How-To Guide for a Healthier Body

You know you need vitamins for good health, but which ones and how much?

By Denise Mann
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Feature

Reviewed By Brunilda Nazario, MD

In a classic I Love Lucy, Lucy lands the plum role of "Vitameatavegamin girl" and attempts to hawk a tonic with healthy amounts of vitamins, meat, vegetables, minerals (and ample alcohol) all wrapped up in one power drink.

During rehearsal, Lucy drinks, and drinks, the vile tasting liquid. But by the end of the shoot and due to the high alcoholic content, Lucy begins to get drunk, slur her lines, and even begins to enjoy the taste.

For better or for worse, there is no such thing as Vitameatavegamin, but multiple vitamins, minerals, herbs, and other supplements are readily available in tonic, pill, and many other forms.

But what do you really need to be healthier? And how much do you need? And how can you make sure that you are getting it? For starters, WebMD compiled an expert-approved list of the top five healthiest nutrients and how to get them.

Boning Up on Calcium

Hands down, calcium (which comes from foods including low-fat dairy products and supplements) is essential for a healthy body, says Molly Kimball, RD, a nutritionist at the Ochsner Clinic's Elmwood Fitness Center in New Orleans. The daily goal typically ranges from about 1,200 to 1,500 milligrams (mg) a day.

"If you are not getting enough calcium through your diet, supplements are a good idea," she says. How do you know? Consider that an 8 oz glass of milk or calcium-fortified juice or a cup of yogurt contains about 300 mg.

So take a look at what you are normally eating, and if you are not in the range, consider a supplement, Kimball tells WebMD.

"The obvious thing that calcium does is help to build strong bones and increase bone density," she says. While getting enough calcium is important for just about everyone, people who are still growing and people who are at increased risk of osteoporosis really need their daily doses of this mineral, she says.

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 more 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 folate (folic acid) -- 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: folate, 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 folate. Also fruits and vegetables like spinach, oranges, broccoli, and asparagus have high levels of folate. 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 childbearing 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. Dairy products including milk yogurt and cheese all are fortified with vitamin D. Aim for 600 IU for vitamin D.

Published Aug. 16, 2004.

SOURCES: Molly Kimball, RD, a nutritionist, Ochsner Clinic's Elmwood Fitness, New Orleans. Victoria Shanta-Retelny, RD, LD, Northwestern Memorial Wellness Institute, Chicago. Carolyn Dean, ND, MD, City Island, N.Y. Frederic Vagnini, MD, FACS, medical director, Pulse Anti-Aging Center, Scarsdale, N.Y.

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Last Editorial Review: 8/19/2004