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?"
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 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.
- 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
Starting next week, I'll be posting two entries a week!
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!
Eat the Yolks by Liz Wolfe