Vitamins and Minerals: Why are they so important for health?
Vitamins and minerals are essential nutrients – your body needs them in order to stay healthy.
They’re often called micronutrients and this is because your body only needs them in very small amounts.
Eating a varied, balanced diet is the best way to get sufficient amounts of vitamins and minerals to maintain good health and body function. Even though these little magic ingredients are only required in small amounts, they work together with the body to keep you alive and well. A lack of vitamins and minerals can be detrimental to health and could even result in disease.
There are many types of vitamins and minerals found in food, but let’s keep things simple.
Here I’ve listed the most commonly recognised vitamins and minerals:
- Vitamin A,D,E,K (fat soluble)
- Vitamin B, C and folic acid (water soluble)
- Minerals – Calcium & Iron
Which foods contain fat soluble vitamins?
Vitamins A,D,E,K are found in animal products and fatty foods, such as vegetable oils, milk and dairy products, eggs, liver and oily fish.
Which foods contain water soluble vitamins?
Vitamin B, C and folic acid can be found in a wide range of foods, including fruit, vegetables, potatoes, grains, milk and dairy foods.
What’s the difference between the two types?
Because the body is able to store fat soluble vitamins in the liver and fatty tissues, it isn’t necessary to eat foods containing them every single day. It can also be harmful to the body if these stores build up. However, the body is unable to store water soluble vitamins. You need to try to include these consistently in your diet. If you have more than your body needs, the body gets rid of the excess through urination. Generally speaking, these vitamins would not pose a risk to health if consumed within a normal balanced diet. However, this doesn’t mean that all large amounts are harmless – you should always consult your GP before taking any over the counter substitutes.
Which foods contain minerals?
The two commonly recognised minerals are calcium and iron. These are found in foods including meat, cereals, fish, milk and dairy foods, vegetables, fresh and dried fruits and nuts.
Water soluble vitamins can be destroyed easily through by heat and cooking methods or being exposed to the air. Keep cooking times to a minimum to retain as many vitamins as possible – steaming or grilling food is ideal and helps to retain the vitamins. If boiling foods, keep the water for soups or stews as the water contains vitamins which have been lost through boiling.
A note about the vegetarian & vegan diets
Research suggests the Vegan/Vegetarian diet could lack essential vitamins and minerals. Here are just 3 of the main ones:
Vitamin B12 – responsible for many bodily processes including protein metabolism and the formation of oxygen-transporting red blood cells. Also Vit B12 plays a crucial role in the health of the nervous system. A diet which lacks B12 can lead to anaemia and nervous system damage, as well as infertility, bone disease and heart disease. Because the nutrient is found in meat, fish, dairy and eggs, vegans are more susceptible to B12 deficiency so it is important to ensure you get the RDA via supplementing the diet or eating foods fortified with B12 including some plant milks, soy products and breakfast cereals.
Vitamin D – recommended not only for vegan/vegetarian but omnivores too. Vit D is a fat-soluble vitamin that influences many bodily processes, including immune function, mood, memory and muscle recovery. Unfortunately, very few foods naturally contain vitamin D. Some foods are fortified with Vit D to help get the RDA. Vitamin D can also be gained from sun exposure such as spending 15 mins in the midday sun when the sun is strong as long as sunscreen is not used. That said, there are also known negative effects of excess UV radiation which is why many dermatologists warn against using sun exposure to boost Vit D levels.
Omega 3 fatty acids – play a structural role in your brain and eyes and brain development and they prevent inflammation. You can only get essential omega-3 fatty acids Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) from your diet. Long-chain omega 3 fatty acids eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) are not considered essential because getting enough ALA should maintain adequate levels of EPA and DHA.
Plants with high ALA include flaxseeds, chia seeds, walnuts, hemp seeds and soybeans. EPA and DHA are mostly found in animal products such as fatty fish and fish oil. However research suggests that vegetarians and vegans have up to 50% lower blood and tissue concentrations of EPA and DHA than omnivores.
The information given is only a guide and does not replace professional advice. Should you have any concerns about your health or feel you need to supplement your diet, seek advice from your GP.