high in sugar, fat and other ingredients.  Just remember that if you can’t pronounce half the ingredients or have never heard of them think about whether or not you want to buy those kinds of foods.
  3. Misunderstanding labels like zero and free. Generally when a food says sugar free, it doesn’t mean it’s calorie or fat free.  In fact, to compensate for not using sugar, the food companies sometimes use more of other ingredients like carbohydrates or fat or sugar substitutes so sugar free doesn’t always mean healthier. Same goes for fat free and even reduced fat.  “Reduced” just means it has 25% less fat then the regular version but if the regular version is very high in fat, the reduced fat while a better choice, can still be high in fat. Similarly, labeling laws let food companies claim “zero” of a nutrient if it has less than 0.5 g per serving.  For example, a food can say zero trans fat but still contain 0.4 g of trans fat per serving. While that is a small amount that you could argue is almost zero, as we talked about before, you may easily eat more than 1 serving at a time, and over a week for example you could eat much more which can actually add up to a significant amount of trans fats that you didn’t even know you were eating.  The only way to truly know if a food is trans fat free is to read the ingredients and avoid items that have anything hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated. Here’s a handy list from the American Heart Association of what certain labels actually mean:

Screen Shot 2013-05-26 at 2.19.30 PM

Source: American Heart Association

My Recommendations:

Next time you’re grocery shopping, make sure to examine the labels before adding foods to your cart and remember these tips to help make the healthiest choices.

  1. Always pay attention to the serving size so you have a true understanding of how many calories, fat, sugar you’re actually consuming.
  2. Read the ingredients and don’t get caught up on the health claims like “fat free”, “reduced fat or sodium”, “zero trans fat”, “lowers cholesterol”, “whole grains” etc.
  3. Know which ingredients you should try to avoid in foods but overall just know that the more ingredients a product has, the more processed it is so if you can’t pronounce half the ingredients or have never heard of them before, think twice before buying it since it’s probably not that healthy.

Image-of-a-woman-in-a-grocery-store

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Nutrition Fact: Portion Sizes and Serving Sizes are NOT the Same

One of the culprits to our current obesity epidemic is the larger portion sizes that our food now comes in.  We’re all guilty of falling for the “supersize me” deals where getting a bigger size is only a small incremental amount more so we just upgrade thinking it’s a good deal right?  While economically it may be a good deal in the short run, we’re paying for it exponentially more later on with our health.  That’s why it’s so critical to understand the difference between a portion size and a serving size so you can make informed choices about what you eat.

What’s the difference between a portion and a serving?

While some people may use these terms interchangeably, they’re actually very different so it’s important to distinguish between them so you can make more informed choices.

  • Portion- an amount of a specific food you choose to eat for dinner, snack, or other eating occasion.  Generally, this is the “size” you order at a restaurant or the amount of food they bring out to you.
  • Serving- a unit of measure used to describe the amount of food recommended from each food group.  This is the size which nutrition information is also provided on nutrition labels.

In an ideal world, our portion sizes should be equal to our serving sizes but unfortunately that’s not the case so it’s our job to know how to make choices accordingly.  For example, when reading nutrition labels they can sometimes seem misleading because you may think that the serving size is the entire package, but it may only be half the package so if you eat the entire amount, you’re actually consuming twice the calories listed. For example, this Lean pockets includes 2 pizza sandwiches in the package but the serving size is just 1 so the nutrition facts are calculated  only for 1 sandwich so if you were to eat the entire portion (2 sandwiches) you’d be eating twice the serving size and thus twice the calories listed on the label. This is why it’s so important to know how to distinguish between a portion and a serving.

Screen Shot 2013-05-18 at 3.49.07 PM

How much have portion sizes really changed? 

Over the last 20 years, we’ve seen a pretty dramatic increase in the portion sizes of today– resulting in quite a significant increase in our caloric intake.   Take a look at a sample of foods that have about doubled the amount of calories we consume just because of the increased portion size.

