Why It’s Important – Vitamin A

Hello all! I’m back from my road trip, which was fantastic. But I’m one of those people who needs to take a little mental vacation after my real vacation in order to transition back into my normal life. So the last few days has been filled with video games, reading, and research (because I’m a geek and I find all that stuff fun to do!).

So, apologies for the lack of a Monday entry. Blame my mom (kidding!). But seriously, I was inspired by a conversation I had with my mom. She asked me for advice on a good brand of Vitamin B-complex, and of course I ask (because I’m nosy), “Why do you take a vitamin instead of getting it from food?” And my mom replied, “How would I get 100% of all the B vitamins from food?”

Challenge accepted.

After spending hours researching all the B vitamins, finding food sources, and creating a one-day meal plan which contains almost 100% DRI/DV of all B vitamins, I decided to start a series about vitamins. I’ve still got a lot more research to do about Vitamin B – there’s a lot of them! And the meal plan I did for my mom contains oats, because that’s what she already eats for breakfast, so I want to figure out a grain-free plan. But so far, it’s been fun and enlightening, and the more I discover, the more I love whole, real food. Today’s entry is a brief look at Vitamin A. And stay tuned at the end of the article for some EXCITING NEWS.

Vitamin A is a fat soluble vitamin. Fat soluble vitamins are vitamins that require fat in order to be absorbed in the body. Think of fat like a car – fat globules travel from mouth, to stomach, then to the small intestine. From the small intestine, fat travels through cell walls into the body’s general circulation and finally to the liver, where the absorbed vitamins get dropped off and stored until the body needs to use them. Without enough fat in your diet, you won’t be able to absorb enough fat soluble vitamins, which could lead to critical vitamin deficiencies.

Vitamin A has many functions. It helps eyes adjust to light changes, it keeps skin, eyes and mucous membranes moist, it is critical for bone growth and tooth development, it’s important in reproduction, cell division, and gene expression, and it helps regulate the immune system. Vitamin A deficiency can cause night blindness, very dry and rough skin, slower bone growth, and a weakened immune system.

Vitamin A has a bit of controversy to it. There are some people who believe that there are two categories of Vitamin A: retinoids and carotenoids. Others believe that there is only one usable form, and a precursor form. The research I’ve done makes me lean toward the second perspective. To me, it doesn’t negate the value of the nutrients, but it sheds light on how our bodies might use the nutrients most effectively.

Retinol, a type of retinoid, is found only in animal products, such as fish, eggs, liver, and full fat unprocessed dairy. Notice that the retinol is packaged in foods that have a high fat content? Mother Nature is smart! This is the most effective form of Vitamin A – 80% of natural vitamin A from animal sources is absorbed in the body.

Beta carotene, a carotenoid and a vitamin A precursor, is found in pretty much every orange or dark green fruit and vegetable: sweet potatoes, carrots, cantaloupe, spinach, kale, and other leafy greens. The body needs to convert beta carotene and other carotenoids into a usable form of vitamin A, like retinol. This is important to note: beta carotene does not become vitamin A until it is converted. This conversion is very inefficient, as it takes about 10-20 carotenoid molecules to make one molecule of vitamin A. It’s estimated that less than three percent of carotenoids are absorbed from plants. (I’m curious if the lack of fat has something to do with that low absorption rate – what would happen to the absorption rate if you ate fat with your plants?) If you want the best bang for your buck, animal products are the best source of usable vitamin A, especially if you have a genetic variant that prevents you from converting carotenoids to vitamin A. Carotenoids are still very beneficial, especially for eye health, so go eat your vegetables!

The recommended amount is 700-900 mcg RAE, which stands for retinol activity units. 1 RAE = 1 microgram (mcg) of retinol or 12 mcg of beta carotene. 900 RAE = 3000 IU. Vitamin A becomes toxic at 3000 mcg RAE (not IU – unit labels are very important!). This is very difficult to reach through food, but can happen from a multivitamin if the does is too high (and if you don’t have enough vitamin D – more on that in a second). If you are taking a multivitamin that contains vitamin A, check the type (beta carotene or retinol), the amount and the unit of measure. Signs of toxicity include headache, nausea, and lose of appetite.

Lastly, you might need to increase their vitamin A intake if a you have a fever, cold, or infection to help support the immune system. Excessive amounts of sunlight (and vitamin D intake) will also require more vitamin A. Vitamin A and D frequently occur together in nature, and that’s because they work best in the body when they are balanced with each other. Nutrient synergy is so important, and we get the best nutrient synergy when we eat real food, rather than getting it all from a multivitamin.

