Foods and Nutrition

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Here are a few selected bits of nutritional information to chew on. The sources are noted throughout the excerpts

Managing Your Magnesium

When Carolyn Dean, ND, MD, of City Island, N.Y., was researching for her latest book, The Miracle of Magnesium, “most doctors said if you could get a person to only take one supplement, make it magnesium.” For sure, those are some fighting words. The Daily Value (DV) for magnesium is around 400 mg. However, most magnesium researchers say we need two to three times this amount, especially for people who have magnesium-deficient conditions including heart disease, muscle cramps, headaches, and muscle pain, says Dean. According to Dean, as much as 80% of the population is deficient in magnesium because “our soil is magnesium-depleted, cooking and processing removes it from food, and a processed-food diet and many prescription medications causes it to be lost in the urine,” says Dean. This deficiency is seen in a host of conditions including asthma, diabetes, kidney disease,and even migraines.

Kimball agrees with Dean. “Magnesium also helps with calcium absorption, so you need it to help build healthy bones,” she says. Magnesium is harder to get through foods, so supplements are usually necessary. Magnesium-rich foods do include almonds, peanuts, brown rice, and cereals like oat bran and shredded wheat.

Buff Up Your Baseline With a Multivitamin

One way to make sure that you get at least the minimum amount of all your vitamins and minerals is to take a multivitamin every day. “There is quite a bit of evidence that multivitamins are important for general health, immunity, and well-being,” says clinical nutrition specialist Frederic Vagnini, MD, medical director of Pulse Anti-Aging Center in Scarsdale, N.Y. That’s good counsel, says Victoria Shanta-Retelny, RD, a registered dietitian at Northwestern Memorial Wellness Institute in Chicago. “Most people don’t get adequate amounts of vitamins in their diet, and processed foods lose vitamins with processing, but multivitamins set you up for a healthy baseline without toxic levels of these vitamins.” Vagnini adds: “Vitamins were traditionally useful in preventing deficiency disease which we don’t really see so much in this country,” he says, “We don’t see things like scurvy, and today vitamins are used to support normal organ and body functions, enhance immunity, improve cardiovascular function, and even prevent cancer.”

B Good to Yourself

B vitamins — which include B-6, B-12, and foliate (folic acid) — which are key to overall health, Vagnini says. “We now know that homocysteine is an important risk factor for heart disease and stroke; it is just as important as cholesterol,” he says. According to the American Heart Association, homocysteine is an amino acid that has been linked to an increased risk for heart attack, stroke, and other major diseases. It may damage the inner lining of arteries and promote blood clots, but researchers are still not sure exactly how it affects disease risk. But homocysteine levels are strongly influenced by diet, and several studies have found that higher blood levels of B vitamins are related, at least partly, to lower concentrations of homocysteine. The Daily Values for the B vitamins are: foliate, 400 micrograms or more; B-6, 1.5-2 mg; and B-12, 2.4-3 mcg. Today, cereals, breads, and other grain products are fortified with extra foliate. Also fruits and vegetables like spinach, oranges, broccoli, and asparagus have high levels of foliate. Check your multivitamin to see how it stacks up with B-6 and B-12.

“Individually, all the B vitamins do different things, but folic acid is very beneficial for someone of child bearing age because it aids in neural tube developments” and prevents birth defects such as spina bifida, Shanta-Retelny says. “B-12 is an energy vitamin, so it gives you energy, and B-6 helps the body to function properly.”

Don’t Forget the D

Vitamin D, aka the sunshine vitamin because your body makes it in response to sunlight, is often overlooked today. “More people are staying out of the sun and as a result are becoming deficient in vitamin D and setting themselves up for fractures,” Shanta-Retelney says. Vitamin D helps your bones properly use calcium. “The sun is our most natural source of vitamin D, so 15 minutes of sunlight per day with sunscreen is a good idea,” she says.

Making More Magnesium Mandatory

Large studies have linked magnesium deficiency to high blood pressure, while some have shown an association between magnesium supplements and a decreased risk of death from heart disease.” Some researchers say that, as a nation, we could cut our rate of heart disease by one-half if we took more magnesium,” says City Island, N.Y.-based Carolyn Dean, MD, ND, author of The Miracle of Magnesium. “Magnesium is the body’s natural calcium channel blocker. It balances out the excess calcium that is associated with the heart going into muscle spasm, which equals a heart attack.” Dark, leafy green vegetables are rich in magnesium, and whole grains and nuts also are good sources.

“Cooked and processed foods also lose a lot of magnesium, making it a very deficient mineral.” That’s why Dean suggests taking 300 mg two to three times a day of magnesium oxide, magnesium citrate, or magnesium glycinate. Magnesium supplements can interfere with the absorption of certain medications and may cause diarrhea, so be sure to talk to your doctor first.

