Know Your Nutrients – The Fat Soluble Vitamins
Basically there are two types of vitamins – water soluble and fat soluble. Vitamins that stay in the body for a short period of time (generally 2-4 days) are water soluble. These are the B Vitamins and vitamin C. Since they are not stored we need to regularly “re-stock” them. Vitamins that stay in the body for a longer period of time are fat soluble. They are stored in fat tissue, and some organs, such as the liver. These are Vitamins A, D, E, F (the essential fatty acids), and K. Let’s learn about what they do and what foods they are in.
Vitamin A – a.k.a. Beta Carotene
Vitamin A is also known as Beta-carotene. But, it gets confusing – they are not the same! Complete Vitamin A is found only in animal products, such as butter, egg yolks, liver, organ meats and shellfish. Beta-carotene is found in plant food, such as carrots, red bell peppers, sweet potatoes, winter squash, and leafy greens (collard greens, kale, spinach, Swiss chard, turnip greens). And for the animal product to be a good source of Vitamin A, they should be eating green food, such as cows eating green grass. Think of the animal as a Vitamin A factory! When we consume Beta-carotene from plants (or vitamin supplements) our body has to convert it into Vitamin A. And guess what – we aren’t that efficient in doing that.
Vitamin A supports the endocrine, immune, integumentary (that’s skin), and reproductive systems along with our eyes. It is required for growth and natural repair of many body tissues, and maintains integrity of blood cells and epithelial tissue lining the gut, lungs, and reproductive tract.
Vitamin D – the “vitamin du jour” as I like to say. It certainly is in the news almost every day and it even has its very own “council” (The Vitamin D Council). I don’t think any other vitamin has achieved that status! Let me cut through the clutter for you – Vitamin D is very important and most of us don’t get enough of it! It is that simple.
When we dive deeper we learn it is a bit more complicated. There are two points I want to make clear to you. You can go to the Vitamin D Council web site for more details. First, there are different “forms” of Vitamin D – and the form we need, particularly if supplementing or added to food is D3. The second, Vitamin D is “fat soluble.” That means you need fat for it to be properly utilized by the body. I pose a simple question – has the low fat diet contributed to our Vitamin D shortages? If you take your Vitamin D pill (even if it is D3) with your cereal and skim milk for breakfast are you really getting anything from it?
Here are some of the key actions of Vitamin D. It helps develop bones and teeth, promotes health bone density, and supports healthy muscle tissue and thyroid function. It also supports the heart and kidneys, and the nervous, integumentary, and immune systems. Pretty much the whole body.
Where do we get Vitamin D? The number one source is the Sun. It is also found in eggs, fatty fish (mackerel, salmon, sardines, tuna, and trout), liver, and milk products.
Vitamin E is one of the major antioxidants that our body requires. Did you know that Vitamin E is actually several different compounds? It is made up of alpha-, beta-, delta-, and gamma-tocopherol; and alpha-, beta-, delta-, and gamma-tocotrienol. Here again we run into the synthetic versus natural vitamin issue. If you have a supplement containing Vitamin E read what it actually contains. Most likely it is one of the above synthetic compounds, not the complete Vitamin E as found in nature. Why is this important? There are studies that say Vitamin E does not support the heart function. Read the detail of what they used for Vitamin E. Hint – it wasn’t complete Vitamin E. So, of course it isn’t going to work!
Vitamin E supports a healthy immune system and proper nerve and muscle function. As mentioned above it is also important to the heart and supports circulation through healthy blood clotting. It keeps the skin and hair shiny and healthy. And as an antioxidant, Vitamin E supports tissue regeneration. It benefits the blood, cardiovascular, endocrine, immune, integumentary, nervous, and respiratory systems – looks like almost the whole body!
We can obtain Vitamin E from almonds, leafy greens (collard greens, mustard greens, spinach, Swiss chard, and turnip greens), olives, papaya, sunflower seeds, wheat germ, and wheat germ oil.
Vitamin F (Essential Fatty Acids)
Vitamin F are the essential fatty acids – better known as the “omega” family, featuring the 3’s, 6’s, and 9’s. These are polyunsaturated fats and whenever we hear the word “essential” in nutrition it means that we must eat these nutrients, as our body does not manufacture them. We need all the essential fatty acids. The issue (like much of nutrition) is balance. For example, Omega 6’s are considered “pro-inflammatory” while Omega 3’s are “anti-inflammatory.” Our body needs inflammation to survive. It is part of its normal processes. However, too much inflammation is not good. While our body was designed to consume the Omega 3’s and 6’s in relatively equal amounts (you’ll see anywhere from 1:1 to 2:1 Omega 6’s to 3’s in the nutrition literature), most Americans are in the 20:1 to 50:1 ratio. Why? Omega 6’s are found heavily in grains which we eat and feed to our animals. Omega 3’s are found in cold water wild fish, something not too prevalent in many diets.
An interesting side note here is about beef. Did you know a cow is supposed to eat grass? When a cow eats grass it manufactures Omega 3’s in its fat. When that cow eats what we are feeding it – wheat and corn and other grains – it makes Omega 6’s. Perhaps it is the Omega 6’s in the meat causing inflammation leading to heart disease? Just a wild thought!
The essential fatty acids are the precursors to prostaglandins – a form of hormones that support many functions including normal growth and the inflammatory response. They also assist in blood coagulation and circulatory functions.
Good sources of the essential fatty acids include: black current seed oil, evening primrose oil, flaxseed, lecithin, linseed oil, seafood (halibut, salmon, scallops, shrimp, snapper, and tuna), sesame seeds, sunflower seeds, walnuts, wheat germ, and winter squash.
One more note here about flax seeds. Beware of the marketing hype! If the flax seed is whole your body can not break it down. We can only work with flax seed in the form of meal or oil. If you buy flax seeds grind them up in a coffee grinder and store them in the refrigerator. As a polyunsaturated fat they go rancid very quickly, so only grind up a small amount. The ground flax you get in the store likely has preservatives added to keep it “fresh”, but the oils are likely already rancid.
Vitamin K – easy to remember – K is for “clotting”, well there is actually lots more to it! Vitamin K is a fat soluble vitamins (the others being A, D, and E). While it is best known for clotting, it is also involved in bone mineralization, a critical part of making bone. It also promotes healthy liver function.
But, let’s go back to the bone part. We are all familiar with how prevalent osteoporosis is in this country. We are bombarded with the advertisements and the need for calcium supplements to magically cure this condition. As I’ve mentioned previously it is not just calcium, but there are 18 nutrients required to build bone. One of them is Vitamin K. And guess what? Most people are not getting enough of this vitamin either. It is readily available, but of course you have to like vegetables! The top food sources are the Cruciferous family of vegetables: broccoli, Brussels sprouts, and cabbage. It is also in the dark green leafy vegetables (think kale), eggs, and liver. For optimal health you should be eating these foods daily. Your blood, liver, metabolism, and bones depend on it!
Bernard Rosen, PhD is a Nutrition Consultant and Educator. He works with individuals, groups, and at corporations to create individualized nutrition and wellness programs. His office is in Thiensville. To learn more or to schedule an appointment, e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, call (262) 389-9907 or go to www.brwellness.com.