Action steps:

  • Eat foods with the highest retinol content: eggs, full fat dairy, fish, and liver (yes, liver can be delicious, especially when mixed with bacon!)
  • Eat sweet potatoes, carrots, spinach, kale, and other orange and green vegetables and fruits with fat (add some butter!) to absorb the most amount of beta carotene possible
  • Improve your gut health, as this will help your body more efficiently absorb all nutrients
  • Balance your meals – fat, carbs (from vegetables) and protein at every meal so that nutrient synergy can occur

Now, I know these science-y entries aren’t everyone’s cup of tea. So I’ve got EXCITING NEWS.

Starting next week, I’ll be posting two entries a week on my new blog!

That’s right, I’m switching to a new blog: http://www.onebiteatatimejourney.com

It’s not completely finished yet, so I’ll be posting the same content on both blogs for a few more weeks. As for writing more, to be honest, I’m a little nervous about taking on too much, with a new day job starting as well. For that reason, I haven’t decided yet which day will be my second post. But ideally, one entry will be more science-y, and the other will be more practical tips/advice and recipes. September will definitely be the trial month.

Until next time, be well!

Sources:
http://health.howstuffworks.com/wellness/food-nutrition/vitamin-supplements/fat-absorb-vitamins.htm
http://jdmoyer.com/2011/01/12/how-and-why-to-balance-fat-soluble-vitamins/
Eat the Yolks by Liz Wolfe
http://www.philmaffetone.com/vitamin-a-and-the-beta-carotene-myth
http://www.whfoods.com/genpage.php?tname=nutrient&dbid=106

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Top Tips for Cleaning Up Your Health

Hello! Today’s topic is an answer to one of the most popular health-related questions:

I want to get healthier, but where do I start?

It can be daunting to figure out how to eat better, especially when there is quite a bit of conflicting information out there. Here are my top five tips for cleaning up your health – it’s what worked for me!

1) Ditch the vegetable/seed oil and the margarine.

Canola oil, soybean oil, corn oil, grapeseed oil, sunflower seed oil, vegetable shortening…unfortunately, these oils are not the health food those commercials lead you to believe they are. They are highly processed through chemical extraction methods, and they easily oxidize and become rancid – sometimes they are like that before you use it! When a food becomes oxidized, the body doesn’t recognize it as food, and it becomes a toxin, leading to inflammation. Inflammation is a large factor in many diseases and in weight gain or weight loss resistance.

Instead use: butter (the real deal!), coconut oil, olive oil when cooking over low heat (otherwise it can also go rancid), and animal fat from properly raised and treated animals. I’ve tried duck fat, and to me it has a pretty bland taste, so it won’t change the flavor of your food much. I’ll save the fat when I cook high quality bacon, because that stuff makes everything taste delicious!

2) Add more fat to each meal.

Contrary to popular belief, eating fat will not make you fat. Your body needs fat to function, and quite often your body won’t want to let go of its own fat stores when it doesn’t get enough from food. Fat is what is needed to digest those fat-soluble vitamins that are so important to our health: Vitamins A, D, E, and K. (Why are these vitamins important? That blog entry is coming up soon!) Ever eat a satisfying meal, yet feel starving a few hours later? Most often that’s due to lack of fat. Seriously, quality fat is amazing – yes, even saturated fat!

How to add more fat:

♥ Eat some fatty foods! And no, I don’t mean fatty foods from a fast food eatery. Eat eggs (yolk included!), avocados, nuts, olives, and fatty fish like salmon, tuna, and sardines. You’ll fill up and stay full for hours.

♥ Use healthy fats to cook with! (See #1)

♥ Add butter to your vegetables and your meat. If you can handle dairy, butter is such a wonderful flavor to add to the meal you are already eating. Already having steak? Add some butter! Did you microwave that package of broccoli, cauliflower and carrots? Go add some butter! If you’re not used to it, I’d start with a teaspoon of butter and build up to a tablespoon. A little goes a long way to satisfying your hunger and giving your body the nutrition it needs.

♥ Start eating full-fat versions of the food you already eat. No more skim milk or fat-free yogurt – to take out the fat, something had to be added in: sugar and/or chemicals. Neither one will fill you up.  And really, doesn’t full-fat sour cream just taste better?

3) Eat a balanced meal.

