by Shari Lieberman Ph.D., CNS, FACN and Nancy Bruning, MPH
424 pages, Avery
Review by Melissa Conway
In a perfect world, we’d get all the nutrients we need from the food we eat and from the sun. But too many of us rely on nutritionally bereft fast and packaged foods. Even those of us who strive to consume whole foods wonder how much of what’s offered in the produce aisle is grown in mineral-depleted soil. And very few of us get enough sun exposure because we’ve been coached for decades to believe its rays won’t just wrinkle us, they’ll kill us.
If you’ve ever walked into a health food store, you know how dizzyingly vast the vitamin/mineral/homeopathic section can be. The supplement industry is Big Business—these guys can’t be trusted any more than anyone else not to attempt to fleece us by playing up our fears, in this case of malnutrition-related illness. Many of the popular and famous nutritionists who offer us advice are just out to make a buck on their own special brand of (insert ‘life-saving’ combination of nutrients that you can’t get anywhere else here).
Yet even the ultra-conservative government recommends that each of us get a certain daily allowance of macro and micro nutrients. Everyone’s heard of the R.D.I. (formerly R.D.A), the Reference Daily Intake, which tells us what vitamins and minerals we need each day to maintain our basic health. We know we should be getting these nutrients, but how many of us take the time to try and figure out whether the food we eat is supplying them? It’s hard enough just to keep track of the calories we consume!
Much of the foodstuffs we eat regularly are ‘fortified’ with things like iron and calcium and vitamin D. Sometimes this is done to replace nutrients removed during processing. Sometimes, like with the vitamin D in milk, it’s done at the behest of the government to prevent overt diseases, like rickets. Sometimes, I suspect, it’s done to make cardboard sound nutritious. In any case, all this fortification just muddies the ‘am I getting the right amount?’ water.
To complicate matters further, there are multi-vitamins. Studies show that a multi a day keeps the doctor away, or some such. But wait a minute. What if I eat pretty healthy most of the time and take a multi, too? Is it possible to get too much of a good thing? Do our bodies use what they need and excrete the rest or can overdoses of vitamins and mineral create a toxic overload? If I go nuts and eat an entire box of fortified cereal in one day, have I just consumed too much iron or vitamin A or magnesium?
Even more confusing is the balance between essential nutrients. Too much of one can cause a shortage of another. So if my mother-in-law tells me that zinc is good for fighting off a cold and I start chowing down on zinc lozenges, will I end up with a copper deficiency?
The Real Vitamin and Mineral Book tries to answer these questions and more. The authors are experts in the field of nutrition, and they not only believe in supplementation, they strongly advise it. They will tell you what a vitamin/mineral is, what it does and what the latest research supports or suggests as to what it should be used for. Lieberman and Bruning don’t just quote the studies herein; they often interpret them for the layperson. For instance, in the case of conflicting studies where one shows benefit and one shows none (or harm), they point out that the manner in which a study is conducted can often skew the results. Some studies might use synthetic vitamin formulations or vitamins combined with pharmaceuticals, or dosages that aren’t large enough to show much of anything. The best studies are the ‘gold standard’ double-blind placebo variety. If a substance has undergone such rigorous testing and shown benefit, it’s a sure bet it’s good for you.
What’s especially nice is you can read for yourself the symptoms of any given deficiency. Pale, weak and feeling a bit crazy? You may be low in B12. Pimples and night-blindness? A shortage of vitamin A-rich foods could be the culprit. Within, you will also find the symptoms of toxicity for any of the given substances; to my surprise, not very many were truly dangerous even in large amounts.
I didn’t know riboflavin (a B vitamin) was proven to reduce the frequency of migraines until I read it here. I didn’t know that low magnesium levels were associated with psychiatric problems, that niacin was better at lowering cholesterol than drugs or that folic acid could reduce cervical dysplasia, a precursor to cervical cancer. I discovered that selenium supplementation helps reduce inflammatory activity in people with autoimmune thyroiditis—an incurable (but treatable) condition that causes hate and discontent in many women’s bodies—I should know, I’m one of them. And this book is one of the first places to turn me on to the monumental importance of vitamin D, which has lately exploded onto the research scene as a preventive factor in far too many diseases for me to list here. If you avoid the sun, you need extra D.
I would never in a million years recommend using a book as a substitute for a doctor’s opinion. On the other hand, my experience has been that family physicians are not concerned so much with prevention as they are with healing. I think we should all be our own ‘medical managers,’ and educate ourselves, even if it means stepping outside our comfort zones and reading a book about vitamins with an open mind.