Data from the Nurses’ Health Study and the Harvard School of Public Health back up Dean’s claims. A higher intake of magnesium may reduce the risk of developing type 2 diabetes. Research has shown that low levels of magnesium may impair insulin sensitivity or function. Consuming adequate levels of magnesium may help insulin function properly in the body, which may prevent type 2 diabetes.

The American Heart Association (AHA) lists diabetes as one of the six major risk factors for cardiovascular disease. In fact, adults with diabetes are two to four times more likely to have heart disease or a stroke than adults without diabetes.

Not Fooling With Folic Acid

Folic acid, a B vitamin, is important for heart health, experts agree. The amount of homocysteine in the blood, a marker for heart disease, is regulated by folic acid. “High levels of homocysteine can lead to heart disease, and the way to combat high homocysteine is to take folic acid,” says Michael Poon, MD, chief of cardiology at Cabrini Medical Center in New York. Aim for 1 milligram or 1,000 micrograms a day, he says.

Homocysteine may damage the blood vessel walls and promote blood clots, and although studies have consistently shown that high levels are associated with an increased risk of heart disease, researchers are still not sure whether lowering the level of homocysteine reduces heart disease risk. But homocysteine levels are strongly influenced by diet, and several studies have shown that higher blood levels of B vitamins — specifically folic acid — are related, at least partly, to lower concentrations of homocysteine. Today, cereals, breads, and other grains like rice are fortified with extra folic acid. Fruits and vegetables like spinach, strawberries, oranges, and broccoli have high levels of folic acid.

But don’t forget the other Bs, says Nancy Kennedy, MS, RD, a nutritionist at the Ministrelli Women’s Heart Center at Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, Mich. Vitamins B-6 and B-12 are also important in lowering homocysteine. “Many clinicians emphasize folic acid, but actually all three B vitamins are involved in the metabolism of homocysteine, and B-6 is one of the vitamins that is typically very low in the American diet,” she says. The American Dietetic Association (ADA) suggests 2 mg of B-6 and 6 micrograms of B-12. Beef liver, baked potatoes, watermelon, and banana are rich in B-6, while milk, meats (beef, pork, lamb, veal, fish, and poultry), eggs, and cheese are replete with B-12.

Nixing Your Heart Risks With Niacin

Niacin (also known as vitamin B-3) helps increase HDL or “good” cholesterol levels. It comes in over-the-counter preparations and as dietary supplements. It’s also found in poultry, fish, lean meats, nuts, and eggs. Legumes and enriched breads and cereals may also contain some niacin. Poon recommends that people with low HDL levels take 500 mg of niacin each day, building up to 1,000 mg. But, he cautions, this should be monitored by a doctor because each person is different. “It can have some side effects and is not for everybody, particularly people who already have high HDL levels,” he tells WebMD. Flushing, itching, and nausea and vomiting can occur.

Pumping Up Your Potassium

Potassium helps regulate blood pressure levels, and high blood pressure, or hypertension, is a major risk factor for heart disease. Normal blood pressure is less than 120 systolic, the upper number in a blood pressure reading, and less than 80 diastolic pressure, the lower number in a blood pressure reading. For adequate potassium, “I suggest five to nine servings of fruits and vegetables each day,” says Kennedy. Potassium-rich foods include bananas, potatoes, peaches, and apricots. In fact, the National High Blood Pressure Education Program recommends that people who do not suffer from hypertension consume at least 3,500 mg of dietary potassium daily. Kennedy prefers whole foods to supplements when it comes to potassium. “Fruits and vegetables are also high in fiber, and you also need fiber to lower cholesterol levels, which won’t come from potassium supplements,” she tells WebMD. One medium-sized baked potato with skin has 850 mg of potassium; 10 halves of dry apricots contain 407 mg; 1 cup of raisins has 1,099 mg, and one cup of winter squash has 896 mg.

Counting on Calcium

“A lot of people think of calcium as for the bones, but it’s also good for the heart,” Kennedy says. “It helps weight management, which indirectly affects heart disease risk.” It also helps regulates blood pressure along with magnesium and potassium. “I recommend that everyone get two to three servings of calcium-rich food a day,” she says. We all know by now that eating a healthful diet rich in whole grains, fruits, and vegetables can help us stay slim and lower our risk for heart disease, but did you know that a growing body of research shows that this type of diet also preserves memory, boosts alertness, and may even stave off the blues and prevent Alzheimer’s disease! It’s true! “Nutrition plays a significant and crucial role over the long run and the short run in brain health,” says Ray Sahelian, MD, a Marina Del Ray, Calif.-based physician and author of Mind Boosters. “We can maintain a healthy and active mind well into our 80s and 90s by eating properly,” he tells WebMD.