Screen Shot 2013-05-18 at 8.25.41 PM

Image credit: University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension

My Recommendations:

Knowing the difference between a portion and servings can help you maintain a healthy weight and prevent overeating.  Here’s a few tips to help keep your portions under control:

  • Read labels carefully! Remember that potions are not the same as a serving and that labels are based on serving sizes so make sure you double check the serving size when you make your choice about portions to eat.
  • Since today’s portions are often more than we need, consider boxing up half your meal for later prior to eating to prevent overeating.
  • If you order larger sizes to save money, try sharing it to eat a more reasonable portion.
  • Think about just ordering a small or half portion  if you can’t share or don’t want to take leftovers home.
  • Eat slowly– it takes about 20 minutes for your stomach to send signals to your brain that you’re full so if you slow down when you eat your body will tell you how much you should be eating.

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Nutrition Fact: Eating Yogurt is Good for your Health

With so many brands and types of yogurt out in the market, it’s hard to know what yogurt to choose for optimal nutrition.  Some are super healthy breakfast or snack foods to consume, while others are high in sugar and artificial sweeteners and actually not very healthy at all. With all the confusion out there, I thought I’d share some tips on what makes a yogurt healthy and how to choose the right one.

Greek Yogurt vs. Regular Yogurt? 

yogurt

Photo Credit: iStockphoto.com/Joe Biafore

Yogurt is basically a form of curdled milk. Regular yogurt is made by fermenting milk with live bacteria and can be made with differing fat levels.  Greek yogurt takes an additional step of straining the yogurt so that the liquid whey is removed resulting in a yogurt that is thicker and creamier than regular yogurt.  “Greek-style” yogurt is regular yogurt that has been made by adding thickening agents to achieve a thicker and creamier texture but is not strained like traditional Greek Yogurt.  Because Greek and regular yogurt are prepared differently, the nutrition content also varies.  Check out the nutrition content for a 6 oz. serving for various types of yogurt.

Plain Non-Fat Greek Yogurt 2% Plain Greek Yogurt Plain Non-Fat Regular Yogurt Plain 2% Regular Yogurt Non-fat Plain “Greek-Style” yogurt”
Calories 100 130 90 108 60
Total Fat (g) 0 3.5 0 3 0
Carbohydrates (g) 7 7 14 12 10
Protein (g) 18 17 8.3 7 6
Calcium (mg) 200 200 350 300

250

 

Health Benefits of Yogurt:

  1. Good for your digestion. Most yogurts contain “good” bacteria known as probiotics which are live cultures that live in the intestine and actually help drive out “bad” bacteria and aid with digestion.
  2. High in Vitamins and nutrients.  Yogurt is a great source of calcium and also Vitamin D.  In addition, just one serving is high in potassium, phosphorous, riboflavin, iodine, zinc, and vitamins B5 (pantothenic acid) and B12.
  3. May help prevent high blood pressure. Because yogurt is high in potassium, it helps flush out some of the sodium which may help lower blood pressure according to a study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 
  4. Can be an excellent source of protein. Greek yogurt if processed properly is high in protein which will help with satiety and curbing hunger throughout the day.  Be sure to read the label and choose one that contains at least 12g of protein if you’re looking to increase protein intake and maintain or build lean body muscle.

How to Choose the Right Kind?

The most important part about choosing the right yogurt is reading the labels and knowing what to look for.  Here’s some tips for what to look for to help you make the best choice.

