The Vitamin Era

Food traditions are important to families, especially at Easter.  Our observance started Saturday morning, with the children’s Easter egg hunt.  Dozens of children scrambled to find hidden eggs, while the morning sun competed with a refreshing ocean breeze to relax the adults.  Afterwards, we had a family breakfast.  On Sunday we worshipped in the morning and gathered for family dinner in the afternoon.  We didn’t have ham this year, there were already two ham bones in our freezer.  The menu featured slow-roasted brisket of beef, Skip’s scalloped potatoes (recipe to follow), peas, green salad, and orange rolls.  Yes, deviled eggs too.  After dinner we took a sunset stroll back to the park so the grandchildren could find the last of the hidden eggs, and then returned home for strawberry shortcake (using a new, healthier recipe). And we started a new tradition, a game to see who had the toughest Easter egg.  Our best Easter ever?  Yes, and our saddest.

Our daughter called Saturday evening in tears: long time friends had lost an exceptional daughter to an auto accident as she traveled home for Easter.  You have ties to this family too, in a way, for the mother is the source of our featured recipe: Beth’s Vegetarian Enchiladas.  Our daughter hurried to the home to offer condolences.  She couldn’t help but notice how the family table, carefully prepared for the next day’s Easter dinner, included a place setting for the daughter who would not come this way again.

The second death was a person with whom we had worshipped for years; she passed away on the day known as Good Friday.  She was 62 and had never married.  A decade before she had declined surgery for an ovarian cancer, because she had not given up her dream of marriage and motherhood.   A woman risking her life for a dim chance of creating life?  The idea is at once irrational yet deeply moving. 

So our thoughts on Easter morning, stirred by the music of the day, were about the preciousness of life.  We eat well not to live forever, but to live well.  And vitamins are very much a part of living well.  I apologize for this unusual introduction to vitamins, but the events of the weekend have given new meaning to old truths. 

New Knowledge

The discovery of vitamins in the first half of the past century created a sensation.  As vitamins are exogenous, meaning not produced by the body, we must get them in our diet.  People were fascinated at the power of microscopic quantities of chemicals to cure dreaded deficiency diseases like scurvy (vitamin C), beriberi (B1), and rickets (D).  The first discoveries (there are 13 known vitamins) were made in Europe but World War I intervened and American science gained prominence.  With the discovery of vitamins, the idea began to grow that we knew just about everything that could be known of nutrition.  In America, anything that fascinates soon becomes a business and vitamins were no exception.  In our next post we’ll take a closer look at the business of vitamins.

The discovery of vitamins illustrates the problem of nutrition done the American way—new knowledge rather than helping often has the opposite result of making thing worse.  There is that saying, you know, “a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing.”  When we cured the vitamin deficiency diseases with synthetic vitamins, we began to believe that manufactured molecules could heal whatever ailed us.  Futurists speculated that a meal could someday be taken in a single pill, a great labor and time saver.  There was a corresponding loss of respect for the sanctity of natural foods.  Fortunately, this is being rediscovered.

The best vitamin factories are plants, or the creatures that eat plants.  The picture above shows natural sources for vitamins (I was surprised at the concentration of B complex vitamins and vitamin E in sunflower seeds).  This is the traditional and optimum way to get our vitamins—through a variety of colorful whole foods.  Because much of the standard American diet consists of food-like, factory-made concoctions, we now live in a state of sub-clinical vitamin deficiency.  Sub-clinical means the consequences aren’t serious enough to notice.  This low-level deficiency is referred to as insufficiency.  Long-term vitamin insufficiency is a little-studied medical condition but is suspected to play a role in the development of chronic disease.  In the richest of nations, vitamin insufficiency is widespread.  What are our most serious vitamin insufficiencies today?  Here are three:

Vitamin D:  There is controversy (previously reviewed here) regarding the optimum level.  Bottom line is we don’t know for sure, but some argue that higher levels are protective of a number of diseases.  If they’re right, most Americans are deficient or at least insufficient and this is a risk factor for a number of chronic diseases.  In northern latitudes wintertime vitamin D deficiency can be a health problem.

Folate: Previously discussed here, folate is the preform of Vitamin B9 (folic acid is a synthetic form), and is a common deficiency that raises the risk of neural tube birth defects.  The 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans strongly urges women capable of becoming pregnant to supplement as needed to get 400 mcg folic acid daily.

Vitamin B12:  B12 is vital to building red blood cells, to DNA formation, and nervous system health.  Insufficiency is a risk factor for anemia, fatigue, irritability, depression, cognitive loss, mental disorders, stroke, elevated homocysteine (a cause of atherosclerosis and heart disease), and may be a cause of Alzheimer’s disease.  Add infertility and recurrent fetal loss to the list.  The nature of these conditions makes diagnosis difficult so B12 deficiency is often overlooked.  Long-term vegans are at risk for B-12 deficiency but insufficiency is widespread, especially among the elderly.  The Framingham Study found 40% of adults 26-83 years of age to be insufficient and 9% were outright deficient.


