What are vitamins?
There are two types of vitamins.
- Fat-soluble vitamins (such as vitamins A, D, E and K). These can be stored by your body but they should also be eaten as part of a healthy diet.
- Water-soluble vitamins (all other vitamins such as B6, B12, C and folic acid). You can’t store these in your body so you need to eat a steady supply from your diet.
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
- zinc to help your digestive and immune systems to work
- iron to help your body transport oxygen in your blood and to break down and release energy from the food you eat
What do vitamins and minerals do?
Vitamins and minerals do different things to keep your body healthy. No one food contains all of them, so you need to make sure you eat a healthy, balanced diet. This means having with a good mix of foods to ensure that you get everything you need.
The table below shows you a selection of vitamins and minerals, their functions in your body, and good sources of them.
|Vitamins and minerals||Function in your body||Food sources include...|
|Vitamin B1 (thiamin)||
|Vitamin B2 (riboflavin)||
|Vitamin B3 (niacin)||
|Vitamin B5 (pantothenic acid)||
|Vitamin B6 (pyridoxine)||
|Folic acid (folate)||
|Vitamin C (ascorbic acid)||
|Sodium chloride (salt)||
How much vitamins and minerals 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 things such as your gender, age, and how much activity you do. There may be times in your life that you need to adapt your diet to suit your changing circumstances. This might be if you get pregnant or as you get older. If you decide to become vegetarian or vegan, you may have to make some changes to your diet to make sure you get all the nutrients you need.
You can also look at the dietary reference values (DRVs) on food labels and supplement packets. These tell you what percentage of the estimated daily amount of nutrients needed is provided by the food or supplement.
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.
It’s best to try and eat vegetables and salad when they’re fresh because this is when they’ll contain the most vitamins and minerals. The longer you store your veg, the more nutrients they’ll lose. Keeping your vegetables and salad in the fridge will help to slow down the loss of nutrients.
Sometimes, frozen vegetables have more nutrients than fresh ones but they also lose them over time.
Effect of cooking
Water-soluble vitamins are found in fresh fruit and green vegetables. It’s best to eat these raw, steamed or grilled rather than boiled because boiling can easily destroy some vitamins and minerals. On the other hand, cooking (but not over-cooking) can increase the amount of, or make more available, some other nutrients. So it’s best to eat a variety of food and use a range of cooking methods, as well as eating some raw salad or vegetables.
What about supplements?
If you eat a healthy, balanced diet, it will usually supply all of the vitamins you need apart from Vitamin D. See our section on Vitamin D below for more information. You’ll usually 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
- 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, beta carotene, zinc and copper
Babies and children under the age of four usually need to take some supplements too.
It’s important to get advice from a pharmacist or your GP before you take supplements. Some of them (particularly those that contain vitamins A and E or beta carotene) may be harmful if you have too many. They might 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.
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. You get most of your vitamin D from the sun as your body produces it naturally when your skin is exposed to sunlight.
During the spring and summer, you may get enough Vitamin D from a healthy diet plus spending a few minutes in sunlight each day. You can expose your legs, forearms and hands to the sun without sunscreen, but remember that too much sun can be dangerous. See our Skin care topic for more information on how to stay safe.
During autumn and winter, daylight hours are shorter and it is harder to get sufficient sun exposure for your skin to make enough Vitamin D. Everyone (including pregnant and breast-feeding women) should aim to get 10 micrograms of Vitamin D, each day from their diet. But it can be difficult to get this amount from food, so it’s worth considering taking a (10 microgram) vitamin D supplement. There are two main forms of vitamin D – vitamin D3 and vitamin D2. The type produced by your skin is vitamin D3 so check that any supplement you buy contains this type.
Some people can’t get enough vitamin D, even in the summer. This might happen to you if you:
- spend lots of time inside – if you live in a care home, for example
- cover up your skin when you’re outside – this may be for cultural or religious reasons
- have dark skin – perhaps you have an African, African-Caribbean or South Asian background
If you can relate to any of these, you should consider taking a daily 10 microgram supplement of vitamin D all year round.
Children aged one to four should also have a daily 10 microgram vitamin D supplement. Babies up to a year old should have a daily 8.5 to 10 micrograms supplement of vitamin D to make sure they get enough. This includes babies who are breastfed and those who are breastfed and part formula fed from when they were born. But if you give your baby more than 500ml of infant formula a day, they won’t need to have any more vitamin D. Their formula contains enough for their needs.
Ask your pharmacist or GP for advice if you’re unsure. You can also learn more in our blog: Vitamin D and sun safety: Getting the balance right.
- British Nutrition Foundation
020 7557 7930
- Nutrition support in adults. National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), 30 November 2012. www.nice.org.uk
- Micronutrients. Oxford handbook of nutrition and dietetics (online). Oxford Medicine Online. oxfordmedicine.com, published December 2015
- Vitamins. British Nutrition Foundation. www.nutrition.org.uk, last reviewed February 2016
- Antioxidants and cancer prevention. National Cancer Institute. www.cancer.gov, reviewed 16 January 2014
- Thiamin. National Institutes of Health. ods.od.nih.gov, updated 11 February 2016
- Riboflavin. National Institutes of Health. ods.od.nih.gov, updated 11 February 2016
- NAA EFSA NDA panel (EFSA Panel on Dietetic Products). Scientific opinion on dietary reference values for niacin. EFSA Journal 2014; 12(7):3759. doi: 10.2903/j.efsa.2014.3759
- Vitamin B6. National Institutes of Health. ods.od.nih.gov, updated 11 February 2016
- Biotin. National Institutes of Health. ods.od.nih.gov, updated October 2017
- Salt reduction. World Health Organization. www.who.int, reviewed June 2016
- Potassium: the test. Lab Tests Online. labtestsonline.org, last reviewed 29 January 2016
- Potassium: common questions. Lab Tests Online. labtestsonline.org, last reviewed 29 January 2016
- Magnesium. National Institutes of Health. ods.od.nih.gov, updated 11 February 2016
- Chromium. National Institutes of Health. ods.od.nih.gov, updated 4 November 2013
- Nutrient requirements. British Nutrition Foundation. www.nutrition.org.uk, last reviewed December 2016
- Dietary reference values and dietary guidelines. European Food Safety Authority. www.efsa.europa.eu, accessed 27 October 2017
- Adults. British Nutrition Foundation. www.nutrition.org.uk, last reviewed June 2015
- Personal communication, Mr Paul McArdle, Registered Dietitian, 13 November 2017
- Therapy-related issues: palliative care. Oxford handbook of clinical pharmacy (online). Oxford Medicine Online. oxfordmedicine.com, published April 2017
- Supplements. British Dietetic Association. www.bda.uk.com, published March 2016
- Osteoporosis. BMJ Best Practice. bestpractice.bmj.com, last updated 7 March 2017
- Age-related macular degeneration: step by step management. BMJ Best Practice. bestpractice.bmj.com, last updated 28 September 2017
- Vitamin toxicity. Medscape. emedicine.medscape.com, updated 21 December 2016
- 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
- Vitamin D and health. Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition. www.gov.uk, published July 2016
- British Nutrition Foundation
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Reviewed by Rachael Mayfield-Blake, Freelance Health Editor, November 2017
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