Can you get all the vitamins and nutrients you need from your food? This is a hot topic for discussion and debate. Part of that discussion comes from the popular idea that dietary supplements are a reasonable substitute in the absence of a healthy diet. Consequently, roughly half of the American population is currently taking vitamins or other supplements and spending over $27 billion annually doing so.
Although this ‘Band-Aid approach’ appears easy and cost efficient, what many people don’t realize is that healthy food can be the better solution.
Additionally, recent research has found that vitamins and other dietary supplements may not provide the health benefits we expect. Synthetically derived ‘nutrients’ or inconsistent dosages as are often found in dietary supplements do not always deliver as promised in all the marketing hype.
Can we get all the vitamins and nutrients we need from our food? The answer is YES! However, there are a few things to keep in mind to help maximize and retain the vitamins and nutrients and integrity of your food that will allow you to live a supplement-less and healthy life.
When practicing a well balanced diet, we must consider certain aspects of our food, such as how it is processed, prepared, and cooked. All of the ways that food is handled affect its nutritional value. While the best way to avoid processed foods is by eating a whole food diet, that’s often more easily said than done. People often take short cuts thinking that they are eating healthful foods – especially when it says so right there on the packaging. In actuality, convenience foods can be vitamin and nutrient poor and contain unhealthy additives and processing agents.
An example of this is the traditional American breakfast cereal. Cold breakfast cereals, even the healthy brands that promote whole grains, low calories, and fiber, are made through a process called extrusion. During this process, grains are mixed with water, processed, and placed into a machine called an extruder. The grains then pass through a tiny hole at high temperatures and pressure, which will give them their shape. The cereal is then sprayed with a coating of oil and sugar to seal off the cereal and give it a crunch. This may all sound simple enough, but the process actually destroys much of the vitamins andvnutrients, denatures fatty acids, and even destroys synthetic vitamins that are added at the end of the process.
Several articles and researchers go far enough to suggest that this process is actually toxic because the molecular structure of nutrients such as fat and protein is changed. Although some of the studies were inconclusive regarding the levels of toxicity, the fact that the cereals are so highly processed and our bodies are not able to receive and or absorb the nutrients should make you hesitate before eating it. A few better breakfast options would be eggs, whole grain pancakes, plain organic whole milk yogurt, steel-cut oatmeal, or homemade granola.
We know we need to read labels and consider how foods are processed before entering our homes, but it’s also important to consider how you prepare your meals at home. The way we handle our fruits and vegetables can also diminish their nutritional value. An easy tip to help retain vitamins and nutrients is to keep the skin on. Many root vegetables contain vitamins and minerals right under their skin. It’s best to avoid peeling them, or peeling the skin as thin as possible. Another easy tip is cooking your vegetables whole or in large chunks. A whole vegetable retains its vitamins during cooking more than a sliced or divided vegetable. Limiting the exposed surface area allows the food to remain as healthy and nutritious as possible.
You should also take into consideration the method (and duration) in which you cook your foods. One of the most common methods that people use to cook their vegetables is boiling. Unfortunately boiling also causes the greatest loss of vitamins and nutrients as many of them are leached out into the fluids and lost.
You can retrieve those vitamins and nutrients if you reuse that water for a gravy, soup, or sauce. Likewise, steaming seems to be the healthiest option when cooking your food because the food is not in direct contact with the liquid. Steaming prevents nutrient leaching and in some cases the hot steam locks the vitamins and minerals in.
One should also note that while various cooking methods may affect food differently, some vitamins and nutrients are affected more than others. For example, calcium is pretty sturdy, while vitamin C, folate, and potassium are rather fragile. Some B vitamins are destroyed in the microwave oven. Enzymes are vulnerable to any cooking process, which is why overcooked meats and vegetables can be more difficult to digest. It is also true that different types of vegetables react to boiling differently. The greatest losses occur in leafed vegetables, while seeded vegetables lose a little less, and root vegetables are able to retain the most nutrients while boiling.
As a quick summary, here are some guidelines for preserving vitamin and nutrient content:
- Worst Way: Cook foods for a long time and throw away cooking liquid
- Getting Better: Boil or stew foods but incorporate the cooking fluid into the dish
- Good: Steam foods, which minimizes contact with water.. or microwave them, which minimizes cooking time
- Best: Don’t cook them at all… this isn’t to suggest never cooking anything, but some of the fruits and vegetables you eat everyday can ideally be eaten raw
If you follow a well balanced diet, including a variety of fruits, vegetables, grains, and proteins you will find that you can easily consume all the vitamins and nutrients your body needs. Many people mistakenly assume that you need to consume a large quantity of food to be able reach Recommended Daily Allowances (RDA’s), but the key point we need to remember here is simple: it’s about quality not quantity. EAT UP!
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