low-fat-yogurt

Photo Credit: The Stroke Survivors blog

  1. Sugar Content. Today many flavored yogurts are full of added sugars and other additives.  Some contain as much as 28g of sugar in one 6 oz. serving!  That’s roughly as much sugar as there is in a 8 oz. cola. Sugar causes a spike in our blood sugar levels and any excess sugar gets converted and stored as fat so you definitely want to minimize the amount of sugar in the yogurt you choose.  I would choose something between 7-15g of sugar so plain yogurt or honey flavored are the ways to go to minimize the sugar content.  Often times the fruit flavored yogurts don’t use real fruit and just add to the sugar content with little to no added nutrition.
  2. Calories and Fat. Choose non-fat or low-fat yogurts to maximize nutrition content without the added calories and fat. Choosing the lower fat version will save you between 30-50 calories per serving and about 3-7 g of fat.
  3. Vitamin D.  Many of us consume yogurt as one of our 3 recommended servings of dairy.  However, not all yogurts are fortified with Vitamin D.  Vitamin D is important because it helps aid in calcium absorption as well as a number of other health benefits I wrote about earlier here. When choosing regular yogurts, look for ones that are fortified with Vitamin D.  Unfortunately, very few Greek yogurts are fortified with Vitamin D today so if you go with Greek yogurt it will be harder to find one with Vitamin D so make sure you’re getting Vitamin D from other sources. 
  4. Probiotics.  While all yogurts contain some bacteria through the fermentation process, today several types contain live cultures called probiotics that help aid digestion by adding to the healthy bacteria in your stomach.  When possible, it might be helpful to choose yogurts that contain probiotics to aid with digestion.
  5. Protein Content.  The reason Greek yogurt is so healthy is because of the high protein content.  Generally traditional Greek yogurt contains at least double or up to triple the protein content.  Having a higher protein content helps with satiety and prevents overeating so could help with weight loss.

My Recommendations 

If you choose the right yogurt, it can be an extremely healthy part of your diet– providing a rich source of calcium, a lean protein, and nutrients and vitamins that support good health.  However, with so many brands and types to choose from, the most important things to remember are:

  • Don’t forget to read the nutrition labels and follow the guidelines for sugar content and protein content in particular.  Some yogurts contain as much sugar as a can of coke or soda so be sure to check that when choosing your yogurt.  
  • If you’re looking for “greek” yogurt for its higher protein content, make sure to actually look at the label and read the amount of protein.  Often times the front of the label or the yogurt may be called “greek-style” yogurt which just means it’s thicker and creamier by the use of thickening agents but it actually doesn’t have any additional protein.  Look for 12g or more per serving for a true “greek” yogurt.
  • Choose plain or honey flavored yogurt over fruit flavored yogurt to lower sugar content.  Try adding fresh or frozen fruit or honey instead to make it a bit sweeter!
  • While yogurt tastes great plain or with fruits and granola, you can also use non-fat yogurt or greek yogurt as a substitutes for cream in many dishes as a healthy alternative.  I’ve used it to make healthy creamy pastas, in smoothies, as a replacement for mayo, to make ranch dip, and more!

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Nutrition Fact: Eating Breakfast is Good for Your Health

Breakfast is one of the most important meals of the day for both adults and especially kids. After no food for 8-12 hours of sleep (or how ever long you sleep), your brain needs food to re- charge.

Source: The Daily Green

I’m sure you’ve heard breakfast is the most important meal of the day.  In fact, surveys show that 90% of Americans know that breakfast is important, yet only 15-49% of Americans actually eat breakfast.  I think part of the reason is that even though we know it’s food for us, we don’t really fully understand why and how important it really is. I will admit, I’m not a super big breakfast person and before I started studying nutrition I was okay skipping breakfast most days because I never felt particularly hungry right when I woke up.  But after really learning why it’s so important,  I never skip breakfast anymore and I hope this post will help explain why and inspire you to start eating breakfast everyday too.

Why is Breakfast So Important? 

The reason eating breakfast is so important is because even though you’re sleeping your body still uses energy.  Obviously you don’t require as much energy while asleep as when you’re physically active, but our organs never stop working so do use up energy!  After waking up in the morning, your body actually uses up all of its energy stores stored in your liver and you need breakfast to help replenish your reserve and maintain normal everyday functions.  Our bodies only have enough room to store about 10 hours of energy, so after dinner and rest, by the time you wake up your stores in the liver will be all depleted. Now you may say, well I’ve been skipping breakfast for years and my body had energy and you never noticed a problem.  Well that’s because our bodies are really good at trying to keep us alive.  So when it runs out of glycogen (our main energy source, particularly for our brains), our body then starts to breakdown our lean body mass (or muscles) in order to obtain more energy until you finally eat lunch or a snack.  The reason this is bad is that just by skipping breakfast, you’re losing muscle, and muscle is important for maintaining our metabolic rate.

