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Vitamins and minerals


Expert reviewer, Mr Paul McArdle, Registered Dietitian
Next review due April 2023

Vitamins and minerals are essential nutrients that your body needs in small amounts to function properly. Different vitamins and minerals do different things: for example, some help your body to digest food while others help to build strong bones. Eating a healthy, balanced diet can help you to get almost all the vitamins and minerals you need.

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What are vitamins and minerals?

Vitamins and minerals are often called ‘micronutrients’, which means that your body needs small amounts of them in your diet. Unlike some of the other nutrients in our diet, (carbohydrates, proteins and fats), vitamins and minerals don’t provide our bodies with energy. Instead, they have specific roles to make sure our bodies function properly. Not getting enough of a certain vitamin or mineral can cause health problems.

Vitamins are complex compounds that are made by living things – like fruit and vegetables. They’re quite delicate, so they get broken down with cooking or exposure to the air (for instance, when you cut open an apple). There are two types of vitamin.

  • Fat-soluble vitamins (such as vitamins A, D, E and K). These can be stored in your body, but you should make sure you’re including them regularly in your 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 a steady supply from your diet.

Minerals like calcium, potassium and iron are simpler compounds than vitamins, but they aren’t broken down as easily. They’re found in soil and water, and get into our bodies through the food we eat.

What do vitamins and minerals do?

Vitamins and minerals do different things to keep your body healthy. No single 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.

Vitamins

Listed below are the 13 vitamins that your body needs, their key roles and what foods they are found in.

  • Vitamin A is important for your vision, as well as your skin health and immune system. Good sources include liver, oily fish, eggs, carrots and red peppers.
  • B vitamins – there are eight different B vitamins: thiamine (B1), riboflavin (B2), niacin (B3), pantothenic acid (B5), biotin (B7), folate, B6, and B12. The B vitamins help your body to break down food to provide energy. They each have other roles too – for instance in maintaining healthy skin, nerves or blood cells. Different foods provide different B vitamins. For example, meat is a good source of niacin and green vegetables are a good source of folate. Cereals and breads often have B vitamins added to them (they’re fortified).
  • Vitamin C is important for keeping all the tissues of your body healthy and working properly – including your muscles, arteries and bones. It also helps your body to absorb iron properly, and is important for the immune system. Good sources include fruit and vegetables, particularly citrus fruit.
  • Vitamin D is important for bone health, as well as for a healthy immune system. It’s mainly made by your body when your skin is exposed to the sun. Good sources include oily fish, eggs, margarine and breakfast cereals. We have a separate section on vitamin D.
  • Vitamin E is an antioxidant, which means it protects your other cells from damage by free radicals. Good sources include vegetable oils and nuts such as almonds, hazelnuts, peanuts and peanut butter.
  • Vitamin K is needed for blood clotting. Good sources include eggs and meat, and green leafy vegetables such as spinach, broccoli and cabbage.

Minerals

Here are some of the main minerals that your body needs, their key roles and what foods they are found in.

  • Calcium is important to keep your bones and teeth strong. It also helps in keeping your muscles and nerves working well, and is involved in blood clotting. Good sources include dairy foods such as milk, cheese and yoghurt, certain fish, cereals and pulses.
  • Phosphorus combines with calcium to help give bones their strength. It’s also an important part of cell membranes. Milk and dairy products, cereals, meat, fish, nuts, fruit and vegetables are all good sources of phosphorus.
  • Magnesium is an important part of bones and teeth, and also is needed for your muscles and nerves to work well. Green vegetables, pulses, wholegrain cereals and meat are all good sources.
  • Sodium and chloride are normally consumed together in the diet as salt. Sodium chloride helps to regulate fluid balance in your body, keeping your blood pressure stable and your cells working properly. It also helps to control your muscle and nerve cells. Most of us get too much salt. Examples of foods high in salt include bacon, ham, cheese, soy sauce, bread, cereals and ready meals.
  • Potassium is another mineral that helps to regulate fluid balance in your body, and keeps nerve and muscle cells functioning properly. Good sources include fruit (especially bananas and apricots) and vegetables (especially potatoes).
  • Iron – in the form of haemoglobin – helps to transport oxygen around your body in your blood. Good sources include meat, fish, eggs, bread, cereals, green leafy vegetables, nuts and dried fruits.
  • Zinc is important in the immune system, as well as for digestion and healing. Good sources include meat (particularly lamb and beef), crabs and shellfish, leafy and root vegetables and wholegrains.
  • Fluoride is important for your bones and teeth. It occurs naturally in drinking water and extra fluoride is added to the water in some areas of the UK. Other sources of fluoride include tea and spinach.

