VITAMINS 101: Know What You Need

Get the dish on your nutrition

Photo by @evagoicochea/Instagram

Even in our current food-obsessed culture, both increased interest in and access to specialty foods—organic, artisanal, locally-sourced, etc.—doesn’t necessarily mean that we’ve become healthier, unfortunately. Instead of chasing after the latest gastronomic trends or ordering the most Instagram-worthy dish on the menu, what we should also be focusing on is the actual nutritional content of the food we’re consuming and how it makes an impact to our overall health.

Some of the major building blocks of healthy human growth rely on vitamins—those essential organic compounds found in plant and animal materials that we need for healthy body system functionality. While our early hunter-gatherer ancestors were able to source the entirety of their essential vitamin and mineral needs from their diets—which were rich in wild fruits and berries, nuts, and small game—it’s become a bit more of a struggle for the modern day man to maintain a well-balanced diet. This has been well documented in both the scientific and medical communities over the centuries. Due to increasingly starch-heavy diets that contain little overall vitamin value, today, a great deal of us are calorie rich, but nutrient poor.

Dutch physician Christian Eijkman first connected the cause of certain diseases to nutritional deficiency. Photo courtesy of Museum Boerhaave/Wikimedia Commons

With the advent of agriculture and a more stationary existence, and subsequent casting off of the hunter-gatherer ways, certain nutritional deficits became more apparent. During an epidemic of beriberi disease in the late 1800s, it was Christiaan Eijkman, a Dutch physician and professor of physiology (and eventual 1929 Nobel Prize winner), who suspected the uptick in cases was due to a dietary lacking. He was correct, and though Eijkman himself wasn’t able to make the direct connection, others would take up his mantle, eventually linking the disease to a lack of thiamine—also known as vitamin B1, found in meat, dairy products, and whole grains. This revelation prompted further research into both the purpose and source of these vital nutrients in regards to our overall wellness. Inspired by the research of Eijkman, Polish biochemist Casimir Funk made more important strides in this arena in 1912, and was instrumental in creation of the actual term “vitamin.” Funk, along with English biochemist Sir Frederick Gowland Hopkins, discovered that a lack of vitamins could be harmful to your health—the inaugural theory of deficiency disease was born. From there, the early 20th century saw even more progress—linking a deficiency of vitamin D to rickets, vitamin A to blindness, and vitamin B12 to anemia.

Polish biochemist Casimir Funk helped to coin the term “vitamin” meaning “amine of life” which derived from the discovery that an amine compound like thiamine (B1) was able to prevent Beriberi disease. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Today, vitamins and supplements have grown to a $68 billion dollar global industry, a $13 billion market in the United States alone, and while we’ve made leaps and bounds in understanding the effect vitamins have on our systems, consumers still struggle with what they should be taking, and how much of it. Of course, while a well-balanced diet is still the best way to get all your necessary nutrients, for some that just may not be possible—food allergies, dietary restrictions, and socio-economic capabilities may be limiting in this pursuit. Where your diet falls short, more targeted single vitamins or supplements may help fill in the gaps, but a doctor or dietitian should always be consulted about which are the most appropriate.

Ultimately, your health causes a ripple effect on every aspect of your life, so do yourself a favor and get educated about why you eat what you eat and the subsequent influence it all has on your overall well-being. Being knowledgeable about how to make healthier choices is the first step on the path to improved wellness, and that’s something we can all get behind.

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