Plenty, as it turns out. For the history buffs among you, the origin of vitamins is a fascinating story. By the 18th century, scientists were starting to realize the relationship between vitamins and health. They had discovered that adding citrus fruits to a diet would prevent scurvy.
British sailors turned out to be the unwitting guinea pigs. After three months on a long ocean trip, eating nothing but meat and cereals, the sailors began coming down with strange symptoms such as bleeding and swollen gums, swollen legs and arms, bleeding in the eyes, very dry skin, shortness of breath and hair loss. Some men were incapacitated and many died.
Once British ships were supplied with lime juice and marmalade, their illness-scurvy – disappeared and they became known as ‘limeys’. What they didn’t realize is that they were replenishing their bodies with vitamin C. interestingly; another term for vitamin C is ‘ascorbic acid’, which happens to be Latin for ‘with-out scurvy’.
This was a dramatic breakthrough but generally speaking, scientific understanding of nutritional principles progressed slowly. By the time the 20th century rolled around, scientists realized that substituting unpolished rice for processed rice would prevent beriberi, a vitamin B deficiency disease. The polished rice lacked vitamin B1 (Thiamin), which proved to be crucial in maintaining health. The polish chemist Casimir Funk discovered that the anti-beriberi substance in unpolished rice was an amine (a type of nitrogen-containing compound) so he called it vita-rice was an amine (a type of nitrogen- containing compound) so he called it vita-mine – for vital amine. It was later discovered that may vitamins don’t contain amines at all but the name stuck – without the ‘e’.
In 1906 the British scientist Frederick Hopkins proved that foods contained vital elements besides proteins, carbohydrates, fats, minerals and water. Scientists, including Hopkins and Funk, isolated and identified vitamins after experimenting with animals by depriving them of certain foods and measuring the results. In 1912, Hopkins and Funk figured out that the absence of specific vitamins could lead to certain diseases. This might not seem so earth-shattering now but a hundred years ago, it was groundbreaking research.
It would be nice to report that our understanding of nutrition over the centuries has always taken us forward, but that’s not true. While generally there has been significant groundbreaking research done, some fallacies have also gained popularity.
Consider that just thirty years ago, in North American hospitals, patients in the intensive care cardiac unit were fed bacon and eggs for breakfast! A high-protein, high-fat diet was considered by many, including health professionals, to be very healthy. Today, many of us know better.
Our knowledge of nutrition and food has increased enormously in the past thirty years, but there are still many misconceptions firmly fixed in the average person’s mind. One fallacy that stubbornly persists is the idea that vitamins are a source of energy. They’re not – but they do help regulate the body’s metabolism so it can use and release energy from food.
Some vitamins also work with enzymes, helping the body with growth, maintenance and repair. There are 13 different vitamins, all of which are essential to good health because they cannot be made by the body. A basic knowledge of them is critical when it comes to staying healthy.
Vitamins fall into two categories – water soluble and fat soluble. Water soluble vitamins aren’t stored by the body for very long and so they need to be eaten regularly. Vitamin C and the B vitamins are water soluble – excess amounts aren’t stored but excreted through urine instead.
Vitamin A, D, E and K are the fat-soluble vitamins. Your diet needs to include some good fats in order to transport and store these vitamins. Excess amounts of vitamin A and D can be toxic if consumed in extremely high doses because they are stored and can build up to unhealthy levels. Most people, though, get too little, not too much. Refer to the vitamin chart at the end of this chapter to learn about specific vitamin roles and doses.