Calcium is essential for the development and maintenance of strong teeth and bones and is of particular importance in our diet, as we grow older. 99% of the calcium in our bodies is found in our skeleton, our bone nails and teeth. But calcium also has a role to play in the nervous system and is essential for the clotting of blood. A regular intake of calcium throughout our lifetime will help prevent the fragile bone disease osteoporosis, which affects so many people over the age of 60. Calcium with vitamin D is essential to build and maintain strong bones as we age; a tablet combing the two is available from chemists and health food shops.
Lack of calcium during childhood and adolescence leads to week bones, poor nails, teeth and growth. Interestingly this brings us back to that policy of putting plenty in the pot over the years to ensure stability in later life. Rich sources of calcium are milk, cheese, yoghurt and other dairy produce, and fish such as sardine and pilchards. Importantly for vegetarians leafy green vegetables including spinach, kale and broccoli, and nuts, dried fruit, dates, prunes, raisins and figs, kidney beans, lentils and baked beans are alternate sources of calcium. Many foods today are calcium enriched so read the labels. Bottled mineral water contains calcium in varying amounts.
Sodium is a constituent of salt (sodium chloride). Sodium Chloride is an essential nutrient, and its main function is to help maintain the water balance in the body and to regulate blood pressure. However we need to be aware that sodium taken in large doses is believed to be a contributing factor to high blood pressure. Cutting down on salt can help control high blood pressure. It is not necessary, and is positively unhealthy, to habitually add salt to our cooking and meals.
Iron is of great importance in our diets and an essential component of a number of body processes. Our adult bodies contains approximately 4g of iron, most of this makes up the red pigment in our blood called the haemoglobin. If we don’t have enough iron in our diet it is quite common for the haemoglobin levels in our blood to fall and we become anaemic. We can feel tired, breathless, develop headaches and we look very pale and off colour.
To avoid this happening we need to eat sufficient red meat, eggs and cereals that are all sources of iron. Vitamin C helps the body to absorb the iron, as do fresh fruits and vegetables that are rich in Vit C. However, the absorption of the iron can be interfered with when we drink too much coffee and tea.
Zinc is required for the healthy development and growth of the reproductive organs in our bodies. Along with calcium it is also involved in helping to build and maintain strong teeth and bones. Zinc plays a part in developing our immune system helping to protect us from illness and infection such as colds, flu and other serious illnesses.
Zinc is found in a large range of foods including oysters and sardines, but zinc requires protein to be present in the diet to ensure the body takes it up. We therefore need to eat sufficient protein rich meat and dairy to ensure we are getting the full benefit from our zinc intake.
To help us get the most out of life what we eat is of great importance. I have found over recent years that my eating pattern and habits have changed dramatically. With my family grown and flown I now find myself alone a great deal of the time. Nowadays I cook for one, and if I am honest, it’s all too easy to prepare and cook things that are quick and easy, and I often cook the same favourites. With my busy lifestyle, constantly travelling around the country, and never being sure of where or when I am going to eat, I am conscious of the fact that I’m in danger of not getting the suggested daily requirements of some minerals and vitamins. Many years ago I began to take a keen interest in health supplements and I now supplement my diet on daily basis during busy periods. I would rather be sure that I have the recommended daily intake of specific vitamins and minerals, than leave it to chance.
However when I discussed the virtues of supplementing one’s diet, a doctor friend of mine advised me that this was not necessary if one was regularly eating a well-balanced nutritious diet full of fresh healthy food. I would agree with him, but I know in practical terms that this is not always feasible for many women who find themselves alone or in changed circumstances in middle and later life. So I take the view that my diet could be insufficient for my daily needs on occasions, and I would rather be safe than sorry. But equally when I have a less hectic and more routine period of life I stop taking my supplements and take time to prepare and cook myself very nutritious meals. If you are worried about your diet talk to your doctor or a nutritionist about it. Remember ‘you are what you eat.’ Finding out about supplements takes time and it can be confusing trying to discover which vitamins are beneficial in preventing ill health and which can promote good health. Her is a run down of the important vitamins to help you.
