Vitamins and Vitamin Deficiencies

What are vitamins and what do they do for our body?

Vitamins are very small compounds that our body uses for every function such as using food for energy, growth and development of our body and proper immune function.

Some vitamins are classified as fat-soluble which means they can be stored in our body for later use, some are water soluble which means they can not be stored in our body and we need to have these on a daily basis for optimum health.

Vitamin A

Vitamin A is an important vitamin for our eyesight, keeping our immune system working well and is also important for healthy reproduction and the development of the fetus.

Am I at risk?

Vitamin A deficiency is common in Fiji due to the limited access to foods high in this vitamin, and health problems are mostly seen in times of high nutritional need – infancy, childhood, pregnancy and breastfeeding. Vitamin A deficiency can lead to increased severity of infections and childhood blindness. Those that are deficient in Vitamin A are often deficient in Iron, putting them at risk of anemia.

What foods can I use to get more Vitamin A every day?

  • Kumala (sweet potato) and carrots
  • Green leafy vegetables such as watercress, bele, spinach and chinese cabbage.

*TIP Replace a portion of roots crops with some boiled or steamed kumala

Zinc

Zinc is an essential vitamin for proper immune function, wound healing, energy production, mental functioning and DNA synthesis.

Am I at risk?

Zinc deficiency is difficult to test for, but some people are at higher risk than others. Having a diet that is high in nutrient poor, processed foods that are not fortified with zinc and a diet high in foods grown in zinc deficient soil may place you at risk of deficiency. Zinc losses may also occur if you have diarrhoea for an extended period of time.

What foods can I use to get more of these vitamins every day?

Oysters, shellfish, red meat and poultry are great sources of Zinc, as well as nuts (cashews and almonds), milk and whole grain foods. Baked beans, tofu and chickpeas also contain zinc and are good alternatives to meat.

*TIP

  • Make use of freshly caught shellfish a few times a week to increase your zinc intake
  • A small handful of unsalted cashews or almonds make a convenient and healthy snack that is heavy in vitamins and minerals including zinc
  • Soak some dried beans or chickpeas and add these into curries, stews, salads and sandwiches (or anything else you like!) for an extra boost of zinc.

Iodine

Iodine is used by our bodies to produce thyroid hormones whose job it is to regulate our metabolism – how quickly or slowly our body processes the food and drinks we consume. It is essential that we have Iodine in our diet, as our body is unable to make it.

Am I at risk?

Our requirement for Iodine increases during pregnancy and Iodine deficiency during pregnancy is the leading cause of mental retardation and intellectual disability in infants and children.

As Iodine is responsible for the proper functioning of the thyroid gland, all symptoms of Iodine deficiency are related to thyroid function. Some of the symptoms are: Goiter (enlargement of the thyroid gland in the neck), which can lead to breathing difficulties and choking.

What foods can I use to get more of these vitamins every day?

  • Seafood is one of best sources of Iodine, and having 2-3 serves per week will contribute to your iodine intake.
  • Seaweed, dairy products, eggs are also a source of iodine.
  • Although it is not recommended to add salt into your cooking and onto meals, if you do use salt, make sure it is iodised salt.
  • Vegetables can also be a good source of iodine if grown in soil that contains iodine.

 

Do I need an Iodine supplement?

It is best to discuss with your health professional if you could benefit from an Iodine supplement, as there are some cases where too much Iodine from supplements can be harmful to your health. A healthy, balanced diet should give you all your Iodine needs, however, as our needs increase in pregnancy and breastfeeding, if you fall into one of these categories and you also find it difficult to eat a good variety of whole foods, you may need an Iodine supplement.

Iron

Iron is responsible for the transport of oxygen throughout our blood and is responsible for keeping our immune system strong and giving us energy throughout the day. Not enough iron can lead to fatigue and increase our susceptibility to illness, however too much iron can lead to iron toxicity. It is important to see a doctor if you think you may be iron deficient, as taking a supplement without a diagnosis can be harmful to your health. In Fiji, Iron deficiency is a big problem with 50% of children under 5 and 40% of women being iron deficient.

Iron comes from both animal sources (haem iron) and plant sources (non-haem iron), haem iron is more easily absorbed by our body. If your iron intake is from plant sources only, then you may need much more iron as it is not as well absorbed.

