With the darkest day almost upon us, it seems fitting to end the year with a few words on the sunshine vitamin – Vitamin D. A slew of new research has linked Vitamin D deficiency to obesity, dementia, prostate and colorectal cancers, fertility, multiple sclerosis, asthma, heart disease, high blood pressure, poor immunity, SAD, schizophrenia and bone aging. Research out this week links it to depression too. (http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/286496.php) . Even the British Government is worried – Vitamin D is the only vitamin to have its own Working Party.*
Last week I spent an hour with my optometrist –hearing how sunlight/Vitamin D also protects us from most age-related eye disease. And three months ago, a forty-something friend of mine fell, broke a bone and was subsequently diagnosed with osteopenia (the precursor to osteoporosis) and Vitamin D-deficiency. One in two British women over the age of 50 is now thought to be harbouring Osteoporosis, while 93% of the Canadian population is deemed Vitamin D-deficient. With most of us spending our days indoors (or slathered in sun screen), Vitamin D deficiency has, according to medics, become endemic in northern latitudes. In a throw-back to the dark ages, more and more children are being diagnosed with rickets. So much for progress!
Vitamin D is a complex vitamin (actually it’s a steroid hormone … read the science and latest research here: www.vitamindcouncil.org). But it’s vital for healthy ageing, enabling our bodies to repair cells, maintain immunity and absorb calcium. And calcium is essential for good bone health. As we hit our 30s, our bones begin to thin. After the menopause, this process accelerates. If you don’t want to spend your latter years with successive broken bones, you need to get sun on your skin (ideally 10-15 minutes a day of midday sun on your face, neck and forearms – no sunscreen allowed – although some scientists say 15 minutes twice a week is sufficient), and Vitamin D and calcium-rich foods into your diet.
So, what should we be eating in the dark dreary months ahead? Sadly, very few foods contain Vitamin D: Oily fish, egg yolk, mushrooms (Portobello or Maitake contain the most) and fortified foods (such as bread and cereal where Vitamin D is added during processing). Your bestest friend? Foods containing Vitamin D and calcium. Tinned oily fish that include bones should be top of your shopping list right now (check out our sardine pate here). Tinned salmon is no longer for old ladies – I always have several tins to hand, and if it’s good enough for Nigella, it’s good enough for me! Just half a tin provides a day’s worth of Vitamin D. I use it in fish cakes, rosti, pates, fishy burgers and spiced patties. But in preparation for the Xmas party/canapé season, today’s recipes (bursting with Vit D and calcium) can be whipped up when guests appear, you’ve run out of smoked salmon, you need something to accompany that glass of bubbly – and you’ve forgotten what a ray of sunshine feels like.
Before you relax and tuck in, however, it’s not all about diet or lying in the sun (although a sunny holiday will give you enough Vitamin D to last three months – so book a Winter holiday if you can). Weight-bearing exercise encourages the body to lay down bone-building material and one of the best weight-bearing exercises you can do, say scientists, is running (aerobics, yoga, dancing, tennis and resistance training are good too). In the winter months, running is probably the only outdoor activity where you’ll warm up enough to expose your skin to the winter sun, getting Vitamin D to boot (yes, a small amount of Vitamin D can be obtained even on a cloudy day). I’m a big fan of ‘Park Run’. So if you find it hard to take yourself off for a run, check out http://www.parkrun.org.uk. It’s free, there’s one near you, take your dogs, kids, mum, and jog with a crowd … You’ll be thanking me later!
Incidentally, excessive meat, cheese, salt, alcohol, tea, coffee and fizzy drinks are not your friends – they deplete calcium levels, as does drastic weight loss (more on dieting next month). Another reason to forego the cheese and port – and stoke up with our healthy-ageing Kale & Cocoa canapes instead…
PS I’m not a huge fan of supplements, but Vitamin D is an exception. While researching this post, I discovered that American scientists and neurologists working on Vitamin D take daily 4000 iu supplements (100 mg) and make their families do the same. Do they know something we don’t?
RECIPES: SEANUTS …. AND SALMON & DILL PATE
This combination of almonds and tinned sardines gives a hefty shot of Vitamin D and calcium without a glimmer of dairy. They taste like the Asian snack, ikan bilis, and come from Australian chef, Lee Holmes’ wonderful new cook book, ‘Supercharged Food’.
- 150 g almonds
- 1 tin sardines
- 4 cloves garlic
- 1 tbsp olive oil
- ½ tsp sea salt
- 1 tsp honey or agave
- 1 tbsp lime zest
Mash the sardines and mince the garlic, then mix everything together, lay out on a baking tray and bake for 25 minutes at 200 c. Stir after 15 minutes. Serve with extra lime zest and a squirt of lime juice. And a glass of bubbly – of course!
- 1 x 213g can of wild salmon (not the boneless, skinless variety, and not farmed if possible. And no, it won’t look pretty when you open the tin, but when mushed up the skin and bones disappear entirely).
- 100 g cream cheese
- 1 tbsp fresh dill
- ½ tsp horseradish
- Zest and juice of a lemon
- ½ tsp sea salt and plenty of black pepper
Put everything in the food processor and blend for a few seconds. Garnish with extra lemon zest and fronds of dill. Serve with crackers (I like Finn Crisp), wholemeal pitta crisps or squares of wholemeal toast – or whatever you like to dip with.
TOP TIP: keep a few lemons and limes in your freezer (nothing worse than zesting with a flaccid lemon!). They zest beautifully from frozen. Then microwave for one minute and juice.
*The UK Government’s Vitamin D Working Party is part of the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN), due to report back on recommended levels of Vit D imminently. There’s currently no UK RDA for Vitamin D, except for vulnerable people (unlike Canada, the US, Italy and many other countries which have an average RDA of 600 IU). Watch this space!