The Slimming Magic of Vitamin D Get Ready to Slim Down!
You’ve probably been told that weight loss takes time—that there’s nothing you can do to shrink fat faster. It feels like depressing news, especially at the end of the winter when you realize that—yet again—you’ve gained the “winter 15,” none of your clothes fit, and you now have to focus on extreme dieting just to feel comfortable trying on a bikini before your summer vacation plans. Good thing most of what you’ve been told just isn’t true! Based on the massive and growing body of research, we now know that you really can double your weight loss and zero in on your #1 trouble spot—your tummy—while you do it. Here are a few surprising things you can do to Slim Down: Eat so-called fattening foods. There’s simply no reason to live on egg whites, celery stalks, and chicken breasts. You can and should consume whole eggs, breakfast cereal, bread, dairy, and even cheese. These foods won’t give you a bloat baby, send your insulin through the roof, or turn you into a fat-storage machine, either. To the contrary, they are important weapons in your fat-fighting arsenal. Eat between meals. Snacking is actually one of the best ways to reduce cravings and stay true to your diet plan. You have the option of consuming up to two snacks a day. Drop pounds without feeling deprived, hungry, or fatigued. Have you ever experienced Diet-Induced Depression? It feels similar to PMS, and it tends to cause dieters to snap at loved ones over the most minor irritations. It also causes you to feel listless, crave comfort foods, and suffer from foggy thinking. It’s completely avoidable if you consume the right nutrients. Lose weight without postponing your life. You’ll even be able to eat dessert and drink a glass of wine every now and then. There is no one food that is completely off-limits, so you’ll never have to cancel a night out just because you’re trying to drop pounds. You can follow your diet plan anywhere—restaurants, holiday parties, you name it.
Getting enough D in your diet is critical to helping you melt fat, boost your metabolism, reduce your appetite, reduce the frequency and intensity of your cravings, and feel energetic enough to exercise and enjoy life. And yes, it will help you shed that muffin top for good! The evidence in support of D is anthropological, historical, biochemical, and statistical. It all comes together here to help you lose weight and feel better than ever. To help you fully understand just how important D is for your waistline and overall health, I’d like to take you on a brief journey through time. This journey starts millions of years ago. It continues through the caveman and hunter-gatherer era and progresses to the 1800s, 1900s, and eventually to the new millennium and today. Ready? Let’s go.
The Birth of Today’s Wonder Vitamin
LET’S TRAVEL BACK millions of years, to a time when humans didn’t yet inhabit the Earth. Nearly all of the world’s living beings still lived in the oceans, where they bathed in, drank, and breathed a calcium-rich fluid that helped them form their skeletons. Eventually some of these early creatures crept out of the oceans and onto dry land. On land, the need for a strong skeleton was greater, but they were no longer surrounded by calcium. So they adapted. These early land creatures developed the ability to produce an important nutrient in their skin, and that nutrient allowed them to make a small amount of calcium go a very long way. With the help of sunlight, the cholesterol in their skin converted into vitamin D, which then entered their bloodstream. The D allowed these early land creatures to absorb more calcium from the scant amounts found in the foods they consumed. This way, they got enough calcium to fuel all of the many electrical interactions in their bodies as well as strengthen their bones. Without this development, land creatures would have remained flimsy with soft bones-much like fish. They would not have been able to absorb enough calcium to survive. Because early humans spent so much time in the sun, their bodies were able to make 20,000 IU or more of D a day. Now fast-forward a couple hundred million years. Humans first entered the picture somewhere in Africa near the equator. These humans had very dark, melanin-rich skin. (Melanin is a pigment that gives skin, hair, and eyes their color. It also absorbs heat and UV radiation from the sun, protecting skin from burns and cancer.) Early humans needed this protection because they spent most of their days outdoors, either gathering food or hunting for it. Sure, there was no hole in the ozone layer back then and sunlight wasn’t quite as intense and damaging as it is today. But these early humans spent many more hours in the sun than we do today. The dark melanin-rich pigments in their skin helped them to avoid blistering sunburns. Their bodies adapted to high doses of D, and that vitamin became necessary to the proper functioning of every cell and tissue.