Am I at risk of iron deficiency?

Those at risk of not having adequate iron include:

  • Women and children under 5 (meaning proper iron intake when pregnant and breastfeeding play a big role in giving your child enough iron)
  • Vegetarians or vegans, who have poorly managed diets without meat substitutes.
  • People who have experienced heavy blood loss through injury or menstruation or who regularly give blood.
  • Pregnant or lactating women who have an increased need.
  • Adolescents experiencing a growth spurt where there is an increased need for iron, among other vitamins and minerals.
  • Athletes also have a higher requirement for iron.

How can I ensure I am getting enough iron?

Include iron rich foods such as red meat, poultry and fish. Plant sources of iron include dark green leafy vegetables, nuts and seeds, dried beans and peas and iron fortified bread and cereal products.

Combine foods that are high in vitamin C, such as fruit, citrus and tomatoes, with foods high in iron as it increases the absorption of the iron.

Avoid drinking tea around the time of consuming iron containing foods as tea can block the absorption of iron.

Vitamin Supplements

If the food you eat each day has a variety of colors and is from a range of the different food groups (See our section on Eating Healthy) then you should be getting enough of each of the vitamins and minerals. It is always best to get your vitamins and minerals from the food you eat, however, there are certain groups of people who may need vitamin supplements – these are:

  • Pregnant women or women who are breastfeeding
  • People who do not consume enough of a variety of foods from the food groups, for example, no meat or no dairy (see Eating Vegetarian)
  • People with a chronic disease or a diagnosed vitamin deficiency

 

You should first discuss your need for vitamin supplements with a qualified health professional as more is not always best and too much may cause harm, especially Vitamin A and Iron.

See our sections on Iron Deficiency and Micronutrient Deficiency on this website.

References and Further Reading:

Nutrient reference values for Australia and New Zealand:
Dietitians Association of Australia, Nutrition A-Z, Anaemia
World Health Organisation – Micronutrient Deficiencies
Better Health Channel – Vitamin and Mineral Supplements
World Health Organisation – Vitamin A Deficiency
Better Health Channel – Iodine
Better Health Channel – Iron Deficiency

 

Nutrition and Cancer

According to the World Health Organisation, Cancer is responsible for 11% of total deaths in Fiji, and of this amount, around 30% of all cancer deaths are attributable to lifestyle factors including poor diet, inadequate physical activity, tobacco use and excess alcohol intake. Cancers that have a strong association with diet are those of the digestive tract – esophagus, stomach and bowel.

Although there is no definitive evidence to suggest that nutrition can help cancer progression and recurrence in those already diagnosed with cancer, eating a varied diet across the food groups and focusing on vegetables and fruits is of course recommended and will not do any harm.

Let’s look at the specific areas of nutrition related to cancer:

Obesity

Eating a poor diet often results in being overweight and obesity, which is linked to cancer of the esophagus, post menopausal breast cancer, endometrium, bowel and kidney. The best thing you can do to help reduce your risk of these cancers is maintain a healthy body weight by eating a variety of foods from the different food groups, focusing mainly on vegetables and fruits and avoiding nutrient poor processed foods that are high in fat and sugar. And of course, increase your physical activity wherever you can, any movement counts!

Red Meat

Evidence suggests that there is a link between consumption of red meat, especially processed meats such as sausages, salami and ham, and the risk of developing cancer. Always try and have lean meat only, and avoid processed meats wherever possible, replacing these with white meat or fish. Red meat should be kept to 3-4 times per week and only a small serve, no more than the palm of your hand and palm thickness. Remember to choose lean cuts, not fatty meats.

Alcohol

Drinking alcohol is linked to an increased risk of developing cancer of the bowel, mouth, pharynx, larynx, esophagus, liver and breast. Your risk of developing cancer increases from your first alcoholic drink, and the more you consume, the greater your risk. If you choose to drink, it is recommended that you drink no more than two standard drinks per day to minimise your risk. The risk increases even further if alcohol intake is accompanied by tobacco use.

Vegetables and Fruits

There are two factors to consider when looking at Vegetables and Fruits, firstly is their role in weight management due to their low energy content and high nutrient density and secondly, the role specific nutrients play in cancer protection.

