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Vitamins and minerals

We need vitamins and minerals for our bodies to function properly and you can find them in lots of different foods. 

Different vitamins and minerals do different things: for example, some help your body to digest food while others build strong bones. Here, we explain more about these essential nutrients.

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Details

  • What are vitamins? What are vitamins?

    There are two types of vitamins.

    • Water-soluble vitamins (such as vitamins B6, B12, C and folic acid). You can’t store these in your body so you need a steady supply from your diet. These vitamins are in fresh fruit and green vegetables. It’s best to eat these raw, steamed or grilled rather than boiled because boiling can easily destroy the vitamins.
    • Fat-soluble vitamins (such as vitamins A, D and E). You can store these in your body but they should still be part of a healthy diet. They’re mainly found in fatty foods, such as animal fats (including butter and lard), vegetable oils, dairy foods and oily fish.

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  • What are minerals and trace elements? What are minerals and trace elements?

    Your body needs small amounts of minerals and trace elements to function properly. They’re 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 your 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
    • nuts
  • What do vitamins and minerals do? What do vitamins and minerals do?

    Vitamins and minerals do different things to keep your body healthy and there’s no one food that contains all of them. You need to make sure you eat a healthy, balanced diet with a good mix of foods to ensure that you get everything you need.

    The table below shows you a selection of vitamins, what their function is in your body and good sources of them.

    Vitamins and minerals Function in your body Food sources include...
    Vitamin A
    • helps you to see in dim light
    • keeps your skin healthy
    • strengthens your immune system
    • liver
    • carrots
    • fortified margarine
    • cheese
    • dark green leafy vegetables (such as spinach)
    • oily fish (such as mackerel)
    Vitamin D
    • helps you to grow and keeps bones and teeth healthy
    • helps your body to absorb calcium
    • helps your immune system function
    • oily fish
    • eggs
    • fortified breakfast cereals
    • fortified margarine
    You can’t usually get enough vitamin D from your diet, your body also produces it naturally when your skin is exposed to sunlight.
    Vitamin E
    • protects your body from damage caused by free radicals
    Free radicals are produced by your body’s normal chemical reactions and are thought to damage body cells, which may lead to diseases such as cancer.
    • vegetable oils
    • nuts and seeds
    • fortified breakfast cereals
    • green vegetables
    • popcorn
    Vitamin K
    • blood clotting
    • builds strong bones
    • dark green leafy vegetables (such as broccoli and spinach)
    • cereals
    • vegetable oils
    • meat (such as pork)
    • cheese
    Vitamin B1 (thiamin)
    • helps break down and release energy from food
    • maintains muscle tissue
    • keeps your nerves and muscles working properly
    • meat (particularly pork)
    • milk, cheese and eggs
    • vegetables (particularly peas)
    • wholegrain bread
    • fruit
    • wholegrain and fortified breakfast cereals
    Vitamin B2 (riboflavin)
    • keeps your skin, eyes, and nervous system healthy
    • breaks down and releases energy from food
    • helps your body to produce steroids and red blood cells
    • helps your body to absorb iron from the food you eat
    • milk
    • eggs
    • fortified breakfast cereals
    • mushrooms
    • meat
    Vitamin B3 (niacin)
    • breaks down and releases energy from food
    • keeps your nervous and digestive system healthy
    • meat (particularly beef, pork and chicken)
    • fish
    • wheat and maize flour
    • eggs
    • milk
    • fortified breakfast cereals
    • yeast extract (such as Marmite or Bovril)