This means that for every meal or snack you eat, there should be fat, protein, and carbohydrate in that meal. This will help make sure that you are getting a variety of nutrients that your body needs to function. You’ll also feel satiated and stay that way. The need to snack every few hours will disappear. You’ll more easily avoid the sugar cravings that will get you in trouble. And a balanced meal just tastes good!

The easiest way I balance my meal is to have half the plate full of vegetables (carbohydrate), the other half with my protein of choice (meat, fish, or eggs). Then I’ll either add some butter or have an avocado. If I cooked with a lot of coconut oil, or I’m eating fish or meat that already contains a good amount of fat in it, then I might forgo the butter (although often I’ll still have the butter!).

Example:

♥ 6 – 8 oz burger (protein), pan fried zucchini in coconut oil (carbohydrate and fat), and a side of sweet potato with butter (carbohydrate and fat)

petespaleo

Duck tenderloin, roasted beets and acorn squash

♥ A dish from Pete’s Paleo: duck, roasted beets (this is my second time having beets EVER, and they are delicious!), and acorn squash

To be honest, I sometimes get bored with the food if I have to fill half a plate with the same vegetable/carbohydrate, so I try to mix it up and maybe make two veggies. Then I’ve got leftovers, which I love!

(You may have noticed I don’t have the “typical” carbohydrates that the Standard American Diet is based upon. See here for my reasons why I avoid them.)

I want to quickly mention something to those of you working out for an hour or more a day: PLEASE make sure you eat enough to fuel your workout. A common complaint I hear is, “I’m eating 1500-2000 calories a day and I’m exercising an hour a day yet I’m GAINING weight!” That is often the case when the body feels it’s being starved. I don’t look at calorie count since I stopped eating processed foods – I eat when I’m hungry, and I’m able to stop when I’m full because my body told me it had enough. A body that exercises at a high intensity often will need more fuel. But it’s not an excuse to go eat ice cream or whatever “treat” you want to give yourself “because I worked out today”. If your goal is to lose weight or to get stronger, then you need to give your body the tools it needs to accomplish those goals – eat real, nutrient dense food, and eat enough to that your workout is high quality.

4) Get enough sleep.

I wish I had learned this one LONG before I did. The length and quality of our sleep is just as important as what we eat and how we move when we’re awake. Food and exercise often go hand in hand, but sleep is ignored. Our bodies do so many important processes while we sleep, and so if we cut our sleep short, our bodies won’t work at an optimal level. So if the weight isn’t coming off, or you don’t recover from exercise as quickly as you’d like, it could be that you aren’t sleeping enough. I find it harder to deal with cravings when I haven’t gotten enough sleep. Eight hours of sleep is typically best, especially from 10pm-6am. Yes, it’s hard to go to bed at 10pm – there are so many distractions in the world today, and sometimes it just doesn’t fit into a person’s lifestyle. But if your diet is on track and you still aren’t seeing the results you want, try it for a week and see what happens.

5) Don’t forget to play outside.

Anyone who knows me in person might laugh at this tip. I’m a bookworm, and growing up there was nothing I liked better than to spend an entire Saturday in the summer, from sun up to sun down, reading a book INSIDE the air conditioned house. I didn’t even go read outside by the pool!

This tip is, in a way, two in one: play, and being outside. To balance our lives and our health, having fun needs to be a part of it. It’s what rejuvenates the body and, if you believe in it, the soul. Stress is a key factor in declining health, and I can tell you from experience that stress-related illnesses are no fun. Often I hear people say, “I don’t have time to take some time for myself.” But you need to take that time, especially if it will make your life and your interactions with your loved ones better. If you’re too stressed to sleep, then you’ll be too tired to workout, make smart food choices, and do fun things with your loved ones, which will make you stressed. You’ll get stuck in that cycle until you decide to break it, or until you get sick. You are worth putting yourself first in order to be healthy.

Just the thought of being outside relaxes me: the fresh air, the sun, and nature. You’ve got your Vitamin D from the sun, a chance to breathe in air that hasn’t been cooped up in a building (hopefully), and a chance to disconnect from our wired world. When’s the last time you took off your shoes, stood in the grass, and just took a deep breath? Or maybe you prefer to have your feet in the sand on a beach? Or in the water? It doesn’t matter how you decide to connect with the natural world, just as long as you do so. Go for a walk. Get on a bike. Throw a frisbee. Kayak. Look at the stars. Breathe. Take a moment to remember that you are part of this wonderfully magnificent world. And remember that you are wonderful, too.

 

So, dear readers, tell me: what’s YOUR favorite health tip? What’s worked for you? Did any of my tips surprise you? Do you have a health-related question for me?