Weight Management – Given the strong evidence linking obesity to certain types of cancers, and the important role vegetables and fruits play in weight management, they are an essential part of a cancer prevention diet. When we make vegetables and fruits the focus of our diet, this takes the place of energy dense and nutrient poor foods, and we naturally have a lower energy intake, and higher fibre, vitamin and mineral intake – helping our metabolism to work optimally.

Specific Nutrients – There is very limited evidence to suggest that one particular nutrient protects against cancer, it is likely that it is a combination of the fibre, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and phytochemicals that all work together to prevent cancer and other disease. The recommendations are for mostly fresh vegetables and fruits as opposed to a supplement, a mixture of raw and cooked and as many different types and colours as possible for maximum health benefits.

References and Further Reading

World Health Organization – Noncommunicable Diseases (NCD) Country Profiles, 2014.

Cancer Council Australia – Food and Nutrition page

Cancer Council Australia – Obesity page

Cancer Council Australia – Alcohol page

Cancer Council Australia – Position statement: Fruit, vegetables and cancer prevention 16 Published August 2007; Updated June 2009

 

 

 

 

Eating For Good Digestion

What makes for good digestion?

Eating a variety of different foods every day and getting enough fluids is the best thing you can do for your digestion. Maintaining good digestion is important to reduce your risk of developing diverticular disease later in life, avoiding constipation, hemorrhoids and certain cancers such as cancers of the digestive tract.

Good digestion is different for everyone, but generally it means going to the toilet once per day to pass a bowel motion and having a good appetite. When our digestion is not working so well, you will find that your energy will most probably be low, skin can be dull and your appetite may be poor. Going to the toilet several times a day or more is also not ideal as this may mean that nutrients are not being absorbed during digestion. It is important to see your doctor if you are having problems with your digestion as even though problems are usually dietary-related, more serious health problems need to be ruled out by a health care professional.

Water

Water is essential for good digestion. As waste moves through our digestive tract, it absorbs water along the way to become soft enough to move through our bowel. If there is not enough water to absorb, our bowel motions become hard and difficult to pass. The more you sweat the more water you will need and though peoples daily water needs differ, a general guideline, the requirements are:

Adult women = 2.1L (approximately 8 glasses of 260ml)

Adult men = 2.6L (approximately 10 glasses of 260ml)

An easy way to tell if you are well hydrated is the colour of your urine. If your urine is dark yellow, you are probably dehydrated, if it is light yellow or clear, you are most likely well hydrated.

Fibre

Fibre is the part of our food that is not digested that adds to the bulk of our bowel movements, and acts as the ‘glue’ that keeps it all together. There are two types, insoluble fibre that adds to the bulk, and soluble fibre that is the ‘glue’. It is important to have a good mix of both types of fibre in your diet. We need to aim to have between 25g and 30g of fibre each day.

Good sources of soluble fibre are fruits and vegetables, oats, chickpeas, lentils and other dried legumes.

Good sources of insoluble fibre are the skins of fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds, wholegrain bread and cereals.

Some high fibre Fijian foods are:

  • Jackfruit
  • Breadfruit
  • Cabbage
  • Potato (Skin on)
  • Kumala (Sweet potato) (skin on)
  • Cassava leaves
  • Watercress
  • Corn
  • Eggplant
  • Peas
  • Mung Dhal
  • Lentils
  • Paw Paw

 

Tips on increasing your fibre intake;

*Choose brown bread that contains seeds instead of plain white bread

*Choose wholegrain crackers over breakfast crackers or other white crackers

*If you eat noodles, add a couple of handfuls of vegetables in each serve

*Replace half of your root crops with green and other colourful vegetables, especially bele

*Use whole meal instead of white flour to make roti

*Make your snacks high fibre – a mix of nuts, seeds and dried fruit, lentil dhal, baked beans, wholegrain crackers, fruit with the skin on, some vegetable sticks with hummus or other bean dip

*Don’t forget to increase your water at the same time!

Physical activity for good digestion

Exercise is important for bowel motility and if you find that your digestion is a little bit sluggish, you might find some benefit with a gentle walk each day or some exercises that stimulate the abdomen area.

References and Further Information