Then these humans did what humans seem to do best-they paired off, procreated, and made more humans! As the population grew, humans migrated farther and farther away from the equator. But in these regions north and south of the equator, the days grew shorter and the sun grew less intense. Now the melanin in their skin was problematic because it was filtering out too much sunlight. Some of these hunters and gatherers—especially the ones with the darkest skin tones—were having trouble making enough D from sunlight to support their skeletons. African-American skin allows only 3 to 36 percent of ultraviolet rays to pass and create D, while white skin allows 53 to 72 percent of UV rays in. As a result, the humans with the darkest skin became weak. Their bones grew brittle and they suffered many health problems. Some died during childbirth and many young D-deficient children died before adulthood. Consequently, vitamin D deficiency created a natural selection that caused skin color to evolve to become lighter and lighter. The farther north these humans migrated, the lighter their skin color became. In climates in the far north, lighter skin still wasn’t enough to ensure humans got enough D. These humans adapted by harvesting vitamin D-rich fish, which enabled them to live in dark, northern climates like Alaska and Scandinavia. So far, so good. Evolution and the survival of the fittest allowed humans to make no matter where they decided to live. Everything went along swimmingly for thousands of years (at least in terms of their vitamin D levels, that is). And then came the industrial revolution. From the 1700s through the early 1900s, people began leaving rural farm life and going to work in factories. That was when a strange and puzzling disease called rickets began to develop. Rickets caused bones to remain soft and flimsy, like the cartilage in fish. In young children, gravity molded these overly soft bones into deformities—bowed legs, knock-knees, and spinal misalignment. These children also suffered other debilitating symptoms: painful spasms, difficulty breathing, convulsions, nausea, and even death.
Initially, scientists and physicians were perplexed. They thought that, as with many other diseases of the time, poor hygiene might be the culprit. Some, however, thought that rickets, like scurvy, might be the result of a nutritional deficiency. These experts thought that the adults and children who got rickets just weren’t eating enough fresh vegetables. Other experts, however, blamed the disease on a lack of fresh air. Still others thought it developed from lack of exercise. Oddly, rickets seemed to disproportionately affect children who lived in urban areas. It took many years, but eventually scientists began to realize that city living was mainly dark and devoid of sunlight. People worked indoors. Children played indoors. Even when people were outdoors, buildings and smog blocked sunlight. Adults and children on farms, however, outdoors for much of the day, suffered far fewer cases of rickets. Could it be, scientists wondered, that sunlight was essential for good health? Back then scientists did not know what they know now. They didn’t know that a cholesterol-like substance in the skin (called 7-dehydrocholesterol) transforms into a precursor of vitamin D when it is bathed in ultraviolet light. This precursor is eventually transformed into active D through the help of the liver and kidneys. Back then, scientists didn’t know about D at all. It hadn’t even been discovered or named.
For this reason, they did not know precisely why sunlight might help cure rickets. They just suspected that it could. Other pieces of evidence seemed to confirm this hypothesis. For instance, the disease was much more rampant in people with darker skin colors—skin that blocked more sun rays. Scientists also noticed that rickets tended to worsen during the winter months and nearly disappear in the summer, when sunlight was more prevalent. Soon a cure for rickets was born: sunlight. Physicians began exposing babies to the sun for 15 minutes to an hour a day. It worked! They called it heliotherapy, a therapy that would later be used to treat various other diseases including depression and various skin conditions (like psoriasis). Around this time, a scientist named Sir Edward Mellanby was experimenting with different diets and seeing how they affected dogs that he happened to be raising and keeping indoors, without access to sunlight. The lack of sunlight was not intentional, it was merely convenient. Still, Mellanby discovered that feeding the dogs porridge (which is naturally devoid of D) induced rickets, whereas feeding them cod liver oil (which happens to be rich in D) cured it. Thus, in addition to sunlight, cod liver oil became a standard treatment and prevention for rickets. Soon parents were forcing children to down 1 to 3 teaspoons of the stuff a day. Today, fish oil comes in convenient, time-release capsules that are flavorless, and liquid fish oil is often infused with orange, lemon and other flavors to improve its taste. Back then, however, it was another story entirely. (My mother has told me stories of her own mother chasing her and her brother around their New York apartment, trying to get them to swallow the vile stuff. It smelled foul and tasted oily—the kind of oily that you can’t get out of your mouth once you get it in.) Initially, scientists didn’t know why cod liver oil or sunlight worked. One theory was that cod liver oil was rich in vitamin A, which had already been shown to cure another debilitating disease: beriberi. It wasn’t until another researcher did a similar experiment with cod liver oil lacking A that vitamin D was discovered and named. Soon food manufacturers were irradiating milk, bread, and other foods with ultraviolet light to produce D. Once these D-fortified foods hit the marketplace, rickets disappeared in the United States.
