We’re often told to think of food as fuel, as if our bodies were cars powered by servings of protein, carbohydrates and fat. True enough—but when you look under the hood, so to speak, there’s another level of activity made possible by micronutrients we rarely think of (and may not even be aware of). These micronutrients—choline, coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10), potassium and B12—are crucial to the proper functioning of cells, making it possible for you to think, move and breathe. Unfortunately, most of us fall short on some of these four essentials.
One big reason we’re deficient: The rush-rush of everyday life leaves little room for home-cooked meals, and the processed foods we’re settling for don’t provide us with ample amounts of nutrients such as potassium, says Susan Kleiner, PhD, RD, owner of High Performance Nutrition in Mercer Island, Washington. What’s more, some of our health-inspired moves—avoiding meat and eggs, taking anticholesterol drugs—may actually contribute to shortages of vitamins such as choline and B12. And even if our diets are dead-on, our bodies get less efficient at absorbing many nutrients (such as CoQ10) as we age. This means that after menopause we may need to consume more of some nutrients in order to receive the same benefits we got when we were younger.
Here are four power nutrients you need—why they’re important, why you may be missing them and how you can easily get back up to speed. Note that doctors rarely test for deficiencies; you can guess you’re not getting optimal amounts of these essentials if you fall into certain categories—for instance, if you’re a strict vegetarian or vegan. Always check with your physician before you change your regimen.
Power nutrient: Choline
Biggest benefit: Mental sharpness
Choline is a type of B vitamin that aids in the synthesis and release of acetylcholine, the most abundant neurotransmitter in the body. Additionally, this micronutrient is necessary for the production of fatty molecules that help create the channels that allow nutrients to enter brain cells and toxins to exit them. “Choline is responsible for every thought and every movement you make,” Kleiner says. “Without choline, you cannot have a healthy brain.”
Who’s falling short: Egg avoiders; postmenopausal women
“Choline is found in very limited amounts in foods. Egg yolks are an excellent source, but because it’s been drummed into our heads that we should eat only the whites of eggs, we’ve been dumping our only major supplier of choline down the drain,” Kleiner says. After menopause, women also face an increased risk of a deficiency. A 2007 study found that estrogen activates a gene in the liver that produces choline. That means premenopausal women may be relatively resistant to a deficiency, but postmenopausal women, with their lower estrogen levels, may need to consume more of this vitamin.
The fix: Egg yolks have gotten a bad rap because they contain a lot of dietary cholesterol. But nutrition experts now know that dietary cholesterol plays a much smaller role than saturated fat in raising “bad” (LDL) blood cholesterol. If, like most Americans, you get only half the required 425 milligrams of choline a day, you’ll boost your consumption significantly (113 milligrams) by eating one whole egg a day. To bring your total even higher, make sure your multivitamin includes at least 200 milligrams of choline, suggests Russell H. Greenfield, MD, clinical assistant professor of medicine at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Medicine.
Power nutrient: Coenzyme Q10 (CoQ0
Biggest benefit: A strong heart
CoQ10 is a vitamin-like substance that’s an essential part of the biochemical chain that forms adenosine triphosphate (ATP). A complex molecule, ATP contains high-energy bonds that the body uses to power every single one of its functions. In other words, ATP is the primary energy currency of the cell. “Without CoQ10, ATP would not be created, and you would not be able to walk, breathe, pump the heart or survive at all,” says Christine Gerbstadt, MD, RD, spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. The cells that have the highest concentration of CoQ10 are those with the greatest energy demands, such as ones found in the heart, liver, kidneys and pancreas.
CoQ10 also works as an antioxidant, protecting cells from the damaging effects of free radicals. “In this regard, CoQ10 is on the level of vitamin E and vitamin C,” says Kleiner. CoQ10 has been recognized for over a decade for its ability to help treat heart conditions like congestive heart failure and cardiomyopathy. A study published in Cardiovascular Drugs and Therapy found that people who took daily CoQ10 supplements within three days of a heart attack were significantly less likely to experience another heart attack and less likely to die of heart disease than those who didn’t receive the supplements. “Since heart disease is the leading cause of death among women, it’s important that we get enough CoQ10,” says Katherine Mone, RD, clinical dietitian in the preventive cardiology department at the Cleveland Clinic.
CoQ10’s benefits don’t stop at the heart. Some research has shown that many patients with hypertension have a CoQ10 deficiency; once that’s fixed, their blood pressure can fall by a small but significant amount. What’s more, taking this micronutrient as a supplement may slow the progression of Parkinson’s disease: In a multicenter, double-blind trial published in the Archives of Neurology, patients in the early stages of the disease who received CoQ10 had 44 percent less deterioration in cognitive function, mood, activities of daily living and motor skills than those who were given a placebo.
