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To "B" or Not To "B"?

  Last April a panel enlisted by the venerable National Academy of Sciences announced that a good diet just isn't good enough: Even people who eat lots of fruits and vegetables seldom get all the B vitamins they need. The panel, which is responsible for setting recommended dietary allowances, approximately doubled the RDA of the B vitamin known as folic acid, or folate, to 400 micrograms for adults. The scientists pointed out that Americans get only about 200 mcg a day on average and suggested that for many people supplements are the way to go.

Evidence is mounting that folic acid, along with B-6 and B-12, has the power to protect against heart attacks, and possibly strokes, too. "It looks like getting B vitamins--from food or supplements--is nearly as important as stopping smoking, lowering high cholesterol, and controlling blood pressure in preventing a heart attack," says epidemiologist Eric Rimm from Harvard University. Last February Rimm and his colleagues reported that women who got ample folic acid and B6 suffered heart attacks only about half as often as women who took in meager amounts.

So you could get all you need from a daily bowl of fully fortified cereal, which delivers 400 mcg of folic acid. But could you stand the monotony? You could vow to eat more lentils and spinach and to drink more orange juice, and more power to you.

  But keep in mind that folic acid in food is fickle--unstable and also more difficult for your body to use than the synthetic variety used in vitamins or sprayed onto cereal.

As for B-6, it's found in a wide variety of foods including chicken, turkey, bananas, watermelon, and potatoes. Nevertheless, many people don't get enough--15% of young women and up to half of women over 50, according to the government panel.

Vitamin B-12 is also thought to play an important part in sweeping your body clean of homocysteine. Moreover, researchers long ago established that it is crucial of red blood cells as well as in the functioning of the nervous system. A severe deficiency can produce symptoms that range from irritating to horrifying--from tingling or loss of feeling in the hands and feet to irreversible dementia.

To serve you well, these vitamins must be in the proper balance. An overload of folic acid can disguise symptoms of B-12 deficiency, for example. Besides, excessive doses of some B's can be dangerous in their own rights.

The title of a recent editorial in the New England Journal of Medicine summed the facts up this way: "Eat Right and Take A Multivitamin."
"The Vitamin Revolution: B,D,E", Harriet A. Washington, Health, September 1998


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