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Vitamin D

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Vitamin D
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Recipe: penne primavera with fresh salmon

Winnipeg Health Region
Wave, November / December 2010

Winter is here and the warm, sunny days of summer are just a memory.

But the change in season brings with it more than a need to wear warmer clothes and a desire to cozy up to a fireplace. It's also a reminder that it may be time to boost your intake of vitamin D.

Here's why.

Vitamin D is critical to your health and well-being. It plays a key role in helping the body to absorb calcium, which is used to build strong bones, help prevent osteoporosis and reduce the risk of fractures from falls. Research suggests that a lack of vitamin D may cause muscle weakness, increasing the risk of falls for the elderly.

There are other potential health benefits. The National Institutes of Health in the United States says some studies suggest vitamin D may play a role in the prevention of colon, prostate and breast cancer, but cautions that more research is required to confirm preliminary findings. The NIH also says vitamin D may play a role in the prevention and treatment of Type 2 diabetes, hypertension and multiple sclerosis. But again, more research, including clinical trials, will be needed to confirm early findings.

That's the good news. The bad news is that studies show many Canadians are likely not getting enough vitamin D, especially during the winter months.

That's because, unlike many other nutrients, vitamin D is not found in a lot of foods. In fact, people get much of their vitamin D from the sun through a chemical reaction that occurs when skin is exposed to ultraviolet B (UVB) rays. That's why vitamin D is called the "sunshine vitamin."

The average light-skinned person can get the required amount of vitamin D simply by spending as little as two to eight minutes in the mid-day summer sun. Those who don't go outside much, use sunscreen, wear clothing that covers most of the body, have dark skin, or are growing older may need 10 to 20 minutes of summer sun to produce adequate vitamin D.

Either way, the sun is a good source of vitamin D in the summer. Unfortunately, that all changes between May and October. As the days become shorter and colder, our exposure to the sun is reduced, and our vitamin D levels start to drop. To make up the difference, we must get more of this important vitamin from foods, and possibly supplements.

Although recommendations from health groups vary, (see chart on page 48) most agree that the average adult needs a minimum of 200 to 800 IU, and no more than 2,000 IU of vitamin D each day through food and/or supplements. The real difference in recommendations comes into play for older adults.

Health Canada, for example, says adults 51 to 70 years of age should consume 400 IU per day through food, and an additional 400 IU from a supplement.

Osteoporosis Canada, meanwhile, says those over the age of 50 should take a supplement of 800 to 2,000 IU each day, in addition to what they get from food.

Fortunately, there are good food sources of vitamin D available. The best examples include milk and fatty fish such as salmon and halibut. Some foods, like fish and eggs, naturally contain vitamin D. Other foods are fortified, or have vitamin D added to them, such as milk, soy beverage, and some yogurts. You can tell if a food contains vitamin D if it is listed in the ingredient list, and by looking on the Nutrition Facts label.

But as you will see from the chart to the right of this column, it's pretty tough for the average person to get the required amount of vitamin D from food alone.

As a result, many people may choose to boost the vitamin D they receive from food by taking a supplement. There are two supplement forms of vitamin D - D2 and D3. If choosing a supplement look for vitamin D3 (or cholecaliciferol), as the body absorbs it best.

Multivitamins may also be used as supplements for vitamin D, but they may not be enough on their own. Fish liver oil, such as cod or halibut, can provide your body with vitamin D as well, but use of fish liver oil is cautioned, since these products can contain high amounts of vitamin A.

Vitamin A is found in many foods we eat, and consuming too much through food and supplements could be harmful. Therefore, if you choose to take a supplement to get more vitamin D, take a vitamin D3 supplement rather than a multivitamin or fish liver oil.

By watching what you eat and, if needed, taking the right supplements, you should be able to ensure you get the right amount of vitamin D. At least until the warm sunny days of summer return, and winter is just a memory.

Amber Miller is a registered dietitian with the Winnipeg Health Region.


About Wave

Wave is published six times a year by the Winnipeg Health Region in cooperation with the Winnipeg Free Press. It is available at newsstands, hospitals and clinics throughout Winnipeg, as well as McNally Robinson Books.

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