3 Reasons to Stop Skipping Breakfast: 

1. Eating breakfast helps you lose or maintain a healthy weight.  First, it helps prevent loss of lean body mass keeping or improving your metabolism.  And second,  studies show that people who eat breakfast daily eat fewer calories throughout the day since it helps to curb appetite and prevents binge eating.

3. Eating breakfast helps you think clearer.  Particularly for kids, studies show that kids who ate breakfast performed better on standardized tests and have faster memory recall.

4. Eating breakfast helps you acquire important nutrients and vitamins from food that would be harder to achieve throughout the day if you missed a meal.

What are the Essentials of a Healthy Breakfast? 

  • Whole grains. This provides fiber and other important nutrients, as well as energy for your brain.  Examples include whole-grain breads, bagels, hot or cold whole-grain cereals, crackers, or tortillas.
  • Low-fat protein. Protein coupled with your carbs help provide additional satiety so you stay full longer.  Examples include peanut butter, lean meat, poultry or fish, greek yogurt, or hard-boiled or scrambled eggs.
  • Low-fat dairy. Dairy provides some protein and also important nutrients like Calcium and Vitamin D.  Examples include skim milk, low-fat yogurts and low-fat cheeses, such as cottage and natural cheeses.
  • Fruits and vegetables. These provide tons of vitamins and minerals are are low in calories.  Also, many fruits and veggies are high in antioxidants.  Examples include fresh or frozen fruits and vegetable like blueberries and strawberries, 100 percent juice beverages without added sugar, or fruit and vegetable smoothies.

Still Need Some Quick and Easy Breakfast Ideas? 

For those days you’re in a hurry and just need to grab and go here’s a few ideas you can try:

  • Breakfast Bars that are high in fiber and protein with a piece of fruit
  • Piece of fruit (banana or apple), string cheese, and handful of nuts
  • Whole grain bagel with light cream cheese and a banana (add hard boiled egg for additional protein)
  • String cheese, fruit, and whole wheat crackers
When you have at least 10-15 minutes or more to prepare and eat breakfast here’s a few ideas: 
  • Greek non-fat yogurt with whole grain cereal or granola and frozen berries
  • Breakfast burrito with scrambled eggs or egg whites and vegetables in whole wheat tortilla
  • Instant whole grain oatmeal with greek yogurt and fresh fruit
  • Breakfast smoothie: greek yogurt or skim milk, banana, and/or frozen berries
  • Fiber-rich bran flakes or cereal with 1 cup skim milk and berries or a piece of fruit
  • Peanut butter and jelly sandwich or toast on whole wheat, non-fat milk, and fruit

Now that you know the importance of eating breakfast and what are examples of healthy breakfast options, make a goal to eat breakfast everyday!  If you need to, start slow at first!

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Nutrition Fact: Proper Hydration is Important to Overall Health

The Importance of Good Hydration

We all lose water throughout the day just from breathing, perspiration, urine and bowel movements. Did you know that as little as a 2% reduction in hydration begins to impair every physiological function in our bodies? So in order for the body to function optimally, this water needs to be replaced by drinking fluids and eating foods that contain water.

Source: Body,health,fitness Blog

 

Why is water important? 

Water plays a crucial role in every physiological function in the body. It helps flush toxins out of vital organs and carries nutrients from food to cells for energy. Water also regulates hormones, body temperature, and the digestive process (preventing constipation). Joints, skin, and internal organs also all depend on water to function properly.  Also, proper hydration is important to maintain proper weight. A study from researchers from Virginia Tech found that drinking 16 oz. of water before meals three times a day over 12 weeks led to an increased average weight loss by about 5 lbs., compared to those who did not increase water intake before meals.  So having enough water could help you control your appetite and your intake helping to maintain proper weight or lose weight.

How do I know if I’m properly hydrated?  

