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Vitamin D Deficiency: A New Epidemic?

  [ 101 votes ]   [ Discuss This Article ] • October 27, 2003

NIH conference calls for public health approaches to address growing problem

BETHESDA, MD (October 10, 2003) – Medical experts are talking about a new health epidemic -- one that most thought was eliminated decades ago. It's a lack of vitamin D. The surprising deficiency is increasing the risk of osteoporosis and accounting for the re-emergence of rickets in children.

This overlooked health problem is getting new attention. Leading public health experts are convening in Washington DC for a two-day summit to address the vitamin D problem. The goal of the conference, undertaken by the National Institutes of Health, is to identify public health strategies to address the epidemic.

Called the sunshine vitamin because people make their own when sunlight hits the skin, vitamin D is also found in fortified milk, one of the few food sources for this nutrient. With people spending more time indoors, especially as cold weather approaches, and the frequent swapping of milk for soda Americans aren't getting the vitamin D they need.

According to Michael Holick, M.D., Ph.D., a leading vitamin D researcher and professor at Boston University, it is a problem for teenagers, men and women and a particular problem for African Americans, who are also not getting the calcium they need. "A minimum of 25 percent of adolescents and adults in this country are vitamin D deficient. Several factors are contributing to the increasing rates of vitamin D deficiency we're experiencing today," he said.

"Lower intake of vitamin D-fortified foods, particularly milk, along with reduced intake of calcium-rich foods, including milk in adolescents and young women, coupled with an increase use of sunblock to reduce exposure to sunlight, are the driving factors placing our nation and its children at risk for vitamin D-related diseases. As one easy solution, milk -- one of the best sources of vitamin D -- should be incorporated as part of an overall healthy diet.

In addition to increased rates of bone-related disease such as rickets and osteoporosis, mounting research now links chronic vitamin D-deficiency with increased risks of certain cancers, diabetes, hypertension and diseases of the immune system.

Drink Up

As the Conference attendees discuss public health strategies, experts say one of the best ways to meet recommended Institute of Medicine vitamin D requirements - 200 international units, or IU, for adults up to age 50 – is by drinking milk, which is fortified with vitamin D. An eight-ounce glass provides 50 percent of the daily need and 30 percent of the daily calcium requirement. Vitamin D can double the amount of calcium absorbed by your body, and enhances bone mineralization.

Bone heath expert Robert Heaney, M.D. of Creighton University, who is one of the experts speaking at the conference, says milk is the preferred source of vitamin D because it is rich in calcium and protein, which are also important bone builders.
"Teens who forego milk in favor of soft drinks maybe setting themselves up for long term trouble if undetected and untreated vitamin D deficiency puts them at risk for stunted growth and fractures," he adds.

How to Get Enough?

Teens and adults need to drinking more vitamin D fortified milk – at least three servings a day. Today milk comes in more varieties and grab-and-go packaging than ever before. There are flavored, fat free and reduced fat milks to suit every taste and dietary need. In addition, public health experts urge everyone to get outside and get some sun. Besides the vitamin D, daily physical activity helps promote good health.

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