It seems like simple, obvious advice: Eat your vegetables, get some exercise, and, of course, take your vitamins.
Decades of research has failed to find any substantial evidence that vitamins and supplements do any significant good. And our obsession with vitamins masks a much bigger problem: We’re not getting the nutrients we need from our diets.
That’s the premise of science writer Catherine Price’s latest book, “Vitamania,” which explores how the tiny colourful pills transformed the way we think about food.
“We use vitamins as insurance policies against whatever else we might (or might not) be eating, as if by atoning for our other nutritional sins, vitamins can save us from ourselves,” Price writes.
They can’t. And some of them might actually be hurting us instead. Several supplements have been linked with an increase in certain cancers, while others have been associated with a rise in the risk of kidney stones. Still others have been tied to an overall higher risk of death from any cause.
So if we’re not eating right, and vitamins aren’t the solution, what do we do?
First, we can change what we eat. For most of us, this means eating less red meat, fewer sweets, and more fresh fruits and vegetables. New USDA guidelines announced in January echo these recommendations.
Several leading nutritionists and public health experts have said that in addition to doing all of the above, we should also eat more healthy fats like those from avocados, oily fish, and nuts.
These basics are a good place to start:
- Keep vegetables as the cornerstone of your meals. Or, in the words of famous journalist and food writer Michael Pollan, “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”
- Snack on nuts. Since they’re high in protein, nuts can help stabilise blood-sugar levels – which, if they plummet, can make healthy people feel “hangry” (hungry and angry) and is especially dangerous for people with diabetes. Nuts are also a good source of fibre, a key nutrient that helps aid digestion and keeps us feeling full.
- Cut back on added sugar and refined carbs. Diets that are high in sugar and refined carbs (white rice, sweet snack foods, white bread) and low in whole grains (brown rice, whole wheat) have been linked with health problems, while diets high in whole grains and low in refined carbs tend to be linked with more positive outcomes.
- Incorporate oily fish like salmon into your diet. Salmon is rich in omega-3 fats, which help protect our cell membranes, the structure protecting the inner components from their outside environment. They’re also the building blocks of the hormones that regulate blood clotting and inflammation.
- Eat avocados. While they’re high in fat and calories — just half of one packs 120 calories, about the equivalent of a slice of bread — avocados are low in sugar and rich in fibre. So add a few slices to your next meal.
As it turns out, all of the above foods are rich in various vitamins and minerals. Most green, leafy veggies are high in vitamins A, C, and E; colourful peppers and carrots are rich in Vitamin A; fish and nuts are high in omega-3s; and avocados are a great source of potassium and vitamins C and E.
With this knowledge, writes Price, “we might rediscover something both surprising and empowering: that, while nutrition itself is amazingly complex, the healthiest, most scientific, and most pleasurable way to eat is not that complicated at all.”
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