Not a Vitamin at All
IN THE 1960s, 70s, and 80s, true appreciation for D began to grow. Over the years, researchers realized that vitamin D was not actually a vitamin at all. Technically speaking, a vitamin is a vital substance that the body cannot make on its own. But, unlike other vitamins, the body can make D. And this D acts more like a hormone. In other words, D has more in common with the sex hormones estrogen and progesterone and the stress hormone cortisol than it has in common with vitamins A, C, and E. Researchers also realized that D might be more powerful and more important than just some substance that seems to prevent rickets. This realization began to surface in the late 1960s when Anthony W. Norman, PhD, at the University of California, Riverside and researchers at the University of Wisconsin and the University of Cambridge in England were all working to figure out the chemical structure of D and trace its journey through the body from skin to blood to liver to kidneys to cells. Norman discovered that cells in the intestines had receptors for D. When D plugged into these receptors—much as a key fits into a lock—it allowed more calcium to be absorbed into the bloodstream. It was a monumental discovery. Researchers already knew that calcium was an important mineral, one that was needed to build and maintain healthy bones. Calcium was also known to be important for the proper functioning of blood vessels, muscles, nerves, and cells. If D helped calcium get into the bloodstream, a person with a D deficiency would probably also develop a calcium deficiency—thus worsening the health of all of these bodily systems and tissues. In this roundabout way, a D deficiency could harm everything from bone health to the proper functioning of electrical signals among cells in the brain and elsewhere.
Over the years, researchers discovered that D did even more. In addition to helping the intestines absorb calcium, it also served as a signal that told bones to absorb calcium or to release it when it was needed elsewhere in the body. At first, however, it seemed as if calcium was the star and D was merely a supporting player—almost like calcium’s bodyguard. Eventually, however, experts began to see that it was actually the other way around. D seemed to be involved with much more than just calcium regulation. In the coming decades, Norman and many other researchers discovered more and more D receptors. They weren’t just in the intestines. They were also in the brain, in the heart, in hair follicles, on muscle cells, in bone marrow, on immune cells, in cancer cells, and, yes, even in fat cells. Researchers were able to find D receptors on nearly every cell, organ, and tissue in the body. D, as it turned out, was even important for gene regulation, an important finding when it came to the prevention of cancer. An increasing number of scientists now believe that D may affect diseases and disorders as disparate as colon cancer, multiple sclerosis, premenstrual syndrome, psoriasis, high blood pressure, depression, and more. Here’s a look at just some of the findings. Scientists now believe that D interacts with 2,000 genes: 6 percent of all the genes you have. That means that D is involved in just about every bodily reaction you can think of. If a reaction needs to take place in a fat cell, a muscle cell, or a brain cell, too little D can throw it off. And that’s precisely what study after study shows. Too little D can trigger all sorts of health woes, and bringing levels up to normal can cure them.
AUTOIMMUNE DISORDERS: Rats fed D had less inflammation and less overly aggressive immune responses when wounded or burned, showing that D might help to control overactive immune response in autoimmune diseases. In a different study, a topical version of D was used to control psoriasis, an autoimmune disease in the skin.
BODY WEIGHT: University of Michigan researchers found that D-deficient children tended to gain more fat over 30 months than children with normal levels of vitamin D.
LONGEVITY: People are more likely to die in the winter, when sunlight is less intense and our levels of D are lower.
Studies show that vitamin D decreases: risk of cancer, risk of developing type 2 diabetes by 55 percent, risk of developing multiple sclerosis by half, risk of getting heart disease by 33 percent.