One way to tell if you’re properly hydrated is your urine should be clear and relatively odor-free. Dark yellow or cloudy urine is often a sign of dehydration. Another sign of dehydration is thirst. If you’re only drinking water when you’re thirsty, you’re probably not drinking enough water. And if you’re really dehydrated, you could experience other signs such as: dry mouth, headaches, muscle cramps, fatigue, inability to concentrate, dizziness and nausea.  Also, many times, dehydration often can feel like hunger, so next time you feel hungry and you’ve already eaten, try drinking water to get yourself properly hydrated again.

How Much Water Should I Drink?   

How much water you need to drink per day depends on several factors, including exercise, the environment, injury or illness, and pregnancy or breast feeding. In addition, food contributes roughly 20 percent to overall hydration needs. Although specific recommendations vary among organizations, it is generally accepted that if an adult consumes two liters — or a little more than eight cups — of water daily in addition to a normal diet, this satisfies hydration needs.

Instances where more water may need to be consumed include before, during, and after exercise, exercising in hot weather, if you are ill or injured, or during pregnancy or breast feeding. Sports drinks that contain sodium and potassium (electrolytes) are generally only necessary when exercising vigorously for an hour or longer, otherwise water is always the best source for hydrations.  Beware of the high caloric count in sports drinks. Even drinks that claim to have 10 calories per serving often have two to three servings per bottle so the calories can add up if you were drinking enough.

While caffeinated beverages such as coffee, tea and soda do count towards hydration, water is still the best choice because it is stimulant and calorie free.

Tips to Increase Daily Water Intake

  • Carry a large water bottle and drink from it throughout the day.
  • Drink a full glass of water with each meal or snack.
  • Drink a full glass of water whenever taking medication.
  • Drink water before, during and after exercise.
  • Add a slice of lemon, lime or a handful of raspberries to water to add a little flavor.
  • Instead of soda, try sparkling water with some berries or a hint of fruit juice for flavor.
  • When drinking alcohol, alternate every alcoholic beverage with a glass of sparkling water.
  • When drinking juice, fill half of the glass with juice and top it off with water.
  • While water is the best source of hydration, your body does get some water intake through other beverages and foods.  Here’s a great diagram that shows one potential recommendation of how to balance beverage intake to optimize health benefits of certain beverages and mitigate the excess calories of others.

    Source: The Drinking Water Research Foundation

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Is ALL red meat bad for you?

Earlier this week, the LA Times published an article called “All Red meat is risky” based on a new study released by the Harvard School of Public Health that found increased risk of premature death with increased red meat consumption.  Some notable conclusions included that one 3 oz. serving of red meat per day was associated with 13% increased chance of premature death and change that to processed meat it jumps up to 20% increased chance of premature death. 

Source: LA Times

The article had stated that eating any kind of red meat in any amount was bad for you.  Now before you go and give up red meat completely, I wanted to share a few key points/thoughts I had after reading the published study.  I hope they help put things into perspective and help you make more realistic decisions.

  1. Dietary intake over the 20 years of the study was assessed using a Food Frequency Questionnaire (FFQ).  While FFQ’s are the best dietary assessment tool we have aside from controlled feeding studies, they still are inherently flawed. They ask participants to retroactively remember what they eat, make estimates and guesses, and in many cases over simplify ones diet so it’s important to keep this in mind when making drastic changes and conclusions based on studies using FFQs.
  2. While the study did separate out unprocessed red meat from processed red meat, it does not separate out organic from non-organic or grass-fed red meat, and also the various types of leaner cuts of red meat from fattier forms.
  3. The study also found that replacing 1 serving of total red meat with 1 serving of fish, poultry, nuts, legumes, low-fat dairy products, or whole grains daily was associated with a lower risk of total mortality: 7% for fish, 14% for poultry, 19% for nuts, 10% for legumes, 10% for low-fat dairy products, and 14% for whole grains.  This shows that by including other things in your diet and substituting some of your servings of red meat for healthier alternatives can help reduce the risk associated with red meat consumption.

In addition, about a month ago, a study from Japan with more than 51,000 men and women over 16 years found no connection between moderate meat consumption up to 3 ounces a day and premature death and another study from the Havard School of Public Health on red meat also found no connection between red meat consumption and heart disease and diabetes, though it did find an association with processed red meat consumption and heart disease and diabetes.

