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Vitamins and minerals


Expert reviewer, Mr Paul McArdle, Registered Dietitian
Next review due November 2020

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.

An image showing a family eating strawberries

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 a good mix of foods to ensure that you get everything you need.

Here we outline a selection of vitamins and minerals, their functions in your body, and good sources of them.

Vitamin A

Function in your body

  • helps you to see in dim light
  • keeps your skin healthy
  • strengthens your immune system

Food sources

  • liver
  • oily fish (such as mackerel)
  • carrots
  • fortified margarine
  • red peppers
  • spinach
  • sweet potatoes
  • eggs

Vitamin D

Function in your body

  • helps you to grow and keeps bones and teeth healthy
  • helps your body to absorb calcium
  • helps your immune system work well

Food sources

  • oily fish
  • eggs
  • liver
  • 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

Function in your body

  • 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.

Food sources

  • vegetable oils
  • nuts (such as almonds) and seeds (such as sunflower seeds)
  • peanut butter

Vitamin K

Function in your body

  • involved in blood clotting
  • builds strong bones

Food sources

  • dark green leafy vegetables (such as broccoli and spinach)
  • vegetable oils (particularly soya bean oil)
  • meat
  • eggs

Vitamin B1 (thiamin)

Function in your body

  • helps break down and release energy from food
  • maintains muscle tissue
  • keeps your nerves and muscles working properly

Food sources

  • meat (particularly pork)
  • milk
  • fruit and vegetables
  • wholegrain bread
  • fortified breakfast cereals
  • pulses
  • nuts

Vitamin B2 (riboflavin)

Function in your body

  • 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

Food sources

  • milk
  • eggs
  • fortified breakfast cereals
  • liver
  • oats

Vitamin B3 (niacin)

Function in your body

  • breaks down and releases energy from food
  • keeps your nervous and digestive system healthy

Food sources

  • meat (particularly beef, pork and chicken)
  • fish
  • wheat and maize flour
  • milk
  • yeast extract (such as Marmite or Bovril)

Vitamin B5 (pantothenic acid)

Function in your body

  • breaks down and releases energy from food

Food sources

  • meat (particularly offal)
  • green vegetables
  • eggs
  • peanuts

Vitamin B6 (pyridoxine)

Function in your body

  • breaks down and releases protein from food
  • produces haemoglobin (an important component of red blood cells)

Food sources

  • meat (such as liver, beef and chicken)
  • fish
  • potatoes and other starchy vegetables
  • nuts
  • pulses
  • fortified breakfast cereals
  • bananas

Vitamin B12

Function in your body

  • produces red blood cells
  • keeps your nervous system healthy
  • processes folic acid
  • breaks down and releases energy from food

Food sources

  • meat
  • fish
  • milk and other dairy products
  • eggs
  • fortified breakfast cereals
  • yeast extract (such as Marmite or Bovril)

Folic acid (folate)

Function in your body

  • produces red blood cells
  • in pregnancy, helps to reduce the risk of neural tube defects (such as spina bifida) in your baby

Food sources

  • green leafy vegetables (such as kale and spincah)
  • fortified breakfast cereals
  • chickpeas
  • most fruits

Biotin

Function in your body

  • breaks down and releases energy from food

Food sources

  • meat (particularly liver and kidney)
  • fish
  • milk and other dairy products
  • eggs
  • bananas
  • vegetables (such as sweet potatoes and spinach)
  • nuts and seeds

Vitamin C (ascorbic acid)

Function in your body

  • helps your body to absorb iron when you eat both together
  • keep cells and tissues healthy

Food sources

  • fresh fruit (particularly citrus fruits)
  • sweet potatoes
  • peppers

Sodium chloride (salt)

Function in your body

  • regulates fluids in your body
  • helps your body to digest food
  • helps your nervous system work well

Find out more about sodium chloride (salt).

Food sources

  • processed foods
  • table salt

Potassium

Function in your body

  • helps your body to release energy from food
  • helps your nervous system and muscles work well
  • helps your heart work well

Food sources

  • vegetables (such as squash, spinach and potatoes)
  • meat (such as beef)
  • fruit (such as bananas and oranges)
  • nuts and seeds

Calcium

Function in your body

  • builds strong bones and teeth
  • keeps your muscles and nerves working well
  • involved in blood clotting

Food sources

  • milk
  • cheese
  • fish
  • fruit and vegetables
  • nuts

Magnesium

Function in your body

  • breaks down and releases energy from food
  • keeps your muscles and nerves working well
  • regulates your blood pressure
  • makes bone

Food sources

  • green leafy vegetables
  • nuts and seeds
  • cereals and grains
  • milk and yoghurt

Iron

Function in your body

  • helps your body transport oxygen in your blood
  • breaks down and releases energy from food

Food sources

  • meat (particularly offal)
  • fish
  • eggs
  • dried fruit
  • nuts
  • wholegrains
  • green leafy vegetables (such as watercress and curly kale)

Zinc

Function in your body

  • produces new cells and enzymes
  • helps your digestive system and immune system work/li>
  • repairs tissue
  • breaks down and releases energy from food

Food sources

  • meat (particularly lamb and beef)
  • leafy and root vegetables/li>
  • seafood (particularly crab)
  • eggs
  • milk
  • wholegrains
  • nuts

Copper

Function in your body

  • produces red and white blood cells
  • keeps your bones, blood vessels, nerves, immune system and bones healthy

Food sources

  • nuts
  • cereals
  • meat (such as offal)

Manganese

Function in your body

  • makes and activates enzymes

Food sources

  • tea
  • cereals
  • vegetables

Molybdenum

Function in your body

  • makes and activates enzymes

Food sources

  • meat (such as offal)
  • leafy vegetables and peas
  • nuts
  • cereals

Selenium

Function in your body

  • helps your immune system work well
  • protects cells from damage

Food sources

  • brazil nuts
  • fish
  • eggs
  • meat (such as chicken)

Chromium

Function in your body

  • thought to enhance the action of insulin (insulin helps cells to absorb glucose, which is broken down to release energy)

Food sources

  • meat
  • wholegrain foods
  • fruits (such as grapes)
  • vegetables (such as brocolli)

Iodine

Function in your body

  • produces thyroid hormone

Food sources

  • fish (such as haddock)
  • seaweed
  • milk and other dairy products
  • shellfish

Phosphorus

Function in your body

  • builds bones and teeth
  • breaks down and releases energy from food

Food sources

  • dairy products (except butter)
  • cereals
  • nuts
  • meat
  • fish
  • fruit and vegetables

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.

Storing vegetables

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:


Babies and children under the age of four usually need to take some supplements too.

You can buy vitamins and minerals over the counter from your local pharmacy or supermarket. You may also be able to get them through the Healthy Start scheme. In some cases, your doctor may prescribe them. For example, this might be if you have a vitamin or mineral deficiency perhaps as a result of a long-term condition.

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

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. You can buy vitamin D supplements over the counter from your local pharmacy or supermarket.

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.


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Related information

Tools and calculators

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  • Reviewed by Rachael Mayfield-Blake, Freelance Health Editor, November 2017
    Expert reviewer, Mr Paul McArdle, Registered Dietitian
    Next review due November 2020



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