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Ames: Vitamins, minerals do matter

By Laurel Ference - Assignment Editor
On May 15, 2013

"My passion is preventing disease. I want to put the drug companies out of business," said Bruce Ames, Ph.D, at the onset of his lecture on "The Role of Vitamins and Minerals in Aging-Associated Diseases" held at Berkeley City College on April 24.

The seminar was the latest in BCC's Biotechnology Program Spring 2013 Science Seminar Series, all of which are free and open to the public.

Ames is a senior scientist at Children's Hospital Oakland Research Institute and Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, Emeritus, at the University of California, Berkeley. He is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and was awarded the National Medal of Science in 1998.

The lecture centered around the connection between vitamin and mineral deficiencies and aging-associated diseases such as cancer, cognitive decline and heart disease. He proposed that when faced with vitamin and mineral deficiencies, the human body goes in to a "triage" response and allocates nutrients to keep essential functions running.

"Nature is trading short-term survival with long-term health," Ames said.

In a 2006 article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), Ames stated, "Deficiencies in many micronutrients cause DNA damage, such as chromosome breaks, in cultured human cells or in vivo (a living organism).

"Some of these deficiencies also cause mitochondrial decay with oxidant leakage and cellular aging and are associated with late onset diseases such as cancer."

According to Ames, there are about 40 essential micronutrients (vitamins, minerals and other biochemicals) necessary for metabolic and developmental processes. The EAR, or Estimated Average Requirement, is a measure of vitamin and mineral adequacy-being below the EAR denotes an inadequacy in a vitamin or mineral. Many Americans are ingesting less than the EAR from diet alone.

"The American diet is abysmal. There's nothing green in there. We need to be eating more veggies and less white stuff," Ames said.

Ames elaborated with many specific examples, such as the consequences of vitamin D deficiency, which can cause (among other effects) calcification of the arteries.

According to Ames, people with lighter complexions can reach adequate vitamin D levels with 20 minutes of sunshine exposure per day; however, he advised people with darker complexions to supplement with a vitamin D pill, as they would need six times as much sunlight to get enough vitamin D.

Ames pointed out that vitamin and mineral deficiency is not always treated with the same seriousness as other issues. "Since the damage from moderate [vitamin and mineral] deficiency is insidious, its importance for long-term health is not being appreciated," from a statement on

For example, Ames stated that folic acid deficiency and radiation both cause chromosome breaks. He noted that while many people are worried about the small levels of radiation that might reach them from the 2011 nuclear disaster in Japan, they do not ingest enough folic acid from their diet, which has the same effect.

Ames also said that while most of the world's population is iron-deficient, some American men actually have iron levels that are too high-which comes from eating too much red meat.

"The American diet is a disaster. We're eating way too much refined food," Ames said.

Ames also discussed links between vitamin and mineral inadequacy and obesity. Conventional wisdom, he said, is that obesity is caused by taking in too many calories through food, and not exercising enough of them out.

"I think there's more to it. Obese people are starving because they're not getting good nutrition and they feel hungry all the time," he said.

Ames does not just study the long-term effects of vitamin and mineral deficiency; he has also been working actively to find simple ways to address it in critical populations. Along with a team of colleagues and the USDA lab in nearby Albany, Ames has been working since 2003 to develop a nutrition bar, called the CHORI-bar.

"The CHORI-bar is intended to help restore optimal nutritional balance in people eating poor diets, and to help transition them to healthier eating habits. The bar is satiating and at only approximately 110 calories per bar, may be helpful in weight reduction programs," according to the Children's Hospital Oakland website.

Ames' vision for addressing vitamin and mineral deficiencies in the future is a highly accessible approach-a machine in the grocery store which would give you a finger-prick to determine deficiencies, then spit out a prevention strategy (which would be sent to your iPhone).

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