    Vitamin B5 (pantothenic acid)
    • breaks down and releases energy from food
    • meat (particularly liver, chicken and beef)
    • vegetables (such as broccoli, tomatoes and potatoes)
    • cereals and wholegrains
    • dairy foods such as milk and eggs
    • nuts
    Vitamin B6 (pyridoxine)
    • breaks down and releases protein from food
    • produces haemoglobin
    • meat (such as chicken, pork and turkey)
    • fish (such as cod)
    • eggs
    • brown rice
    • oats
    • grains
    • some types of nut
    • vegetables
    • soya beans
    • wholegrain bread
    • fortified breakfast cereals
    • yeast extract (such as Marmite or Bovril)
    Vitamin B12
    • produces red blood cells
    • keeps your nervous system healthy
    • processes folic acid
    • breaks down and releases energy from food
    • meat
    • fish
    • cheese
    • eggs
    • fortified breakfast cereals
    Folic acid (folate)
    • produces red blood cells
    • in babies, helps to reduce the risk of neural tube defects such as spina bifida
    • green leafy vegetables
    • some types of fruit (such as oranges and bananas)
    • fortified breakfast cereals
    • brown rice
    • meat (particularly liver)
    Biotin
    • breaks down and releases energy from food
    • meat (particularly liver and kidney)
    • eggs
    • fruit (particularly dried fruit such as currants and raisins)
    • vegetables
    • wholegrain foods
    • nuts, such as peanuts
    Vitamin C (ascorbic acid)
    • helps your body to absorb iron
    • keep cells and tissues healthy
    • fresh fruit (particularly citrus fruits)
    • sweet potatoes
    • green vegetables
    Sodium chloride (salt)
    • regulates fluids in your body
    • helps your body to digest food
    • helps your nervous system work
    • processed foods
    • table salt
    Potassium
    • regulates your body fluids
    • lowers your blood pressure
    • helps your nervous system work
    • vegetables
    • meat, such as chicken
    • fish
    • milk
    • dried fruit and bananas
    • nuts and seeds
    • shellfish
    Calcium
    • builds strong bones and teeth
    • keeps your muscles and nerves functioning
    • blood clotting
    • milk
    • cheese
    • fortified bread and flour
    • green leafy vegetables
    • nuts
    • sardines
    Magnesium
    • breaks down and releases energy from food
    • keeps your muscles and nerves functioning
    • keeps your parathyroid glands functioning (produce hormones important for bone health)
    • controls the amount of calcium in your blood and bones
    • green leafy vegetables
    • nuts and seeds
    • cereals and grains
    • dairy products
    Iron
    • produces red blood cells
    • red meat
    • dried fruit
    • nuts
    • wholegrains
    • green leafy vegetables (such as watercress and curly kale)
    Zinc
    • produces new cells and enzymes
    • repairs tissue
    • breaks down and releases energy from food
    • meat (particularly liver)
    • seafood (particularly oysters)
    • meat mycoprotein (such as Quorn)
    • milk
    • bread
    • cereals
    Copper
    • produces red and white blood cells
    • keeps your immune system healthy
    • keeps your bones healthy
    • nuts and seeds
    • shellfish
    • offal
    Manganese
    • makes and activates enzymes
    • bread
    • nuts
    • cereals
    • runner beans
    • peas
    • tea
    Molybdenum
    • makes and activates enzymes
    • vegetables (particularly peas, broccoli and spinach)
    • nuts
    • cereals
    Selenium
    • helps your immune system function
    • protects cells from damage
    • brazil nuts
    • fish
    • eggs
    • meat
    Chromium
    • enhances the action of insulin (insulin helps cells to absorb glucose, which is broken down to release energy)
    • meat
    • wholegrain foods
    • lentils
    • spices
    Iodine
    • produces thyroid hormone
    • fish
    • seaweed
    • milk (in the UK and US)
    Phosphorus
    • builds bones and teeth
    • breaks down and releases energy from food
    • dairy products
    • eggs
    • nuts
    • red meat
    • fish
    • poultry
    • rice
    • oats
  • How much do I need? How much do I need?

