The Need For Vitamin Supplements
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Nutrient News
June 19, 2000

The Need For Vitamin Supplements

From "Experts: Poor Hurt Health With Lack of Vitamins"
By Maggie Fox, Health and Science Correspondent
from Reuters, June 19, 2000

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Americans may be worried that radiation, toxic chemicals and even cell telephones are causing cancer but in fact their poor diets are more likely to be the culprit, experts studying nutrition say.  A lack of the vitamins found in fruits and vegetables could be damaging people's DNA, causing the damage associated with cancer, the experts told a conference sponsored in part by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS). ``Wherever you turn around ... the poor are eating such poor diets I think they are battering their DNA, causing cancer and maybe damaging their brains,'' Bruce Ames of the University of California, Berkeley, said in a telephone interview at the close of last week's conference.

Researchers told the conference, held at the Children's Hospital Oakland Research Institute, Americans are failing to eat the minimum recommended five servings a day of fruits and vegetables. Katherine Tucker of Tufts University in Boston cited U.S. Department of Agriculture studies that showed Americans with the lowest incomes ate as much as richer people, but their diets were lower in vitamins. She told the conference a study of Hispanic elders in Massachusetts found ``blood measurements confirmed the high prevalence of poor vitamin B status.''

A California study found that only one in three residents of the state reported eating five or more servings of fruits and vegetables a day -- the minimum recommended amount. This translates into vitamin deficiencies which, in turn, mean altered DNA, Ames said. ``What is becoming clear is that there is a tremendous amount of DNA damage in people from not having their vitamins and minerals,'' said Ames, a professor of biochemistry and director of the NIEHS center. ``People, when they think of cancer, they think of chemicals in the water or pesticide residue. I just think it's all a distraction.'' Many vitamins act as antioxidants, preventing the damage, known as oxidation, that changes DNA and allows cells to become cancerous. ``If you don't get your vitamins C and E, it is like irradiating yourself,'' Ames said.

Folic acid, a B vitamin, may be particularly important. Christine Skibola and Martyn Smith of Berkeley found one gene involved in a person's susceptibility to leukemia helps process folate. ``Our results suggest that folate metabolism may play a key role in the development of acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL),'' they wrote. Ames's team has shown in past studies that cells from people deficient in folic acid contained specific genetic mistakes. ''Now we have shown that B6 deficiency does the same thing,'' Ames said.

Australian researchers told the conference they found vitamin B12 deficiency can damage chromosomes, and other research suggested that people deficient in zinc and iron may also suffer genetic damage. ``You can solve all these problems with a multivitamin pill,'' Ames said. ``...It's very hard to get poor to change their diets and they are just not doing it. I think you should tell them to eat five portions of fruit and vegetables a day and take vitamins as insurance.''

The Institute of Medicine, which advises the nation on such matters, says people should try to get their vitamins from food. Yet the IoM recommended for the first time in 1997 and 1998 that people take supplements -- of calcium, to prevent osteoporosis, and of folic acid, shown to reduce the risk of birth defects. But earlier this year the institute warned against taking too many supplements, saying high levels of vitamin C can cause diarrhea, too much vitamin E may increase the risk of stroke and excessive selenium can cause hair loss and brittle nails.

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