Thursday, August 16, 2012

The Importance of "Non-Vitamins"!

Taking your vitamins? What about non-vitamins? Non-vitamins can be just as important to our health as traditionally recognized vitamins and minerals. Foods that come from plants contain a rich mixture of compounds that are biologically active in humans – we call them phyto-chemicals or phyto-nutrients (phyto – meaning plant!). These non-vitamins have many properties that affect our health positively.

What is the difference? Vitamins are defined as “organic components in food that are needed in minute amounts for normal growth and health maintenance”. The origin of the word “vitamin” comes from the combination of “vita” for life and “amine” for a chemical group identified with the first vitamin-like substance, therefore “a substance necessary for life”. Phyto-chemicals are not recognized as vitamins; however their contribution to health is being proven repeatedly in studies of human nutrition. Fruits and vegetables are rich mixtures of fiber, water, vitamins, minerals, and a vast array of phyto-nutrients(1).

In a recent study(1)on phytonutrient intake, the authors conclude that research on carotenoid phyto-chemicals suggests potential for reduced heart disease risk: specific examples show lycopene with preventive potential for prostate cancer; lutein and zeaxanthin may be important in reducing age-related macular degeneration of the eye. The phenolic and flavonoid classes are also beneficial. For example, flavonoids have been studied for their anti-inflammatory characteristics and possible protection against cancer and cardiovascular disease; anthocyanidins show potential for improving cognitive and motor function with aging; a form of hesperetin may support healthy vascular tissue; quercitin may inhibit bone loss and ellagic acid may reduce DNA damage.(1)

The research published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics specifies the amounts of phyto-nutrients from fruits and vegetables consumed by adults in the United States(1). We don’t currently have recommended allowances for these nutrients. The difficulty stems from the sheer number of possibly beneficial phyto-nutrients present in plant tissue. For example, there are more than 600 carotenoid nutrients present in nature, but research has focused on a few, such as alpha-carotene, beta-carotene, beta-cryptoxanthin, lutein, zeaxanthin and lycopene. These have received more attention due to their presence in the human body and in food – suggestive of a correlation. Carotenoids are present in carrots, tomato products, pumpkin, spinach, lettuce, collards, broccoli, cucumber, vegetable mixtures, corn, oranges and watermelon and other produce in various quantities. Due to food preferences, American adults get their greatest amounts of these nutrients from carrots, oranges/orange juice, spinach and tomato products.

Rich sources of the flavonoids and phenolics (in general) include grapes, berries, bananas, citrus, tea, onions, apples, leafy lettuce, tomatoes, walnuts and pecans. Again, because of consumption patterns, American adults consumed the largest percentage of these phenolics/flavonoids from a few food sources: oranges/orange juice, tea, onions, berries, grapes, and bananas.

The pattern of phyto-nutrient content is very specific to a fruit or vegetable, making variety an important aspect of food selection. In this study, an expected finding was that those adults who consumed the recommended servings of fruits and vegetables had considerably greater intakes of these valuable phyto-nutrients. Another finding was that few adults consume the recommended servings, resulting in low overall phytochemical consumption.

Next time you pop a vitamin pill, consider all the other life and health giving properties not included in that capsule! Ensure you are getting enough phyto-chemicals by eating the recommended servings of fruits and vegetables! For a person consuming 2,000 calories a day, U.S. Dietary Guidelines suggest 2 cups of fruit and 2 1/2 cups of vegetables per day. Weekly recommendations are also made for specific colors and types of vegetables to ensure adequate phyto-nutrient and vitamin/mineral content: 1½ cups dark green veggies, 5 ½ cups red and orange veggies, 1 ½ cups beans and peas, 5 cups starchy vegetables and 4 cups other veggies each week! Get your non-vitamins by assuring there is adequate and varied fresh produce on your table!
1 “Phytonutrient Intake by Adults in the United States in Relation to Fruit and Vegetable Consumption”; Mary M. Murphy, et al., Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, February, 2012, 222-229.

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