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Vitamins and minerals

 

Vitamins and minerals are nutrients that you need in small amounts for your body to function properly and are all found in different foods. There are many different vitamins and minerals and they do different things; some help your body to digest food for example, and others build strong bones.

What are vitamins?

There are two types of vitamins:

  • water-soluble vitamins – you can’t store these in your body so you need to get them from your diet
  • fat-soluble vitamins – you can store these in your body but they should still be part of a healthy diet

Water-soluble vitamins (such as vitamins B6, B12, C and folic acid) are found in fresh fruit and green vegetables. It's best to eat these foods raw, steamed or grilled rather than boiled because cooking can easily destroy the vitamins.

Fat-soluble vitamins (such as vitamins A, D and E) are mainly found in fatty foods, such as animal fats (including butter and lard), vegetable oils, dairy foods and oily fish.

What are minerals and trace elements?

Your body needs small amounts of minerals and trace elements to function properly. They are as essential as vitamins and your body has to get them from the food you eat. For example, you need:

  • calcium to make strong bones
  • sodium to balance the fluids in your body and to help nerves function
  • iron to help your body transport oxygen in your blood and to break down and release energy from the food you eat

You can find minerals and trace elements in meat, cereals, fish, dairy foods, vegetables, dried fruit and nuts.

How much do I need?

The amount of vitamins and minerals your body needs is individual to you and varies from person to person. It can depend on many things, including your gender, age and activity levels.

The Department of Health gives guidance on the levels of nutrients to have in your diet, although these aren’t exact recommendations. They are called dietary reference values and you will usually find them listed on food and supplement packets. These values show how much of a particular nutrient a group of people of a certain age range (and sometimes gender) need for good health.

How can I get enough vitamins and minerals?

Most people are able to get most of the vitamins and minerals they need by eating a healthy, balanced diet. Aim to eat at least five servings of fruit and vegetables each day. It’s important to include starchy foods (such as bread, potatoes and pasta) and moderate amounts of protein-rich foods (such as meat, fish and pulses) in your meals.

Vitamin D is the one vitamin you can't get from diet alone. It’s in foods such as oily fish, but only in small amounts. Vitamin D is produced naturally by your body when your skin is exposed to sunlight. You may get enough vitamin D during summer by spending frequent short spells in the sun without wearing sunscreen (the exact time you need is different for everyone, but is typically only a few minutes in the middle of the day). However, don’t let your skin burn. For more information about safety in the sun, see our factsheet, Sun care. Certain people can be at risk of vitamin D deficiency, such as if you’re over 65 and don’t get out in the sun much, or are pregnant. If you’re concerned that you may not be getting enough vitamin D, ask your GP for advice.

What about supplements?

If you eat a healthy, balanced diet, it will supply most of the vitamins you need. You will only need to take supplements if your GP recommends you do so. Your GP may advise you to take supplements if you’re planning a pregnancy for example, and need extra folic acid. You may also need to take supplements if you’re at risk of osteoporosis and need vitamin D and calcium, or if you have age-related macular degeneration and need supplements of vitamins C, E and zinc. However, it’s important to get advice as some vitamin supplements (containing vitamins A and E) may be harmful.

If you don’t get much sun exposure and particularly during winter months, taking up to 25 micrograms of vitamin D a day (two high-strength 12.5 microgram capsules) can help to make sure you get enough.

Always read the patient information leaflet that comes with your supplements and if you are pregnant or breastfeeding, ask your pharmacist or GP for advice first. Talk to your GP before taking vitamin D supplements if you are taking diuretics for high blood pressure or have a history of kidney stones or kidney failure

Adapting your diet

There will be times during your life that you need to adapt your diet to suit your changing needs. For example, if you become pregnant or simply as you get older. Likewise if you decide to become vegetarian or vegan you may have to rethink your diet to make sure you get all the nutrients you need.

People over 50

As you get older it's especially important to eat plenty of iron-rich foods to stay healthy. This will lower your risk of developing iron-deficiency anaemia, which can make you feel tired and weaken your immune system. Iron is in a range of foods, including red meat, fish – such as sardines, eggs, pulses, fortified breakfast cereals and green leafy vegetables.

Caffeine interferes with your body's ability to absorb iron and other nutrients. So although you may feel you can’t function without your morning cup, if you think you’re not getting enough iron, try not to have tea or coffee with, or immediately after, your breakfast, or any other meal. Drink fruit juice instead as this will help your body to absorb iron. Aim to eat five servings of fruit and vegetables each day to keep your immune system healthy.

Osteoporosis is a major health issue for older people, particularly women, so it's vital to have plenty of calcium. Dairy products, such as milk, cheese and yoghurt, are excellent sources of calcium as is fish with bones, such as pilchards or sardines. As with calcium, vitamin D is important for good bone health too. You get most of your vitamin D from the effect of sunlight on your skin but you can also get it from your diet in oily fish and eggs, for example. If you’re over 65, or are house-bound, your GP may recommend you take vitamin D supplements.

If you think you may need a vitamin or mineral supplement, talk to your GP. He or she will check that you take the right dose and ensure the supplements don't affect any medicines you’re taking.

Pregnant women

There is a lot to think about when you get pregnant but one key thing to remember is to eat properly. Eat a healthy, balanced diet and make sure you get enough iron as your body's supply can drop when you’re pregnant. It's also important to eat plenty of folate-rich foods (folate is the natural form of folic acid). Good sources include broccoli, oranges and wholegrain foods. Eat plenty of dairy foods as this will provide lots of calcium for your baby's growing bones.

As well as eating a healthy diet, the UK Department of Health recommends that women take a 400-microgram folic acid supplement while trying for a baby and during the first three months of pregnancy. This will help to reduce your baby's risk of spina bifida and other neural tube defects. The Department of Health also suggests you take a 10-microgram vitamin D supplement while pregnant and if you’re breastfeeding. They also recommend that babies and children take a vitamin D supplement up to the age of five.

Vegetarians and vegans

It's perfectly possible to get all the vitamins and minerals you need from a vegetarian diet.

Aim to:

  • eat five servings of fruit and vegetables every day
  • eat plenty of iron-rich foods (such as green vegetables and fortified breakfast cereals)
  • base your meals on starchy foods (such as bread, rice and pasta) and a good source of protein (such as dairy or soya products, pulses and nuts)
  • keep up your level of calcium – if you don’t drink cows’ milk, choose soya, rice or oat drinks fortified with calcium
  • ensure you get a good supply of vitamin B12 by eating fortified cereals or yeast extract

Action points

  • Eat a healthy balanced diet – it will provide all the vitamins and minerals most people need.
  • Aim to eat at least five servings of fruit and vegetables each day.
  • Don't take vitamin supplements that contain vitamins A, E or beta carotene, unless your GP advises you to.
  • Speak to your GP or a registered dietitian for advice if you think you aren’t getting enough vitamins and minerals to stay healthy.

 

Produced by Rachael Mayfield-Blake, Bupa Heath Information Team, November 2012.

For sources and links to further information, see Resources.

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  • This information was published by Bupa's Health Information Team and is based on reputable sources of medical evidence. It has been reviewed by appropriate medical or clinical professionals. Photos are only for illustrative purposes and do not reflect every presentation of a condition. The content is intended only for general information and does not replace the need for personal advice from a qualified health professional. For more details on how we produce our content and its sources, visit the about our health information page.

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