Vitamin A is a fat-soluble vitamin, which helps us to see in dim light. We also need vitamin A for healthy skin, but take care, because too much vitamin A simply gets stored in the liver and excessive amounts may be toxic. Vitamin A is found in butter, margarine and liver, spinach and, of course as we all know – carrots.
Vitamin B1 or Thiamin is a water-soluble vitamin, which helps the body metabolise carbohydrates. If we do not get enough vitamin B1 it can cause problems with the nervous system such as irritability and the blood vessels. We find vitamin B1 in eggs, whole grain cereals, fortified breakfast cereals, yeast extract, vegetables and fruit. But a word of advice, overcooking can result in a loss of a lot of vitamin B1.
Vitamin B2 or Riboflavin is a water-soluble vitamin and also is involved in the metabolism of carbohydrate by the body. Skin problems can result from a deficiency of vitamin B2. Good sources of vitamin B2 are yeast and meat extracts, liver, milk, eggs and green vegetables
Niacin is another of the B complex vitamins although it does not have a number, and is also involved in metabolising carbohydrates to give us energy. We need niacin to help maintain a good skin and for healthy nervous and digestive system. Eggs, liver,yeast extracts, lean meat and whole wheat products are good sources of liver. But our bodies can make niacin if the right materials are present, so it is not totally dependent on what we eat.
Vitamin B6 or Pyridoxine is needed to help in the production of red blood cells and for the absorption of vitamin B12. It is found in wheat bran, brewer’s yeast, liver, kidney, milk and eggs. Some women may need to take vitamin B 6 if they are regularly taking birth control pills.
Vitamin B12 is important for red blood cell formation and if the body does not have enough vitamin B12 there is a risk of anaemia. Vitamin B12 is found in meat, liver, eggs, cheese, and fish. Vitamin B12 is not found in plants, unlike other vitamins.
Folic Acid is essential to the body in may ways, but if there is insufficient folic acid anaemia and other symptoms can occur. Vegetables, especially leafy green ones, oranges, offal, bread and pulses are good sources of folic acid.
Vitamin C is a water-soluble vitamin and as we mentioned earlier in this section, is necessary for iron to be absorbed from our food. We need vitamin C to keep our teeth, gums, skin and blood vessels in good order. A deficiency can cause scurvy and weaken our immune system. Many people take large amounts of vitamin C in wintertime after hearing that it helps to ward off colds and flu, but the medical profession is still somewhat sceptical of these claims.
Good sources of vitamin C are fresh fruit; freshly squeezed fruit juice (not fruit squashes) and green leafy vegetables. Frozen vegetables also contain the vitamin, but take care because vitamin C can be easily destroyed by over cooking; this applies to either fresh or frozen vegetables.
Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin important in the building and maintenance of strong bones, working with the calcium and phosphorous in our bodies. Our most important source of Vitamin D is the sun, and it is produced naturally by the action of the sunlight upon our skin. Other valuable sources are cod liver oil, fortified margarine and other oily fish.
It’s never been easier to eat a healthy and a well balanced diet. It is the first vital step to becoming fit and maintaining fitness over the years. You should have a varied and nutritious diet the basis for a healthy life if you have followed the basic rules and suggestions in the last chapter. It can be hard to change habits of a lifetime. This applies not only to the content of one’s diet but also to the shopping, preparation and eating of one’s food. Perhaps you have reached a point in your life when you have more time and inclination to be aware of the quality and quantity of food you eat. Try experimenting with different foods and ways of preparation and try not to rely on convenience foods all the time. Try to include more fresh food, fruits and vegetables. However, if you have been ill or you are on a strictly vegetarian or vegan diet, you may find that you need to take vitamin or mineral supplements. Pop along to the chemists, or health food shop if you want to find out more, the staff can be a very knowledgeable and there is plenty of helpful advice in the literature provided by the manufacturers of health food supplements.
If there are things you cannot eat and you are concerned that your diet may be deficient in essential nutrients, minerals and vitamins ask your GP for his or her advice. Check out your cholesterol level, if it is high your GP can refer you to a dietician. Many doctors have a dietician attached to their health practice.
If you wish to see a dietician in private practise contact the British Dietetic Association for a dietician who is local to you.