Last month, the news outlets were broadcasting a truly astounding health claim: vitamin C does as much for your heart as exercise.
Readers nation-wide rejoiced. No more gym membership! No more taking time out of the day to exercise! Finally, a healthy heart without any actual effort! Of course the old truism that "if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is" came to mind. Imagine my surprise when I found, after researching this more deeply, that it actually is true - to some degree.
The good news
The study which grabbed the news headlines was only one of several. There's been a flurry of research into vitamin C and heart disease recently, and the results have all been encouraging. This study undoubtedly went viral because it tested vitamin C against exercise, rather than against a drug or a placebo.
The study looked at the effect of vitamin C on the circulatory system. People who are overweight or obese tend to have blood vessels which are chronically constricted due to a protein called endothelin-1. This - along with other factors - increases their risk of heart disease.
Moderate exercise such as walking is known to improve the vessels' ability to relax, normalizing blood flow and reducing the risk of heart disease. So researchers tested 500mg of vitamin C against daily walking. They found that the vitamin was as effective as the exercise in improving vasodilation - the ability of the blood vessels to relax and dilate.
The bad news
This was a very small study. It only included 35 people and it only lasted 3 months. And although the results were intriguing, it only looked at one small component of the heart disease picture. So don't cancel your gym membership yet.
The conclusion was that vitamin C is as effective as exercise for improving vasodilation in people who are overweight or obese and unable to exercise. The subtext is: if you can exercise, do. Vitamin C supplementation has no effect on weight. It doesn't strengthen your heart. And while there are lots of reasons that daily vitamin C is an important tool for good health, the added benefits you'll reap from exercise are undeniable.
The news you didn't hear about at all
While the internet collectively lost its mind over the idea of heart health in a bottle, several more profound studies were quietly lost in the chaos. One of these was a large Danish study that looked at heart disease and blood levels of vitamin C.
The study analyzed the health records of roughly 100,000 people. They found that those who ate the most fruits and vegetables had the lowest risk of heart disease. They found that people who had a genetic tendency toward higher than average vitamin C levels had the same amount of risk reduction. Yet another study found that vitamin C strengthens blood vessel walls.
We already knew fruits and vegetables were heart healthy. Researchers now speculate that this may be due to their high vitamin C content. The Orange Growers' Association would like us to think differently, but oranges aren't necessarily the best source of C. Many vegetables have a great deal more than an orange. Foods that are especially high in vitamin C include:
• Sweet peppers
• Brussels sprouts
• Sweet potatoes
• Tomatoes - yes, they're fruits
• …and yes, oranges
Vitamin C can both help lower your blood pressure and strengthen your blood vessels. This makes it an important tool for keeping your heart healthy. And while you can of course take a daily vitamin C supplement, eating foods high in C is a better option.
Humans and other primates are the only animals who don't make vitamin C in our bodies. Instead, we must get it from our diet. Vitamin C is also water soluble, which means that we don't really store it. When we get more than our bodies can use, our kidneys remove it and we flush it away down the toilet.
The RDA for vitamin C is 65-90 mg for most people, and up to 2000 mg is considered safe. To ensure that your levels of vitamin C are adequate throughout the day
• Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables that are high in C. A cup of strawberries or a serving of broccoli will do.
• Stagger your C intake through the day. Since your body can't store vitamin C, eating smaller amounts throughout the day is preferable.
• If you take a supplement, take several small doses instead of one big one. Again, your body can't store C so one big dose is counterproductive.
• Don't get your C from orange or other fruit juices. You might as well drink a soda and take a vitamin C tablet. Most juices are loaded with sugar, and are "fortified" with vitamin C.
Whether you up your fruit and vegetable intake, or choose a supplement, a little more C is definitely beneficial.