This series of articles will look at nutrient groups and why they are important to our health, to give you an idea of the basics of nutrition and why a healthy, varied and balanced diet is important. As a first stop, we will discuss the importance of vitamins in the body .
Part 1: Vitamins
Vitamins are essential for our bodies to function normally and stay healthy. Because we only need them in small amounts, they are often referred to as ‘micronutrients’. However this fact does not make them any less important in our overall health.
What exactly is a vitamin?
The Oxford Dictionary defines a vitamin as ‘Any group of organic compounds which are essential for normal growth and nutrition and are required in small quantities in the diet because they cannot be synthesized by the body’. A healthy balanced diet with a broad variety of foods should give us all the vitamins we need for our bodies to work properly.
There are two types of vitamin – fat soluble and water soluble. Fat soluble vitamins include vitamins A, D, E and K. We don’t need to eat foods containing these vitamins every day, as if we eat more than our bodies need to use at that time, we store the extra in our livers and body fat for future use.
Water soluble vitamins include vitamin C, the B vitamins and folic acid. Food sources of these vitamins must be eaten daily because our bodies are unable to store them. These vitamins can be lost or destroyed through cooking, dissolving or exposure to air, therefore it is best to steam or grill the foods listed below instead of boiling them.
The importance of vitamins in the body
Vitamins have many, many roles in our bodies, including but not limited to:
- supporting our immune systems
- promoting healthy hair, skin and nails
- helping us maintain good vision
- ensuring teeth, bone and muscle health
- promoting wound healing
- promoting cell health
- enabling the release of energy from the food we eat
- maintenance of our nervous system
- helping with the movement of oxygen around the body
- maintaining our metabolism
We need different vitamins for different functions, which is why it is so important to get a good range of food in our diets.
Where will I find vitamins?
- fruits (e.g. oranges, grapefruits, strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, dried fruit)
- vegetables (peppers, broccoli, sprouts, potatoes, peas, asparagus, squash, tomatoes, spinach)
- fortified breakfast cereals
- fish and shellfish
- oily fish
- fortified spreads
- milk and yoghurt
- red meat
- fortified cereals
- plant-based oils such as olive and rapeseed
- nuts and seeds
- green leafy vegetables
- soya beans
Again, to ensure we get a good intake of all the essential vitamins from these foods it is important to eat a varied and balanced diet.
Lets take a closer look at a couple of vitamins which often make the news:
Vitamin D helps to control and regulate the amount of calcium and phosphate in our bodies, which is important for bone, teeth and muscle health. It is found in relatively small amounts in food, but it is made by our skin from exposure to sunlight.
Vitamin D has one of the highest rates of deficiency out of all vitamins and minerals, and everyone is at risk of this. Even those people in countries with regular sunshine all year round are at risk. The recommendations are to spend 10 to 15 minutes in the sun every day (or whenever possible), without any protection on your skin.
If you rarely spend time outdoors or are always covered up; or you are pregnant or breast feeding; and for children under 5 years of age or the elderly, it may be recommended to take a vitamin D supplement to ensure requirements are being met. However please do not start a supplement without advice from a registered health professional – your Dr or a dietitian.
Vitamin D can be found in:
- oily fish such as salmon, mackerel, sardines, herring and fresh tuna
- red meat
- egg yolks
- fortified foods such as fat spreads and some cereals
Vitamin B12 helps make red blood cells and keep the nervous system healthy. It supports other nutrients to release energy from the food we eat and also helps to process folic acid.
Vitamin B12 deficiency anaemia is relatively common and people who follow a vegan diet are at risk of deficiency due to B12 not being found in plants and grains. Therefore, these individuals may require supplementation – again do not start a supplement without advice from a registered health professional.
Vitamin B12 can be found in:
- some fortified breakfast cereals
Vitamin C helps to keep cells healthy and protects them from damage, maintains connective tissues and is also used in wound healing.
Deficiency of vitamin C (scurvy) had become fairly rare and something we often only associate with sailors and people in areas with high rates of malnutrition. However it has been reported more often recently in refugee camps, the developing world and those who are homeless. There have also been reports of some children with particularly poor diets showing signs of scurvy.
It should be easy to achieve daily requirements for vitamin C by eating the following foods:
- oranges and orange juice
- red and green peppers
- brussels sprouts
Take home message:
The importance of vitamins in the body
Eating a varied, balanced and healthy diet will usually ensure that you take the full range of vitamins you need to remain healthy. Supplementation is usually not required as long as your diet is of high enough quality. If you are considering taking a supplement please ensure you discuss this with your doctor or dietitian before starting to take it!