MOOD: Vitamin D deficiency has also been shown to contribute to depression. Activated vitamin D in the adrenal glands helps regulate an enzyme necessary for the production of dopamine, epinephrine, and norepinephrine—the hormones critical to mood, stress management, and energy.
BLOOD SUGAR CONTROL: Vitamin D deficiency also impairs insulin production and increases insulin resistance.
Indeed—vitamin D has become one of the most studied “vitamins” of our time. In an interview Dr. Norman said that, back in 1969, he was just one of a few people who were studying D. Another was Michael Holick, PhD, MD, a professor at Boston University. Since those early days, interest in vitamin D has soared. Along the way, Dr. Norman has made a hobby of counting the number of studies that are published on D each year. Indeed, the research is robust and it’s convincing. D deficiency has also been linked to Crohn’s disease, rheumatoid arthritis, high blood pressure, thinning of the bones, joint and muscle pain, and depression. It can even raise your risk of getting dementia and Parkinson’s. Experts now believe that D deficiency might trigger or worsen just about any illness or disease you could possibly name. But on the plus side, if you replenish your D supply, you’ll be a much healthier—and fitter—person. Clearly, this is not one of those understudied fads. The importance of vitamin D is here to stay.
More Than Weight Loss
NOW, I KNOW you clicked up this article because you want to lose weight, and not necessarily because you want to beat cancer or strengthen your bones (although those are certainly added benefits). You’ll find all of the evidence about D and body weight that you will ever need or want. You’ll find studies and information about how D helps you slim down faster. And you’ll learn how it also reduces hunger and fuels you with more energy. I’ve been on a lot of diets—probably more than the average woman. So, I can tell you something with great conviction: It’s not fun to be on a diet that isn’t good for your overall health. I’ll admit that I’ve experienced this personally. Constipation? Not fun. Fuzzy-forgetful brain? Not fun. Greasy skin? Not fun! The shakes? Seriously, not fun. In my opinion, any diet that slims you down at the expense of your health and well-being isn’t worth the trouble. Do you really want to lose weight at the expense of your heart? How about your bone health, or your mood? Is it really worth it to lose a lot of weight but suffer from depression, develop osteoporosis, or experience constipation or migraines? I can’t answer those questions for you, but I hope the answer is no. It’s not worth it, and it’s also not necessary. You can drop pounds without frustrating, even dangerous side effects. You really can.
The Deficiency Strikes Back
NOW LET’S GET back to that history lesson for a bit. When I left off, we’d just finished the industrial revolution and rickets had been cured by the food fortification program. You might be wondering, “If fortified foods have eradicated D deficiency, then why is this diet even necessary?” Here’s why: You’re not getting all the D you need. You might be getting enough to prevent rickets, but you’re not getting enough to fuel weight loss and overall good health. Yes, it’s rare for any well-fed American to be severely deficient in any vitamin or mineral, and fortification solved the problem of D deficiency for many years. But by the turn of the millennium, something strange began to happen. Rickets began making a comeback. The number of rickets cases doubled between 2002 and2003 and the disease began making an appearance around the globe—in Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, the United States, Australia, Ethiopia, and Saudi Arabia. As it turns out, D deficiency is growing. More and more people being tested are deficient. The National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) found that only 23 percent of teens and adults had a sufficient amount of this essential vitamin in their blood. That percentage was nearly half that amount in a similar study done a decade before. In some populations, vitamin D deficiency affects 82 percent of people. What exactly is going on? No one knows for sure, but here are a few of the leading theories. With television and computer games replacing outdoor play, children spend less time outdoors than ever before. When children and adults are outdoors, they wear sunscreen, which blocks the creation of D in the skin. Fewer people are drinking milk, the leading delivery system for fortified D. Adults are working longer and longer hours and two or more jobs, spending more time indoors and away from sunlight. Because it takes a severe D deficiency for rickets to develop, the disease is still relatively rare. However, other diseases that might be caused or triggered by D deficiency are not rare at all. These include various autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis and psoriasis, various cancers (even skin cancer!), osteoporosis, and, yes, obesity.
Are You Really Deficient?
