Veronika Powell MSc from Viva! Health talks to us about the importance of making sure you have enough Vitamin C in your diet.
Vitamin C is so familiar we don’t pay much attention to it and yet… it’s easy to not get enough in your diet, particularly if you rely on processed and convenience foods. Almost anything with vitamin C in it (also known as ascorbic acid) is hailed as a healthy food but is that simply a marketing trick? Let’s find out…
Why do we need it?
Vitamin C is essential for the growth and repair of all the tissues in the human body. It helps make collagen, an important protein which is one of the basic components in the skin, cartilage, tendons, ligaments and blood vessels. It follows that vitamin C is also necessary for wound healing and for healthy bones and teeth.
Extreme cases of vitamin C deficiency can lead to scurvy – a potentially fatal disease that used to be common amongst sailors. Its symptoms include gum bleeding and swelling, purple and bleeding skin, muscle and joint pain and tiredness – simply because the body cannot make collagen and maintain all its tissues. Scurvy was eradicated with the introduction of lemons, oranges and lemon juice in the naval diet but it still sometimes occurs in people with very poor or limited diets.
You probably think of vitamin C as an antioxidant and you’re right – a very powerful antioxidant that helps to protect our cells, DNA and organs from free radicals – dangerous metabolism by-products that can cause considerable damage.
And as if that wasn’t enough, vitamin C also helps your body to absorb iron from the foods you eat. It’s good to remember that when planning your meals – have fresh fruit with your morning cereal, peppers or tomatoes with a bean chilli or casserole and a smoothie with a snack of nuts and seeds.
Natural or supplements?
It really is easy to get sufficient vitamin C from a healthy diet but if you eat mostly processed food, your levels might be low. Cigarette smoking also reduces the amount of vitamin C in the body, so smokers need to have higher intakes.
It’s always best to get this vital vitamin from foods rather than supplements. Foods that are rich in it offer multiple health benefits, not least because they come with other useful nutrients by default. Not only are supplements unlikely to be as effective, they certainly can’t make up for an unhealthy diet. Most experts are clear on this and recommend foods over supplements.
If you take large amounts of vitamin C – more than 1,000 mg daily – which is easy to achieve with supplements, it shouldn’t cause any serious problems but can lead to stomach pain, diarrhoea and/or flatulence without offering any additional benefits to compensate for this discomfort. And contrary to popular belief, vitamin C supplements don’t help prevent colds or flu but a healthy diet which includes vitamin C-rich foods will help to keep your immune system strong.
How much and where from?
You can get your daily dose of vitamin C from one orange, one sweet pepper, one kiwi fruit, eight strawberries, a 100g portion of cooked or a 50g portion of raw broccoli, one cup (about 250ml) of chopped cooked kale, just over one cup of chopped cooked spring greens, two cups of cherry tomatoes or two cups of berries.
|Recommended Daily Intake of Vitamin C|
|Children under 10 years||25-30 mg|
|Women||40 mg (50 mg in the last trimester of pregnancy)|
|Smokers need at least 80 mg.|
The best sources are: citrus fruit, papaya, pineapple, cantaloupe melon, strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, blackcurrants, kiwi, mango, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, kale, fresh spinach, spring greens, tomatoes, peppers and potatoes.
Vitamin C is sensitive to heat and light so it’s best to eat the foods that contain it either raw or only lightly cooked. For example if you steam broccoli for five minutes, it will retain most of its vitamin C content but if you boil it until mushy, it will lose a considerable amount. That’s also why canned fruit and vegetables are not a good vitamin source – they are exposed to high heat during the canning process which destroys vitamin C.
As soon as a fruit or vegetable is picked, its vitamin C content starts to decline. The process can be slowed down by refrigerating and storing the food whole. Fresh fruit and vegetables are always best eaten soon after picking but if you are keeping them in the fridge for a couple of weeks, you’ll be better off with frozen produce. This is especially true for berries which are usually frozen within hours from picking, thus preserving their nutrients far better than when they spend days in transport and on shop shelves. If you add a handful of berries to your breakfast, you’re day is off to a healthy start.
Don’t vegans get enough by default?
Many vegans do but it’s not a given. Vitamin C is present in most fruits and vegetables but if you eat only an apple and a banana in a day, that’s not enough to cover your daily needs. Dried fruit isn’t a good source either as most vitamin C is lost in the process. Perhaps surprisingly, potatoes are a good source of vitamin C with a large baked potato or a medium portion of boiled potatoes covering half of your daily needs. That’s not to say you should eat potatoes every day and it’s certainly not true for crisps!
Aim to eat a serving of fresh fruit or vegetables with every meal, including snacks and make green leafy vegetables a staple of your dinners and you’ll be fine.
Viva!Health is a part of the charity Viva!. We monitor scientific research linking diet to health and provide accurate information on which you can make informed choices about the food you eat – www.vivahealth.org.uk.