I also found the absolute risks of red meat consumption from the latest study on Harvard’s blog and it puts things into better perspective:


Deaths per 1,000 people per year

1 serving unprocessed meat a week

2 servings unprocessed meat a day

Women

7.0

8.5

3 servings unprocessed meat a week

2 servings unprocessed meat a day

Men

12.3

13.0

Source: http://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/study-urges-moderation-in-red-meat-intake-201203144490

The bottom line is that if you do eat red meat, processed red meat should be avoided or greatly limited in our diet (things like hot dogs, bacon, fast food hamburgers, pepperoni, etc.) and that unprocessed red meat should be eaten in moderation (1-3 times a week).

In addition, I find it interesting that the study in Japan found no connection between red meat consumption and premature death.  From my experience visiting Japan, I think there are three reasons that may be the case.

1. Japanese don’t eat very much red meat in general and have a diet high in fish compared to Americans.

2. Their red meat is much more likely to be organic and grass-fed than most meat Americans eat.

3. When they do eat red meat, the serving is generally less than 3 ounces and is prepared as thin slices either boiled or lightly seared.

I think more research is needed to make firm conclusions about whether or not grass-fed red meat is in fact much healthier and what amounts and cooking methods minimize risk, but based off ecological studies and comparisons, it may be true that what we feed our cows in America has an effect on how red meat affects our health, in addition to how much processed meats Americans tend to eat.

So when you do eat red meat, try to choose more unprocessed red meats and try to consume leaner cuts.  Below is a few of the extra lean cuts for you to choose from.

Extra Lean Cuts of Beef:

  • Eye of round roast or steak
  • Sirloin tip side steak
  • Top round roast and steak
  • Bottom round roast and steak
  • Top sirloin steak

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Nutrition Fact: More than 25% of Americans are Vitamin D Insufficient

Are YOU Getting Enough Vitamin D?

It seems like Vitamin D has been the “fashionable” vitamin over the past few years mainly because there has been a trend in research suggesting vitamin D deficiency/insufficiency may play a role in various diseases other than just bone health.  Additionally, while the the Institute of Medicine (IOM) increased their recommendations and upper limits for vitamin D for optimum bone health in 2010,  other experts don’t agree with those recommendations and more and more research is showing increased intake may protect against several chronic diseases.  So, with all the controversy and inconclusive evidence out there how do you tease out what you really need to know about Vitamin D?  Let’s start by understanding what vitamin D is and where you get it from.     

What is Vitamin D? 

Vitamin D is a family of fat-soluble vitamins which functions to regulate calcium and phosphorus homeostasis.  Additional functions include:

  1.  Helps maintain bone health
  2. Aids in cell differentiation of hemotapoietic and epithelial cells
  3. Enhances immunity
  4. Helps reduce inflammation
  5. Aids in regulation of blood pressure and insulin

Aside from these known functions Vitamin D plays, new research suggests that vitamin D status may also be linked to chronic diseases including cardiovascular disease, certain cancers, cognitive decline, depression, diabetes, pregnancy complications, and some autoimmune diseases.  Although the link between Vitamin D and these chronic diseases is still inconclusive, it’s not surprising that there has been a dramatic increase in sales in Vitamin D supplements and manufactures of the vitamin dues to evidence of protection against certain chronic diseases.

Where do I get Vitamin D from? 

Vitamin D is mostly obtained through skin exposure to UV B light where it is converted to the active form for Vitamin D (D3) in our skin.   Some Vitamin D is also obtained from the diet in fortified foods such as milk, cereals, and juices as well as some natural foods such as some fish (i.e. salmon and sardines) and liver.  But more recently many have been receiving vitamin D from supplements which either come in the form of D2 or D3.

