By Megan Reece Thomas
I wrote recently that by aiming to get enough of one vitamin, mineral or another, you tend to get extra of other vitamins and minerals because most whole foods are abundant in more than one nutrient. We talked about zinc recently, found in abundance in oysters and meats. On the other side of the coin is vitamin A, found mostly in green, orange and yellow vegetables and fruits, fortified dairy products and eggs.
Vitamin A is a fat-soluble vitamin that plays many roles in our bodies. One of its forms, beta-carotene, is important for healthy vision. In fact, vitamin A deficiency is the leading cause of blindness in the world.
The vitamin also acts as an antioxidant; and athletes take note here. Physically active people need to be careful to get plenty of antioxidants in their diets. When we are active, a by-product of increased oxygen and energy use is free radicals. If uncontrolled, free radicals can cause cell damage, which can lead to cancer. Luckily, antioxidants are the key to neutralizing free radicals. So, by getting enough vitamin A in your diet, you can help to protect your body from damage.
Vitamin A is easy to get, but it is one of the four nutrients that Americans are deficient in that can cause the most harm. Iron, calcium and vitamin C are the other three. Ten baby carrots (or about an ounce) contain 70 percent of the vitamin A an adult needs in a day, which is between 700 and 900 micrograms. If Americans are deficient in the vitamin, it’s probably because they are not eating their vegetables!
Vitamin A is important to your body’s health, but it can definitely be overdone. If there’s one motto that Americans seem to live by, it’s “if some is good, more must be better!” But that is absolutely not the case with vitamin A. In excess, the vitamin is a potent poison, causing liver damage and death in extreme cases, as well as serious birth defects. So taking a vitamin A supplement is not only a bad idea, but possibly a dangerous one. Even a person who drinks excessive amounts of carrot juice is at risk for vitamin A toxicity.
That being said, vitamin A is the poster child for why eating a well-balanced diet based on whole foods is the best way to get your micronutrients. Eating an orange or yellow fruit or vegetable serving a day is going to get you to almost 100 percent of what you need. And even if you eat more than the recommended amount of vitamin A, you won’t have to worry too much about toxic levels. It’s the pills and potions that can get you into trouble. Aim for one to two servings of vitamin A-rich foods a day and you will be well on your way to good health.
Some Vitamin A–rich foods
Pureed pumpkin, ½ cup (2700 micrograms)
Small sweet potato (1300 mcg)
Cooked spinach, ½ cup (739)
Cantaloupe, 1 cup (561)
Two apricots (366)
Kale, ½ cup cooked (481)
Fortified skim milk, 1 cup (149)