    The amount of vitamins and minerals you need is unique to you. It varies from person to person and can depend on many things, such as your gender, age and amount of activity you do.

    Dietary reference values, usually labelled on food and supplement packets, estimate the levels of nutrients to have in your diet but these aren’t exact. 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.

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  • How can I get enough vitamins and minerals? How can I get enough vitamins and minerals?

    You should be able to get most of the vitamins and minerals you need by eating a healthy, balanced diet. This includes eating at least five portions of fruit and vegetables each day. 

    There will be times in your life that you need to adapt your diet to suit your changing circumstances, such as becoming pregnant or getting 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. 

    Vitamin D

    Vitamin D is the one vitamin you can’t get from your diet alone. It’s in foods such as oily fish, but only in small amounts. Most of your vitamin D is produced naturally by your body when your skin is exposed to the sun.

    You may get enough vitamin D during the summer by nipping out in the sun without wearing sunscreen. The exact time you need to spend in the sun is different for everyone. It’s usually only a few minutes during the middle of the day. But be careful and don’t let your skin burn. Remember, that the strength of the sun varies with where you are in the world. You need to balance the risk of lack of vitamin D against the risk of sun exposure. For more information about safety in the sun, see our topic on sun care.

    You can also get vitamin D as a supplement and some people need to take this every day. Some evidence now suggests that only vitamin D3 is beneficial, so check that any supplement you buy contains this type. People who can be at risk of not getting enough vitamin D include:

    • children under five
    • people over 65, especially if they’re also at risk of poor nutrition
    • people who don’t get out in the sun much or cover their skin for cultural reasons
    • pregnant and breastfeeding women
    • people with darker skin

    Current recommendations encourage people in at risk groups to take a vitamin D supplement, equivalent 10 micrograms per day. But speak to your GP or pharmacist if you’re unsure.

  • What about supplements? What about supplements?

    If you eat a healthy, balanced diet, it will usually supply all of the vitamins you need. You will only need to take supplements if your GP recommends you do so. Here are some examples of when you might need to take supplements.

    • If you’re planning to have a baby (see below, The best diet if you’re pregnant).
    • If you’re at risk of osteoporosis and need vitamin D and calcium.
    • If you have age-related macular degeneration and need supplements of vitamins C, E and zinc.
    • If you’re at risk of a vitamin D deficiency (see our information on vitamin D in How can I get enough vitamins and minerals?).

    However, it’s important to get advice from a pharmacist or your GP before you take supplements. Some vitamin supplements (containing vitamins A and E or beta carotene) may be harmful if you have too many. They may also interact with some medicines.

    Always read the patient information leaflet that comes with your supplements. If you have any questions, ask your pharmacist or GP for advice.

  • The best diet if you’re over 50 The best diet if you’re over 50

    As you get older it’s just as important to eat a healthy balanced diet to make sure you get the vitamins and minerals you need. Research shows that people who have good diets that include lots of fruit and vegetables have a lower risk of:

    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. If you’re vegan, you can find calcium in soya nut, rice and oat milk (that are calcium enriched). It’s also in bread and in vegetables such as watercress.

    Vitamin D is important for good bone health too. You get most of your vitamin D from the effect of sun on your skin. You can also get it from your diet in oily fish and eggs and fortified breakfast cereals, for example.

    Supplements

    If you’re over 65, or are house-bound, your GP may advise you to take vitamin D supplements.

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

  • The best diet if you’re pregnant The best diet if you’re pregnant

    There’s 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 some dairy foods too as these will provide lots of calcium for your baby’s growing bones. If you’re vegan, you can find calcium in soya nut, rice and oat milk (that are calcium enriched). It’s also in bread and in vegetables such as watercress.

    Supplements

    You’ll need to take a folic acid supplement while trying for a baby and during the first three months of your pregnancy. The dose is usually 400 micrograms. This will help to reduce your baby’s risk of a condition called spina bifida, as well as other neural tube defects.

    You will also need to take a 10-microgram vitamin D supplement while you’re pregnant and if you’re breastfeeding.

    For more information about making sure you have the right diet while pregnant, see Healthy eating during pregnancy.

  • The best diet if you’re vegan or vegetarian The best diet if you’re vegan or vegetarian

    If you eat a healthy balanced diet, it’s perfectly possible to get all the vitamins and minerals you need from a vegetarian or vegan diet. There are a few things you need to make sure you’re getting, including the following.

    • Iron. The iron found in plant foods is harder for our bodies to absorb compared with that in meat and fish. It’s important to eat plenty of iron-rich foods, such as green vegetables and fortified breakfast cereals. If you drink tea or coffee with your meal, the caffeine in it can further hamper your body’s ability to take in the iron. So drink fruit juice instead as this actually helps your body to absorb iron.
    • Selenium. Eat plenty of brazil nuts, cashew nuts and pecans as these are all sources of selenium, and if you’re vegetarian, eggs are another good source.
    • Vitamin B12. This vitamin isn’t found in plant food so vegans may struggle to get enough. Make sure you get a good supply by eating fortified cereals or yeast extract.
    • Omega-3 fatty acids. Although oily fish is the best source of omega-3 fatty acids you still have other options. It’s in flaxseed, rapeseed oil, soya, walnuts and eggs.
    As for everybody, it’s important to eat well and follow general healthy eating advice. It’s also important to eat the right portion sizes to make sure you stay a healthy weight.
  • Resources Resources