IT’S IMPORTANT TO note that, while vitamin and mineral deficiencies are common throughout the world, they are not as common in the United States. Deficiencies tend to be widespread in low-income and drought-ridden countries in Africa and Southeast Asia, and they tend to disproportionately affect young children, pregnant women, and people who are so skinny that their main goal is to gain weight, not lose it. In such places, vitamin A deficiency is so extreme that 250,000 children go blind from it each year, with half of them dying from the deficiency. In the United States, though, food is overly plentiful. Even though few Americans eat the recommended number of vegetables, most are extremely well fed and well nourished. It’s rare for an American to be deficient in any vitamin or mineral. But D is one exception to that rule. According to the National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, 77 percent of Americans are D deficient. The deficiency numbers get even higher among minorities, whose darker skin pigmentation makes it more difficult to generate vitamin D: 90 percent of Hispanics and 97 percent of African-Americans have insufficient blood levels of vitamin D, which may also account for higher rates of obesity in these populations. And even in warm, sunny states, people are not immune. In a study of young women in Los Angeles, where sunlight is as prevalent as breast implants, 25 percent were seriously deficient in D and 59 percent were suboptimal. It’s tempting, of course, to look at those statistics and think, “I’m probably in the 23 percent who gets enough D.” I know this because that’s what I thought about myself. It wasn’t until I began consuming a D-rich diet—that I realized how deficient I must have been.
Can Too Much D Make You Sick?
THERE ARE TWO types of vitamins: water-soluble vitamins and fat-soluble ones. Water soluble vitamins dissolve in water and easily travel through the various watery fluids of your body, such as your blood. Because of this, they don’t spend a lot of time in your body. They are either quickly used or discarded. If you take too much of a water-soluble vitamin, you’ll end up with one thing: expensive urine. Fat-soluble vitamins are stored in your fat. That means they stick around for a while and, unlike water-soluble vitamins, can build up in your body. Taking too much of one of these can be toxic. Toxic isn’t good. Toxic makes you sick and can even kill you if you don’t address it. Vitamin D is fat-soluble. For years, experts have been cautioning against taking too much of it for just that reason. They worried high amounts could be toxic. Then, in the spring of 2010, a well-known health and nutrition guru named Gary Null became extremely ill. He suffered excruciating fatigue and pain as well as kidney damage. Eventually a physician was able to diagnose the cause: Null was suffering from vitamin D toxicity. As it turned out, Null was accidentally consuming more than 1,000 times more D than he’d thought he was getting 2,000 IU. In reality, he was consuming 2 million IU. It was all due to a faulty supplement (his own brand, actually), which was 1,000 times more potent than it was supposed to be. The supplement was soon pulled from the shelves and Null sued the manufacturer that bottled the supplement. So, it’s true—someone did get sick. And the media initially jumped on this story and used it to “prove” the dangers of taking too much D. But the media missed a crucial element of this story. Gary Null was only able to consume that much D by accident. It was an isolated fluke due to a manufacturing problem. Had his supplement not been faulty, he would never have gone toxic. He would have had to take 1,000 pills a day to reach those toxic levels!
In reality, it’s extremely difficult to induce vitamin D toxicity. That’s why there are so few cases of it. Physicians have been dosing their severely deficient patients with 10,000 IU of D daily for 6 months, without any toxic effects. That’s 16 times the Institute of Medicine’s vitamin D recommendation. Think about that. Doctors are giving patients a dose that is 16 times higher than recommended and no one is getting hurt. You would have to take at least five over-the-counter supplements to reach the medically prescribed dose that physicians use to correct severe deficiency. That’s a lot. The amount of D that I would recommend in this article is only one-fifth the amount physicians give their severely deficient patients. It’s the amount that physicians, researchers, and dietitians told me they take every single day. It’s also the amount I take as a supplement, in addition to consuming a diet that is also high in D. In reality, toxicity—or D overload—is just plain rare. It’s also easily reversible. On the other hand, D deficiency is much, much more common.
Why Not Just Go Outside?
BUT, YOU MIGHT wonder, why do you need D from food or supplements at all? Why can’t you just get more sun? Ideally, you would get your D from the sun. After all, that’s what our hunter-gatherer ancestors did, and it’s what our bodies are genetically designed to do. When your skin makes its own vitamin D, the vitamin lasts twice as long in your blood as when you eat the vitamin or get it through a supplement. But there are several problems with getting all or most of your D from the sun. They are both obvious and not so obvious.