Bottom line:  In the U.S. there is widespread vitamin insufficiency due to the spread of processed foods.  The solution is to eat a diet rich in natural sources of vitamins.  John A. and Leah Widtsoe understood this back in 1937 when they wrote their book, The Word of Wisdom, and stated:  “Let this be emphasized: one is much safer in taking vitamins and minerals from natural foods than from artificially prepared drug products.”

Please add comments and from your vitamin experience.

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Reader Comments (16)


There are no words for the tragedy that your friends have suffered this weekend. I know I won't be the only one whose heart breaks for their loss. Also sorry about your 62 year old friend as well. Very sad, but I imagine from what you've said of her she must have been a lesson in courage and hope.

Regarding vitamins, my eyes were opened to "the American way" of thinking on this when I was pregnant and living in Europe in 2005. They sort of roll their eyes in our (Americans) general direction when it comes to our thinking that taking a vitamin is going to fix the problem. Since then I've been trying to make sure to get more vitamins from the food I'm eating. Still this post is super helpful in keeping that motivation and I've printed out the picture to hang in the kitchen so I can remind myself to make sure I've included a variety of the foods pictured in our meals during each day. So, thank you so much for that!

April 25, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJoy Fisher

I am sorry to hear about the deaths of the past weekend. I suppose Easter is a very good time to remind us of what lies beyond the veil and the joy that can be experienced there :)

I like this post on vitamins a lot. We are primarily a non-processed food family and I cook from scratch almost every night. My husband and children don't like as colorful a plate as I do but we are working on that...slowly. At least I've convinced them to switch to whole grains and brown rice. I personally enjoy a plate of many colors. However, I am still nervous that we do not get all the vitamins we need! I am pregnant with our 3rd and thought that this time around I would not take prenatal vitamins but chickened out in the end and bought some that were expensive, plant based, vegan, blah blah blah but I don't know if I REALLY need them. Honestly, I don't even really know what a true serving size is and how many I'm supposed to get a day and I get really overwhelmed with everything we are supposed to intake. So, having said that, do you have any suggestions or could you write a post on serving sizes and maybe even give an example of what would constitute a full days worth of vitamins in foods, which I assume would also cover the recommended intake of foods from the food guide pyramid. I have also heard now that some vitamins cancel out other vitamins or the effectiveness of them and so I keep thinking taking my pre-natals are again futile. But, I'm still too chicken to stop taking them because if something is wrong with my baby I don't want to feel like I could have remedied that by taking more of a certain vitamin!

April 25, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterNikki

I give my kid vitamin B2 since he cannot eat any milk, eggs, nuts or fish (and only a little bit of soj).
His pediatrician recommended adding B2 to his oat milk instead. I sometimes wonder if this is the only think i should give him 'extra' - but since he eats reasonably healthy - i try not to worry about it.
This post makes me uneasy though, if i see how many of the 'foods' in the picture above he cannot eat.

April 26, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLieve

Nikki, congratulations for your upcoming third child. We'll return to vitamins in the next post. I'll look for studies that address vitamin sources for pregnancy but don't get your hopes up. There are big ethical issues around the study of pregnancy and nutrition and science isn't good at taking on such difficult questions. It's a crime that mothers-to-be like yourself don't have better answers to such basic questions. I had a personal conversation with an expectant mom this week with a similar issue, unsure whether it was safer to take the pills being pushed at her, or to rely on natural sources. You made the conservative, cautious decision—I would not call that "chickening out". Best to you.

April 26, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSkip Hellewell

Skip, my condolences to you and your family over the loss of two loved ones. It is a true blessing to have a knowledge of Christ's resurrection, and a testimony that we can be reunited with our loved ones again!
Thank you so much for these posts. I have really enjoyed reading them, and they have helped me as I work to make healthy changes to my diet.
Nikki, I have been through two pregnancies, and only took prenatal vitamins sporadically with each one (hardly at all with my most recent). My mother, who had six children, did not take prenatal vitamins at all after her first pregnancy. My siblings and I, and my kids are healthy and strong! I'm not a medical expert, but I think that as long as you are able to consume a healthy and diverse diet you should be okay. I hope this helps.

April 26, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJessG

What a small world we live in. I think I know the loss you mentioned. I didn't know B, but have many friends who knew her well, and have felt a great sense of sadness and loss among them. May the Lord bless and keep her family and friends, and may each heart glow brighter with the hope of a resurrection and eternal life.