Why tax your brain doing all the research for what it needs to thrive? WebMD did it for you by putting together a list of the top five brain-friendly nutrients you need to stay smart, starting with:

Eating More E

“For a long time, people believed that a common component of vitamin E called alpha tocopherol was most important, but another form called gamma tocopherol is definitely a protective antioxidant in brain disorders,” says Aimee Shunney, ND, the coordinator of the educational and wellness program at Long Island College Hospital in Brooklyn, N.Y. When you consume food rich in vitamin E, including almonds, green leafy vegetables, corn oil, sunflower oil, hazelnuts, and whole-grain flour, you get both alpha tocopherols and gamma tocopherols, she says. If you are choosing supplements, look for vitamin E with “mixed tocopherols” and take 400 IU a day, she says. Vitamin functions as an antioxidant and the brain is particularly susceptible to free radicals (damaging, unstable molecules). Some research indicates that vitamin E can delay progression of Alzheimer’s disease and/or prevent it from occurring in the first place by reducing the free radicals damage!

B Good to Yourself

“B vitamins are involved in helping the formation of brain chemicals such as dopamine, epinephrine, and serotonin,” Sahelian says. In fact, each B vitamin plays its own role in preserving brain function and mental acuity. Starting from folic acid (a B complex), which helps in the early brain development, these vitamins help in many aspects of metabolism. A few recent studies have shown a link between declines in memory and Alzheimer’s disease in the elderly and inadequate levels of folic acid, vitamin B12, and vitamin B6. Reduced levels of foliate are associated with high levels of homocysteine — a marker of heart disease and stroke.

Boosting B12

“Vitamin B12 has a number of roles including helping in the formation of myelin,” Sahelian says. Myelin forms layers or a sheath around the nerve fibers and acts as insulation. Sahelian points out that B12 is mainly found in meats (beef, pork, lamb, veal, fish, and poultry), and an as result, vegetarians may be deficient. This deficiency could lead to nerve damage, memory loss, low moods, and mental slowness. His advice? Shoot for between 3 and 100 micrograms a day. It worked for nutritionist Molly Kimball’s grandmother. “Sometimes as people age, they have impaired absorption of B12,” says Kimball, a nutritionist at the Ochsner Clinic’s Elmwood Fitness Center in New Orleans. In fact, B12 deficiency can present as similar to Alzheimer’s disease, she says. “My grandmother couldn’t make sense until her doctor supplemented her B12,” she tells WebMD.

Filling Up on Foliate

Folic acid or foliate is another important B vitamin for the brain, says Sahelian. “Getting adequate foliate can make one a little more alert, and improve memory and focus.” It helps lower blood levels of the amino acid homocysteine that is known to damage brain cells, he explains. It’s found in abundant supply in many foods including beans, fruits, green leafy vegetables, lentils, and whole-wheat cereals. Shoot for 400 micrograms a day, he says.

Stirring Up Serotonin With B6

Vitamin B6 helps convert 5-hydroxy-tryptophan (5HTP) in into the mood chemical serotonin and it also helps in making dopamine. “These are big mood and alertness chemicals,” he says. Aim for roughly 2 to 10 milligrams a day if you supplement. B6-rich foods include bell peppers, cranberries, turnip greens, cauliflower, garlic, tuna, mustard greens, and kale.

Maximizing Magnesium

“Magnesium is an important brain nutrient because it protects the brain from neurotoxins,” says City Island, N.Y.-based Carolyn Dean, ND, MD, author of The Miracle of Magnesium. “Some enlightened surgeons give extra magnesium to their patients before and during surgery, especially brain surgery, for this reason,” she tells WebMD. The dosage for protecting the brain in general is 300 milligrams one to three times a day. According to Dean, nuts, seeds, dark leafy greens, and whole grains have magnesium, but most other foods have little, she says. “Cooked and processed foods also lose a lot of magnesium making it a very deficient mineral.”

Seeing to More C

“Vitamin C is an important antioxidant that can intercept free radicals before they affect the brain,” says Dean, also the health adviser to yeastconnection.com. It’s found in foods such as broccoli, legumes, oranges, potatoes, and strawberries. If you are taking supplements, aim for 500 micrograms once or twice a day, she says. Researchers from Johns Hopkins University found that people taking vitamins C and E were 78% less likely to have had a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s at the study’s start and 64% less likely to have developed the disease four years after the study began. Of course, before taking any supplements talk to your doctor first, many may interfere with the absorption of medications you may be taking or may cause bothersome side effects.