“There is a great deal of focus today on nutrition and eating well,” says Kim English, BScN, MN, professor at the Trent/Fleming School of Nursing in Peterborough, Ontario. “We hear about no carb vs. whole carb, low fat vs. full fat, and ketogenic diets vs. paleo diets. However, what is often missing from this discussion is the necessity of vitamins in our body, particularly as we age.”
I corresponded with Kim via email to gain a better understanding of our nutritional requirements and how they tend to change as we get older.
“The most common and essential vitamins to healthy body functioning are vitamins A, B, C, D, E and K,” explains Kim. Below, she describes each vitamin’s purpose, how to spot a deficiency, ways to eat more vitamin-rich foods, and when to choose supplements if you find you’re falling short of your daily nutritional needs.
Vitamin A is one essential component for bone and cell growth, specifically skin cells, as well as healthy vision. In fact, historically, children deficient in vitamin A have lost their vision. The first symptoms of deficiency include night blindness and impaired immune function. This vitamin is absorbed in fatty tissues and used throughout the body. Vitamin A can be found in liver, carrots, sweet potatoes, spinach, squash, cantaloupe, red peppers and apricots.
Since vitamin A (like many others) is fat soluble, fats must be present in your diet for adequate absorption from the food you eat. Many people opt for low-fat or fat free foods, but dietary fat is necessary for healthy body function. Rather than avoiding fat altogether, opt for healthier unsaturated fats instead of saturated and “trans” fats.
Vitamin B plays an important role in making energy from the food you eat, forming red blood cells and transporting iron throughout your body. There are a number of different types of B vitamins, and each one presents different symptoms if a person is deficient. Since there are a number of B vitamins, the best way to ensure you get a sufficient amount of each is to incorporate a variety of nutritious foods in your diet.
Vitamins B12 and B6 tend to get the most attention, and a deficiency in either can lead to anemia. If you are low in these vitamins, you may tire easily, get breathless with movement and feel dragged out. If you are seriously depleted in this vitamin, the symptoms will be more pronounced. Good food sources for vitamin B include whole grains and cereals, legumes, chicken, potatoes, fish and eggs.
Another important focus in the vitamin B family is folate. Folate is responsible for iron transportation in the body, so a deficiency in folate will mean a decrease in hemoglobin. Good sources of folate include green, leafy vegetables, legumes, whole grains, fortified cereals, and some fruits and vegetables.
We are often more familiar with vitamin C as it is commonly touted as a means of preventing illness. Vitamin C has many other important functions in the body, including serving as an antioxidant, assisting with collagen production for bone and skin growth, and supporting wound healing.
Recently, research has shown that vitamin C may play a role in reducing cancer risk. Vitamin C deficiency is rare these days but was historically attributed to diseases such as scurvy. However, too much of this vitamin can produce symptoms, such as cramps, nausea and gout. Studies have also linked too much Vitamin C to the production of kidney stones, which is why people who are prone to kidney stones are recommended not to drink orange juice.
Vitamin C is readily available in supplement form and people are encouraged to take it in the winter months to reduce the effects of viral illness. Vitamin C can be found in foods such as fruits (especially citrus fruits), tomatoes, peppers, strawberries and broccoli.
We often produce sufficient amounts of vitamin D if we receive enough exposure to sunlight. During winter and in areas where there are decreased periods of sunlight, it is essential to make ensure you are getting adequate amounts of vitamin D. This vitamin plays a key role in bone growth and development, and has recently been linked to the prevention/development of some autoimmune diseases.
Deficiencies in Vitamin D have more often been seen in children, presenting in forms such as rickets, but it is also thought that vitamin D plays a role in the development of osteoporosis. For that reason, it is even more important that women consume adequate amounts of vitamin D. It naturally occurs in very few foods, so there is a recommendation to take vitamin D supplements if a person is not meeting the daily recommended requirements.
The best food sources include butter, egg yolks, fatty fish and liver. People often believe that milk is a good source of vitamin D, but on its own, it isn't. Instead, it just helps the body better process the vitamin. Milk is fortified with vitamin D for this very purpose. Many other foods, such as orange juice, yogurt, and breakfast cereals are also fortified with this vitamin.
Vitamin E is another that acts as an antioxidant and helps in preventing cellular damage from free radicals. It also helps to protect the lung and red blood cell membranes. Vitamin E deficiencies are rare and tend to be caused by specific diseases that hinder adequate absorption. Vitamin E can be taken in supplement form or applied to the skin. It is most often found in food sources such as vegetable oils, as well as whole grains, seeds, nuts, wheat germ and green leafy vegetables.
Vitamin K’s main function is to help with blood clotting in the body. A deficiency may cause problems with bleeding and can result in serious illness. Too much Vitamin K does not seem to pose a problem, however it can interfere with medications (like blood-thinners) and vice versa. Supplements are not usually recommended, however, Vitamin K injections may be given to those with serious illnesses. Dark, green leafy vegetables and soybean and canola oils are common sources of this vitamin. Many meal replacement and nutrition shakes contain added vitamin K, so be sure to take this into consideration if you take blood-thinning medications.
Vitamins are essential to effective body functioning, and food is the best source. However, if a person is not meeting their daily requirements, supplements may be recommended. Of course, it is always important to notify your primary care provider before beginning a supplementation plan.