Who’s falling short: People taking statin drugs
These popular cholesterol-lowering drugs inhibit the internal production of CoQ10. In addition, the ability to absorb and synthesize CoQ10 diminishes as we age, which puts people over 65 at risk for a deficiency.
The fix: Although CoQ10 is found in small amounts in foods like red meat, fish and chicken, it’s tough to get enough from your diet. If you take statins, Greenfield recommends supplementing your diet with 60 to 100 milligrams of CoQ10 a day. The micronutrient is absorbed best in gelcap form, taken at mealtime with a bit of fat. But make sure you get the go-ahead from your doctor: CoQ10 can interfere with certain medications, like blood thinners.
Power nutrient: Potassium
Biggest benefit: Optimal blood pressure
When there’s a tight balance between the potassium that’s inside cells and the sodium that’s outside them, crucial fluids can move easily in and out of cells. A shortage of potassium throws off this important “partnership,” says Kleiner. For instance, when you have too little potassium in your bloodstream, your heart muscles work less efficiently; your blood vessels compensate by constricting, which increases their pumping ability—and raises your blood pressure. On the other hand, people who consume a diet high in potassium and low in sodium can experience a real health boost. A study published last year in the Archives of Internal Medicine found that subjects with the most potassium relative to sodium intake had the lowest risk of dying from heart attack or stroke over a period of almost 15 years.
Who’s falling short: Pretty much all of us
The 2010 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee called potassium one of the key nutrients Americans are deficient in. According to the report, we consume an average of 2,400 milligrams a day—only about half of the adequate intake (or AI, the recommended average daily nutrient intake level set by the Institute of Medicine) of 4,700 milligrams a day. “We’ve been so focused on getting less sodium that we’ve neglected the importance of getting enough potassium,” says Kleiner.
The fix: Shoot for three or four servings of potassium-packed foods a day, recommends Gerbstadt. “Most people think first of bananas, but there are many other foods just as rich or better,” she says. For example, one medium potato (including the skin) contains 926 milligrams of potassium, compared with 422 in a medium banana. Foods especially high in potassium include spinach, carrot juice, prune juice, beet greens, white beans, papayas, dried apricots, avocados and salmon. Warning: Do not take a potassium supplement without a doctor’s OK. If you have kidney problems or take diuretics, you may have trouble excreting high levels of this mineral from your body.
Power nutrient: Vitamin B12
Biggest benefit: A healthy nervous system
The nervous system, which includes the brain, depends on B vitamins to help it run smoothly. So getting enough of this nutrient is key to staying mentally on the ball. In a randomized trial, researchers in the United Kingdom showed that a high dose of B vitamins, including B12, B6 and folic acid, slowed the rate of brain atrophy in elderly men and women suffering from mild cognitive impairment. “People who are vitamin B12 deficient have problems thinking, walking and moving. The vitamin plays a role in keeping us sharp both physically and mentally,” says Kleiner.
B12 also plays a crucial role in producing red blood cells, and a shortage of the vitamin can lead to a decline in these oxygen carriers, a serious condition known as pernicious anemia.
In addition, a shortfall of B12 can lead to an overabundance in the body of a substance called homocysteine, which is used to build protein. An excess of homocysteine has been associated with an elevated risk for strokes and certain types of heart disease.
Who’s falling short: Anyone over 50; strict vegetarians or vegans
Getting vitamin B12to circulate in your body is a complicated matter. First, stomach acids have to dissolve the protein that the B12was attached to when you ate, say, a piece of steak. Then, before the vitamin can move through your gastrointestinal tract, it has to combine in the stomach with a protein called intrinsic factor. As we grow older, the levels of both stomach acid and intrinsic factor decrease, so it becomes more challenging for the body to utilize B12. “A deficit is not necessarily about how little B12you eat. It’s often about not being able to absorb the vitamin properly,” says Gerbstadt. Result? Up to 39 percent of people over 50 are walking around with low levels of this nutrient.
A deficiency can also arise from your diet. Since B12 is found almost exclusively in animal products, strict vegetarians or vegans who eschew not just meat but also eggs and dairy products can be prone to shortfalls.
The fix: While vitamin B12 is abundant in animal foods, including fish, meat, eggs and dairy, because of the absorption issue, the National Academy of Sciences recommends that people over 50 play it safe by getting some synthetic B12 from fortified foods (breakfast cereals, for instance) or supplements. The advantage of the synthetic form: Your body can use it without first processing it via stomach acid. For those who go the supplement route, Greenfield recommends taking 25 to 50 micrograms a day in a sublingual form (you put a lozenge under the tongue until it dissolves; the large number of blood vessels there helps the B12 get absorbed readily). B12 injections are also a possibility and are especially useful if you have low levels of intrinsic factor in your stomach.
Next: 27+ Age-Defying Eats
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