Week 6: Vitamins - A Comprehensive Guide

What are vitamins, anyway?  We all know we need them. We know that malnourishment stems from a deficiency in them, among other nutrients.  Many of us even have a vague sense that we’re probably not getting our full dosage on a regular basis, but rationalize, “Well, I’m still alive and kicking, so does it really matter?”  Maybe the word conjures up memories of choking down massive, oddly metallic-tasting pills or dinosaur-shaped Flintstones tablets. Maybe you’re one of those folks who swears by loading up on massive doses of Vitamin C at the first sign of an oncoming cold. But really, if you had to explain to someone who had no concept of what a vitamin is, could you tell them where they’re found, what they do and why they are so crucial to the processes and functions that keep our bodies running? Could you explain to that person why you’re downing all that Vitamin C, in the hopes that you can fight off that cold before it fully sets in?

Merriam-Webster defines a vitamin as ‘a natural substance that is usually found in foods and that helps your body to be healthy.’  Seems straightforward enough. But what about all those letters: A, B, C, D, E and K? And what happened to F, G, H and I? To muddy things further, some vitamins have alternate names, like Retinol – one form of Vitamin A. In addition to aliases, some vitamins are broken down and assigned numbers, like B-Complex vitamins, which include a range of distinct but co-dependent nutrients – 1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 7, 9 and 12 – aka Thiamin, Riboflavin, Niacin, Pantothenic Acid, Pyridoxine, Biotin, Folate and Cobalamin, respectively. 

Vitamins—like our bodies themselves—are complicated, but the good news is you don’t need to be a medical professional to understand what you need and be confident you’re doing right by your health.  As long as you can familiarize yourself with a few basic concepts and terms, and ensure adequate intake of a broad variety of real, whole foods in your diet on a regular basis, you can be reasonably confident about your vitamin levels. 

One critical thing to remember about vitamins, as with any other nutrient: intake is not the same thing as absorption.  For example: if you swallow a pill whose label tells you it contains 4,000% of your Dietary Reference Intake (DRI) of vitamin ‘X’, by no means can you take it for granted that you’ve actually supplied your body with 4,000% of that vitamin.  For starters, your system has a limit to what it can absorb for immediate use on its way through your digestive tract before being excreted.  On average, foods take anywhere from 30-48 hours to pass through our system before being eliminated; and specific nutrients have particular locations within the digestive tract where they are absorbed. Since water-soluble vitamins in particular cannot be stored by the body and pass relatively quickly through your system, and since the body can only absorb so much at once, then often, the overabundance of a nutrient is excreted before it has a chance to ‘do the body good’.

Another important thing to note: if you’re relying on artificial supplements, you need to know whether it is in a form that can be absorbed and used by your body – aka bio-available. At the health food store or pharmacy you’ll find aisles full of lab-developed – i.e. synthetic – versions of every vitamin, but in many cases our bodies don’t even know what to do with them.  An excellent example: we’ve been taught that Ascorbic Acid and Vitamin C are the same thing, ascorbic acid being what you’d find in those little brown bottles on the shelves. Unfortunately they are not in fact the same substance and studies show ascorbic acid doesn’t provide any of the same health benefits as actual Vitamin C as found in natural sources. In fact, these pills pass through your system without benefiting it in any way. Some call this ‘snake oil’. Thus Vitamin C tablets – whatever the dose – unfortunately won’t save you from that cold. This is why we stress the importance of obtaining vitamins from actual food sources – sources our bodies recognize and which allow us to effectively process, absorb and synthesize what they need. 

Most doctors and nutritionists agree that synthetic supplements are inferior to a healthy balanced diet for gleaning your nutrients, and many even argue that some if not all of those benefits pass through you unabsorbed.  Conversely, there are vitamins (the fat-soluble variety to be specific) that don’t get flushed when they should — instead they’re stored for later use, contributing to hyper-dosages that can actually become toxic in excess, or that can throw your body’s natural balance.  We will discuss this in a minute. Another important thing to remember about vitamins is that more is definitely NOT always better.  Even when consumed from healthy sources, vitamin excess can cause damage as readily as can a deficiency.

We’ve created a comprehensive chart as an at-a-glance reference to explain the specific roles each vitamin plays in keeping us healthy, including the body systems and functions with which each one is most closely associated; daily recommended doses for average healthy adults; and the healthiest sources for obtaining each. One caveat: there are plenty many situations in which your ideal consumption levels will vary from the generic, including, health conditions. The levels we have included in our chart are for the ‘average’ man or woman.

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 Water-soluble vs. Fat-soluble

Water- and fat-soluble vitamins are exactly how they sound: vitamins that dissolve in either water or fat, respectively. If you’re wondering why this is important, picture a bottle of olive oil and vinegar salad dressing.  The oil sits atop the water-based vinegar in a distinct layer, because the oil is less dense than the vinegar. As we all know, oil and water (or vinegar) don’t mix. You can shake that bottle all you want to form an emulsion (i.e.: combine them), but if you let the bottle settle, it’ll invariably separate once again. However, if you were to combine two oils – say olive and walnut – they would have no trouble bonding. Ditto vinegar and lemon juice – both water-based foods. For the record, this is not about salad dressing – it’s just there to illustrate a point. 

What we are saying is that fat-soluble vitamins need to be consumed with fats in order for the body to absorb them; otherwise they pass through unused. By contrast, water-soluble vitamins are readily absorbed without additional need, because water is readily on hand for use with digestion.