Because most of our Vitamin D supply comes from sunlight, there are certain populations that are at risk of deficiency because they convert less sunlight to Vitamin D from their skin.  This includes:

  • Those with darker skin tones.  The increased melanin reduces conversion of sunlight to Vitamin D.
  • Those that don’t expose skin in the sunlight or wear high levels of sunblock all the time.  Clothing and sunblock inhibit the conversion of Vitamin D from sunlight.
  • Those that live in geographies that have less sun exposure.
What are the recommendations for Vitamin D intake?  

The Institute of Medicine (IOM) who puts out the Recommended Daily Allowances (RDAs) for nutrients makes the following recommendations for Vitamin D:

Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for Vitamin D
Set by the Institute of Medicine
Life Stage  Age  Males
mcg/day (IU/day)
Females
mcg/day (IU/day)
Infants 0-6 months 400 IU (AI) 400 IU (AI)
Infants 6-12 months 400 IU (AI) 400 IU (AI)
Children 1-3 years 600 IU 600 IU
Children 4-8 years 600 IU 600 IU
Children 9-13 years 600 IU 600 IU
Adolescents 14-18 years 600 IU 600 IU
Adults 19-50 years 600 IU 600 IU
Adults 51-70 years 600 IU 600 IU
Adults 71 years and older 800 IU 800 IU
Pregnancy all ages 600 IU
Breast-feeding all ages 600 IU

Credit: Linus Pauling Institute on Micronutrients 

The IOM also set the tolerable Upper Limits for Children 9 years and older at 4,000 IU/ day to prevent any toxicity from over consumption of Vitamin D.  It’s important to keep in mind that these are conservative recommendations based only on the IOM’s review of the research related to optimum bone health.  Many other experts are now recommending increased intake of vitamin D in light of new research linking increased Vitamin D status to lower risk of certain chronic diseases and based on data from a NHANES study showing that about 30% of Americans are Vitamin D deficient or at risk of being deficient according to IOM serum Vitamin D levels for optimum bone health.  I personally was tested two years ago and was severely deficient as well.  In order also project against some chronic diseases, some experts such as the Vitamin D Council are now recommending as much as 5,000 IU/day for adults.

SO WHAT DO I RECOMMEND?

I think it’s still too early to be recommending everyone to start taking high dose Vitamin D supplements to protect against various chronic diseases, however, there is promising research for additional benefits with increased Vitamin D coupled with the fact that many Americans are in fact not getting enough Vitamin D from sunlight or the diet so I would recommend the following to increase your intake of Vitamin D:

  1. Get tested.  Testing your Vitamin D level is a simple blood test and especially if your insurance covers it, I would recommend it.  That will give you a basis on how much Vitamin D supplements, if any you really need.  There are also tests you can do at home with a simple blood pinch that are fairly inexpensive with decent accuracy to give you some idea of your Vitamin D levels.
  2. Try consuming more Vitamin D rich foods from your diet.  Natural is ALWAYS better so make sure you’re including enough milk, salmon, and other fortified foods in your diet to help increase your Vitamin D intake.
  3. Try to expose enough skin (arms and/or legs) to at least 5-15 minutes of sunlight twice a day.  That amount of time without sunblock should provide you with more than enough Vitamin D while still minimizing risk to harmful side effects of sun exposure.  Additional plus is that you can’t get Vitamin D toxicity from Vitamin D synthesized from sunlight, only from too much supplement or intake from the diet.
  4. If you do wish to take supplements, or if your doctor recommends it, make sure you take Vitamin  D3 over D2 which research indicates may be up to three times more potent.

After I finished my prescription dose of Vitamin D to get me back to a healthy blood level,  my doctor recommends to get between 1,000- 2,000 IU/ day so I eat fortified foods and take a 1,000 IU supplement daily.  That recommendation is based on the fact that I don’t get much sun exposure living in Seattle, have darker skin, and that my levels were low.  So before you start popping 1,000 IU or 2,000 IU Vitamin D supplements per day, I would recommend you get your levels tested and try moderate sun exposure and diet before you choose supplements.  That will prevent any potential toxicity from too much Vitamin D intake and will save you money…and who doesn’t need to save money right?

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Filed under Nutrition in the News, Recommendations, Uncategorized, Vitamins