April 26, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMichelle

I'm sorry for your loss.

Thanks for the terrific posts. I look forward to them!

April 26, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJayne

Skip, My heart aches for the loss for those left behind. Our prayers are with those on both side of the veil in their new callings.
I love this article ( no surprise) .Thank you for all you and your family do.

Oh I shouted for joy at work last night and wished I had your phone # because I wanted to call you right a way. I finally some found some reliable info on canning with juices and less sugar.

What do you think?

April 26, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterHeather

Heather thanks for the tip on canning without sugar. Has anyone tried these recipes? ( Strawberry season is here, we'll try it.

April 26, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSkip Hellewell

Skip - I'm so sorry for your loss. I think we all feel to "mourn with those that mourn". I appreciate you sharing your personal experience and hope your friends will be comforted by your love and support for them.

Thank you again for taking the time to post on such an interesting topic. It seems there is some debate whether or not to take prenatal vitamins or give your kids vitamins or take them personally. I've heard that if your body has an abundance of any type of vitamin it will just flush it out. I always took prenatal vitamins with all six of my pregnancies and figured it was better to have it flushed out than to not have it. Have you heard otherwise? Can it be damaging to take vitamins that your body doesn't need?

April 27, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLauren

My parents are big believers in vitamins will cure all! It's been hard to change my thinking, but my very analytical husband is helping learn the real science of vitamins. My youngest is 4 mos old and I'm still taking prenatals for him, but now I'm thinking I'll stop. I'm almost out of kid vitamins for my two oldest and I'm thinking I won't buy more. Their doctor may flip, especially about vitamin D. My kids (4.5 & 2 yrs) have been eating better lately, so I'm hoping they will be okay. Yesterday for snacks (while out in the park) I only brought really healthy things (dried fruit, ww tortillas, carrots and nuts) and they actually ate them! In the past my daughter dramatically starves if she doesn't like what is offered. So the change has been hard, but so good. Also, often for "dessert" I'll make a fruit smoothy for the kids (berries, bananas, nuts, spinach, and carrots usually) which seems to help them get some of the vitamins that may have been lacking during the day.

Thank you, Skip. This blog has helped push me to do what I know I needed to do.

On another note: do you know anything about probiotics? My 4 mo old (only breastfed) has really bad eczema. I've stopped eating dairy (since he might be allergic), but two friends of mine said to give him probiotics (non dairy). I'm nervous to give him supplements of any kind. The doctor just says to treat it with hydrocortisone but that doesn't "fix" the problem. I'd love to hear your thoughts if you know anything on the subject of probiotics and/or eczema.

April 28, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterKiasa

When I was pregnant, my OB remarked that his grandma used to make him take vitamins, but when she passed away, he quit and never took them again. He laughed and said he didn't see a difference, but then reminded me to take my prenatals. I hate those things. They are huge and gross, so I wasn't extremely faithful at taking them. I wish I knew how much of a difference it really makes to take them.

April 28, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSacha

Kiassa, getting your children (and spouse) to eat well is the ultimate test of your leadership. It helps if TV viewing is restricted, as processed and fast foods are promoted on TV. Most of the years we were rearing our children we didn't have TV so that helped. (They saw enough at their friends' homes to know what was going on in the world.)

I don't claim any special knowledge of eczema but sometimes it is confused with, or made worse by, food allergies. Most infants grow out of it, as you likely have been told. There isn't strong evidence that it's diet related but the cause remains unknown. Regarding probiotics, there are literally trillions of beneficial bacteria living in our gut including thousands of different varieties. Eating probiotics shouldn't hurt.

Sacha, lots of people have issues with prenatal vitamins. The degree to which they help, I suspect, depends on the healthiness of your diet. They may help people with deficient diets. Because of the ethical issues around neonatal experimentation, we may never know the good or bad they do. Best to you.

April 28, 2011 | Registered CommenterSkip Hellewell

Kiasa. First I LOVE your blog! Two of my seven children are cow milk lactose intolerant. We switched to goats milk ( which for the record -without vanilla- tastes like fur to me) My Ped says it is the only milk other than milk that a babe can drink straight from the womb. I still nursed at 4 mos and one of my sons had problems with eczema. I started taking the probiotics myself....thus he could get the benefits through my milk. I noticed with eliminating both cow's milk ( even in soaps) and me taking it, cleared up the eczema.

April 28, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterHeather

Skip, thanks so much for your insights.

Heather, I'm so glad you like my blog. It's my creative outlet right now with three little ones. Thank you for sharing your experience with eczema. I dont' know why I didn't think of taking probiotics myself. Of course that makes sense!

April 29, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterKiasa
September 14, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterSanju

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