To wit: all B Complex Vitamins and Vitamin C are water-soluble, so they dissolve in the water in your body as soon as they’ve been ingested. Unfortunately, this readily available format also means that they’re easily flushed out of our systems, which means it’s important to make sure we get adequate amounts of each on a consistent, even daily basis.  Fortunately, because of their transient nature in our body, it’s extremely difficult to consume too much of these vitamins from food sources, as any excess is excreted as waste, obviating the need to worry about toxicity. 

Fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K, on the other hand, are dissolved and absorbed by fat globules that are present in our digestive tracts while passing through, if present. This is why it’s important to consume these vitamins with a healthy fat source like avocado, healthy oils, fatty fish or full-fat dairy.  After being broken down in the small intestine and assimilated into the globules – called Triglycerides – the vitamin stores then make their way into the blood stream to be carried away to other parts of the body and stored in various tissues.  Unfortunately the body doesn’t do a great job of regulating these stores once they’ve been deposited, so the caches grow unchecked and can reach toxic levels if our intake is too high (aka hypervitaminosis.) Thus it is extremely important to be informed about optimal intake levels to ensure we don’t exceed these amounts. Excess intake is relatively easy to avoid when relying on natural food sources for our vitamins rather than on supplements, both because real foods typically don’t contain concentration levels of vitamins as extreme as in supplements; and because our stomachs become full long before we can consume enough food to do vitamin-based damage. On the reverse end of the spectrum, vitamin levels can easily become deficient if our fat intake is too low or fat absorption is compromised, such as in the case of digestive conditions (i.e.: Crohn’s Disease, IBS or Ulcerative Colitis), or by our selective exclusion of food groups, such as when we follow diets or make other dogmatic food-based lifestyle decisions.

 As far as cooking and storing goes, water-soluble vitamins tend to be highly sensitive to light, heat, and of course time, so it is important to try to consume foods in their freshest state with minimal cooking, and to store them in cool, dark places when you won’t be eating them immediately, which slows the decomposition of these nutrients.  Fat-soluble vitamins tend to be more stable and can withstand more abuse with regard to cooking, though they too are sensitive to light and should be stored accordingly.  Keep in mind, however, that when working with real, whole foods, they tend to boast a whole swath of different vitamins, as well as minerals and other nutrients, so it’s generally a good rule of thumb to try and keep these foods relatively intact – i.e.: minimally processed or altered – to minimize damage.  Interestingly, some foods benefit from cooking, as doing so can raise nutrient levels and/or bio-availability (the ability to be absorbed) more so than it their raw state.  You may have heard that the tomato, for instance, is very high in the phytochemical lycopene, but may not know that the amount of lycopene (and its bio-availability) differs greatly whether consumed raw or cooked.  One study conducted by Cornell University showed that while Vitamin C levels unfortunately drop by up to 30% during cooking, lycopene levels increase by 164% after a half-hour.  This provides us with an excellent example of why we should vary our methods of food preparation, since in many cases the levels of nutrients are affected by how we consume them – often in opposite directions.

Vitamins in Pill Form

We at FFFL are not doctors. We are people who have a passion for healthy eating and a penchant for doing research to feed our knowledge.  Naturally we understand that our readers come from all walks of life: male, female, a wide age range, various body types, health conditions and concerns. It is important that you use your best judgment when making decisions for yourself and your family. That being said: from what we – like others – have researched, pills and supplements don’t seem to be the answer. They are synthetic, and their bio-availability, as we’ve seen, doesn’t match that in real foods. Thus, supplements should be relied upon only if your health needs or lifestyle choices really do pose the risk of undermining your ability to otherwise obtain the nutrients you need, from whole foods. This is certainly the case with veganism and vegetarianism, in which the lack of good sources of critical fats, as well as choline, B3, B6 and B12, in particular – all overwhelmingly or exclusively found in animals – can pose a real challenge to ensuring your body gets what it needs to be healthy. This is why we emphatically advocate nutritional completeness over blanket lifestyle choices.

Vitamin-Enriched Foods

As with pill form, vitamin-enriched foods are synthetically added post-processing, most often because industrial processes strip source foods of most health benefits. For example: wheat. Its grain, composed of the germ, bran and endosperm – which sit at the base of the soft ‘crown’ atop each stalk – contain the bulk of its nutrients. The vast majority of wheat-based products in the United States – the breads, pasta, baked goods and snack foods – are milled to 60% extraction. This means that 40% of the original grain has been removed. Sadly, milling also correlates to a 50% loss of its store of vitamins B1, B2, B3, B9 (folate), and E – not to mention an equal loss of other minerals and nutrients, like calcium, phosphorus, zinc, copper, iron, and fiber. By contrast, whole grain foods – not to be confused with whole wheat flour products, as flour of whatever type is milled as described above – maintain 100% of its nutrient integrity. This is why since 1941, the US government has instated laws that require flour-based products be enriched to replace what has been lost. Enrichment means the addition of synthetic forms of vitamins and minerals, as with pills. We’ve seen already that these are poor substitutes to real food sources, with their lack of bio-availability. The same strategy has been widely applied to dairy, due to the destructive nature of pasteurization, as we saw in Week 4’s post; and to eggs, also covered in that post.

The answer, predictably, is to eat real foods that provide ample vitamins in their full complement and in combinations that ensure their absorption and utility.