    Further information

    Sources

    • Vitamins and minerals. Food Standards Agency. www.food.gov.uk, accessed 5 August 2015
    • What are nutrients? British Nutrition Foundation. www.nutrition.org.uk, reviewed 4 January 2013
    • The why, how and consequences of cooking our food. European Food Information Council. www.eufic.org, published November 2010
    • Second national report on biochemical indicators of diet and nutrition in the US population. Chapter 2: fat-soluble vitamins and nutrients. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. www.cdc.gov, published 2012
    • A healthy, varied diet. British Nutrition Foundation. www.nutrition.org.uk, reviewed February 2014
    • Vitamin D. British Dietetic Association. www.bda.uk.com, reviewed February 2013
    • Vitamin K. National Institutes of Health. www.nih.gov, published 16 March 2015
    • Thiamin. National Institutes of Health. www.nih.gov, published 15 January 2015
    • Riboflavin. National Institutes of Health. www.nih.gov, published 26 May 2015
    • Scientific opinion on dietary reference values for niacin. European Food Safety Authority. www.efsa.europa.eu, published 13 February 2014
    • Vitamins. Bab Institute for Food. www.ifbb.org.uk, accessed 11 August 2015
    • NAA EFSA NDA Panel (EFSA Panel on Dietetic Products, Nutrition and Allergies). Scientific opinion on dietary reference values for pantothenic acid. EFSA Journal 2014; 12(2):3581. doi:10.2903/j.efsa.2014.3581
    • Vitamin B6. National Institutes of Health. www.nih.gov, published 15 September 2011
    • NAA EFSA NDA Panel (EFSA Panel on Dietetic Products, Nutrition and Allergies). Scientific opinion on dietary reference values for biotin. EFSA Journal 2014; 12(2):3580. doi:10.2903/j.efsa.2014.3580
    • Scientific opinion on dietary reference values for copper. NAA EFSA NDA Panel (EFSA Panel on Dietetic Products, Nutrition and Allergies). www.efsa.europa.eu, accessed 6 August 2015
    • NAA EFSA NDA Panel (EFSA Panel on Dietetic Products, Nutrition and Allergies). Manganese ascorbate, manganese aspartate, manganese bisglycinate and manganese pidolate as sources of manganese added for nutritional purposes to food supplements. The EFSA Journal 2009; 1114: 1–23. doi:10.2903/j.efsa.2009.1114
    • NAA EFSA NDA Panel (EFSA Panel on Dietetic Products, Nutrition and Allergies). Scientific opinion on dietary reference values for molybdenum. EFSA Journal 2013; 11(8):3333. doi:10.2903/j.efsa.2013.3333
    • Chromium. National Institutes of Health. www.nih.gov, published 4 November 2013
    • Tip 53 phosphorus. British Nutrition Foundation. www.nutrition.org.uk, accessed 20 July 2015
    • NAA EFSA NDA Panel (EFSA Panel on Dietetic Products, Nutrition and Allergies). Scientific opinion on dietary reference values for phosphorus. EFSA Journal 2015; 13(7):4185. doi:10.2903/j.efsa.2015.4185
    • Nutrient requirements. British Nutrition Foundation. www.nutrition.org.uk, reviewed 5 October 2012
    • Fruit and vegetables. British Nutrition Foundation. www.nutrition.org.uk, reviewed February 2014
    • Vitamin D expert review. Cancer Research UK. www.nice.org.uk, published 26 March 2010
    • Vitamin D: all you need to know. Department of Health. www.gov.uk, published December 2014
    • Bjelakovic G, Gluud Ll, Nikolova D, et al. Vitamin D supplementation for prevention of mortality in adults. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2014, Issue 1. doi:10.1002/14651858.CD007470.pub3
    • Recommended wording and conditions of use for labelling messages concerning government advice on vitamin D supplementation. Department of Health. www.gov.uk, published 8 February 2013
    • Supplements. British Dietetic Association. www.bda.uk.com, reviewed March 2013
    • Osteoporosis. BMJ Best Practice. www.bestpractice.bmj.com, published 11 December 2014
    • Age-related macular degeneration. BMJ Best Practice. www.bestpractice.bmj.com, published 3 October 2014
    • Review of dietary advice on vitamin A. Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition. www.gov.uk, published 9 August 2005
    • Bjelakovic G, Nikolova D, Gluud LL, et al. Antioxidant supplements for prevention of mortality in healthy participants and patients with various diseases. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2012, Issue 3. doi:10.1002/14651858.CD007176.pub2
    • Top tips for healthy ageing. British Nutrition Foundation. www.nutrition.org.uk, reviewed June 2014
    • Facts not fads – your simple guide to healthy weight loss. British Heart Foundation. www.bhf.org.uk, published 1 January 2015
    • Calcium counts. British Nutrition Foundation. www.nutrition.org.uk, reviewed September 2014
    • Iron and health. Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition. www.gov.uk, published 2010
    • Healthy eating when you are pregnant. British Nutrition Foundation. www.nutrition.org.uk, reviewed 4 January 2013
    • Healthy eating for vegans and vegetarians. British Nutrition Foundation. www.nutrition.org.uk, accessed 6 August 2015
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