THE RISK OF CANCER AND WRINKLES. Even if you had the time to hang out at the beach every day in your favorite bikini, any sunscreen you slather on is going to block D. Sunscreen reduces your skin’s ability to make D by 90 to 99 percent, depending on the SPF. And as any dermatologist or magazine will tell you: Sunscreen is the key to beautiful skin as you age. Without it, you not only increase your risk of wrinkles, but of skin cancer, too.
INCONVENIENCE. Even if you weren’t into skin protection and didn’t mind looking weathered and old before your time, you still wouldn’t be able to get enough D because your skin rarely connects with the sun rays needed to trigger the production of D. There are many days during the winter months when we see little to no sunlight at all. There are other days when we are only outdoors in the morning or late afternoon, when the sun’s angle is too oblique to trigger the production of D in the skin. And when we are outdoors, we don’t have enough skin exposed. Your face alone can’t make enough D in 15 to 30 minutes to satisfy your body’s needs. You need to expose a larger surface area—your arms, your back, your legs. Few of us wear clothing that allows us to do that during the middle of the day.
AIR POLLUTION. Smog can filter out some of the UVB rays, so less of them are able to reach your skin. This is one reason why folks who live in Los Angeles and Atlanta tend to be deficient despite their sunny, warm locations. Another might be that, in hotter climates, people are more likely to stay indoors with the AC on and to routinely use sunscreen.
GEOGRAPHIC LOCATION AND TIME OF YEAR. If you live further north than Atlanta, you essentially can’t make any vitamin D from November through March because the angle of the sun isn’t correct. The sun is too low in the sky for enough rays to penetrate the atmosphere and make their way to your skin. You also spend a good portion of this time of year indoors. And, chances are, when you are outside, it’s dark.
Supplements are a good idea. I take a D supplement, and I recommend you take one, too. But supplements are not a replacement for a healthy, D-rich diet. This, in part, is because many experts believe most of us need even more D than the typical 2,000 IU supplement provides, so eating D-rich foods helps to boost your numbers. It’s also because food delivers benefits and comes in a package that the smartest nutrient manufacturers have never been able to copy. I’ve done all the research and found the best, most delicious sources of D. For example, sun-dried shiitake mushrooms have a whopping 1,600 IU of vitamin D—almost your entire daily allowance. Don’t love shrooms? Combine satisfying dairy (an 8-ounce glass of fortified milk has but 100 IU) with fish, eggs, margarine, and other foods to maximize your D intake and fuel your weight loss. Fortified products such as tofu, yogurt, OJ, almond and soy milk, bread, and breakfast cereal are all great options, too.
The Right Amount of D
AN INSTITUTE OF Medicine report released in November of 2010 recommended that Americans should get 600 IU daily of vitamin D, up from 200 IU (the level set in 1997). The panel also raised the acceptable upper limit of daily intake to 4,000 IU for adults, up from 2,000. But the Endocrine Society has a much higher recommendation and so do many other experts. Why such varying numbers? In part, the differences are due to confusion over the optimal blood levels of D. The Institute of Medicine based its recommendation on blood levels of 20 ng/ml, as that level seems to be where the bone-building benefits start. But other experts recommend more—in the neighborhood of 40 to 60 ng/ml, because all of the other health benefits have been shown to take place when blood levels are that high. While you can probably get blood levels to 20 ng/ml on a diet that only consists of 600 IU of D—without a supplement and without sun exposure—you cannot get to the higher amounts without a supplement or at least some sun exposure. “The Institute of Medicine is extremely cautious,” Dr. Norman told me. “Their guidelines are based on what they think is good for bone health, but that doesn’t address what’s needed to benefit your immune system, pancreas, muscles, heart muscle, and brain.” Dr. Norman and others told me that the optimal daily D dose for weight-loss and other health benefits is 1,000 to 2,000 IU of supplemented D, plus a D-rich diet, plus safe sun exposure. And that’s exactly what this plan recommends and provides.