From Vitamin A to Zinc, the total number of vitamins and minerals seems to be a never ending list. To add to confusion they can come in different forms, ranging from tablets to powders or liquids. This blog will break down and simplify what the important vitamins and minerals are, what they do and where you can get them from.
Simply put, vitamins and minerals are nutrients your body needs in order to function properly and stay healthy. For example, some help to build strong bones and some help with food digestion. They are involved in various bodily processes and consuming either too much or too little can put your health at risk.
Vitamins are complex nutrients that are made by living things including vegetables, meats and dairy products. There are 13 essential ones and they fall into two categories:
1. Fat soluble vitamins such as A, D, E, K, which can be stored in your body but you should have them regularly in your diet.
2. Water soluble vitamins such as B1, B2, B3, B5, B6, B7, B9, B12 & C, which cannot be stored and therefore a steady supply is required from your diet.
Vitamin A is particularly important for your vision, skin health and immune system. Good sources include sweet potato, liver, oily fish, eggs and carrots.
B vitamins – there are 8 B vitamins: thiamine (B1), riboflavin (B2), niacin (B3), pantothenic acid (B5), pyridoxine (B6), biotin (B7), folate (B9), and B12. The B vitamins help your body to break down food to provide energy. They have various other roles including maintaining good immune function, healthy skin, healthy blood and nerve cells. Different foods provide different B vitamins. For example, meat is a good source of niacin and green vegetables are a good source of folate. Cereals are often fortified, meaning they have B vitamins added to them.
Vitamin C is crucial for keeping all the tissues of your body healthy and working properly – including muscles, skin, immune and bone health. Good sources include citrus fruits.
Vitamin D is important for bone health and for having a healthy immune system. It’s mainly made by your body when your skin is exposed to the sun, which can be a serious problem in winter months. Good sources include red meat, liver, oily fish and eggs.
Vitamin E is involved in maintaining healthy skin and immune response regulation. It's also an antioxidant, meaning that it protects cells from free radical damage. Good sources include vegetable oils and nuts.
Vitamin K is essential for blood clotting and therefore wound healing. Good sources include eggs, meat and green leafy vegetables.
Minerals on the other hand are smaller nutrients than vitamins and these include calcium, zinc, selenium magnesium, sodium, chloride, potassium, iron, phosphorus and fluoride. They have various key roles which are described below.
Calcium is the most abundant mineral in our body and is essential for keeping bones and teeth strong, as well as being required for muscle contraction. Good sources include dairy products, legumes and leafy vegetables.
Zinc plays important roles in the immune system, digestion and healing. Good sources include meats, root vegetables and wholegrain.
Selenium is a trace element that plays an important role in immune system functions, thyroid health and can help prevent cell damage through its antioxidant actions. Good sources are fish, meats and brazil nuts.
Magnesium contributes to nerve and muscle function and is an important component of bones and teeth. Green vegetables, wholegrain cereals and meat are good sources.
Sodium and chloride, (as you probably already know!) are normally consumed together as salt. Together they help to regulate fluid balance in your body and help to control nerve and muscle cells. Most of us eat too much of the stuff! Consuming excess amounts can cause increases in blood pressure, which in turn can raise your risk of an adverse cardiovascular event, such as a stroke or heart attack.
Potassium is a key electrolyte important in controlling fluid balance in the body, as well as keeping nerve and muscle cells functioning normally. Good sources include bananas and vegetables.
Iron is a key mineral with several important body functions. It’s a key component of haemoglobin - which allows blood cells to transport oxygen around the body. Good sources include meat, fish, dairy products and leafy vegetables.
Phosphorus is a mineral that helps maintain strong bones and teeth through its combination with calcium. Dairy products, meat and fish are all good sources.
Fluoride is important for bones and teeth. It occurs naturally in drinking water.
The quantities needed can vary from person to person and can depend on factors such as gender, age and whether you are pregnant or breastfeeding etc. It can also be quite challenging to fit all the above into a diet but eating several portions of fruit and vegetables a day, eating dairy foods, fish and meats can all help you to achieve a balanced diet. So how do you achieve this as a vegan or a vegetarian? If you're struggling to maintain a balanced diet - give these a try!
Dr Alexander, MB ChB, BSc (Hons) - Senior Writer