There are also a number of other ‘trace elements’– minerals that our body needs in much smaller amounts. They include copper, chromium, manganese, molybdenum, selenium and iodine.

How much vitamins and minerals do I need?

The amount of vitamins and minerals you need varies from person to person and also changes throughout your life. It can depend on a number of things such as your gender, age and whether or not you’re pregnant or breastfeeding. In the UK, Public Health England publishes Dietary Reference Values (DRVs) for all types of nutrient, for men and women in different age groups. For vitamins and minerals, Reference Nutrient Intakes (RNIs) are given – this is the amount that would meet the needs of the vast majority of people within that group.

Food labels and supplement packets may tell you how much of a certain vitamin or mineral they contain, and the percentage of the RNI this equates to. However, unlike nutrients such as fat, sugar and salt, there’s no obligation for manufacturers to display the amount of vitamins and minerals on packaging. It’s also important to bear in mind that the RNIs used on food labels are for an average adult woman – the amount you need may be very different.

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. For each day, this includes :

  • at least five portions of fruit and vegetables
  • wholegrain starchy foods
  • dairy foods
  • meat, fish or alternatives such as beans and pulses

Different foods have different combinations of vitamins and minerals, so variety is key.

If you follow a vegetarian or vegan diet, you’ll need to pay extra attention to getting certain vitamins and minerals that usually come from animal sources. These include vitamin B12, calcium and iron.

Storing fruit and veg

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 vegetables, the more nutrients they’ll lose. Keeping your fruit and vegetables in the fridge will help to slow down the loss of nutrients.

Sometimes, frozen or canned fruit and vegetables contain more nutrients than fresh ones, so it’s a good idea to keep a stock of these too.

Effect of cooking

Water-soluble vitamins are found in fresh fruit and green vegetables. It’s best to eat these raw, but if you do cook them, try to steam, microwave or roast them rather than boiling. This is because boiling destroys some vitamins and minerals. On the other hand, cooking (but not over-cooking) can increase the amount of other nutrients or make them easier to absorb. 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.

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Should I take a vitamin or mineral supplement?

Most people can get all the vitamins and minerals they need by following a healthy, balanced diet. It’s better to aim for a healthy diet rather than relying on supplements, as this will provide you with other nutrients and elements your body needs too. It’s a bit different for vitamin D – you can read more about this in the next section.

There are some circumstances when it can be beneficial to take supplements. These include if you’re trying for a baby or are pregnant, if you have certain medical conditions or if you have a very restricted diet (for example, if you’re vegan). It’s also recommended that babies and children aged six months to five years are given a supplement containing vitamins A, C and D.

You can buy vitamins and mineral supplements over the counter from a 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.

Make sure you read the product label of any new supplement you buy, and check with your pharmacist or GP if there’s anything you’re not sure about. You should always check with a doctor or pharmacist first if you have any health conditions or you take any other medication. This is because vitamins and mineral supplements may affect how your medication works. Always be careful not to take more than the recommended dose. Certain vitamins (such as vitamins A, B6, D, E and K) and minerals (such as iron and copper), may be harmful if you have too much.

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. Your body also produces vitamin D naturally when your skin is exposed to sunlight.

You may get enough vitamin D during spring and summer by spending small amounts of time with your skin exposed to sunlight each day. Take care not to let your skin redden. During autumn and winter, when daylight hours are shorter and the sun is weaker, it’s harder to get sufficient sun exposure for your skin to make enough Vitamin D. It’s worth considering taking a vitamin D supplement of up to 10 micrograms a day at this time of year.

Some people don’t make enough vitamin D through sun exposure, even in the summer. This might be the case if you:

  • don’t spend much time outside – for instance, if you’re ill or you live in a care home
  • cover up your skin when you’re outside – this may be for personal preference or for cultural or religious reasons
  • have dark skin – for instance, if you have an African, African-Caribbean or South Asian background

If any of these apply to you, you might want to consider taking a daily supplement of 10 micrograms of vitamin D all year round. Babies and children up to four should also have a daily vitamin D supplement of 10 micrograms. If you give your baby more than 500ml of infant formula a day, you won’t need to give them a vitamin D supplement too – their formula already contains enough for their needs.



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Related information

Tools and calculators

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  • Reviewed by Pippa Coulter, Freelance Health Editor, April 2020
    Expert reviewer, Mr Paul McArdle, Registered Dietitian
    Next review due April 2023

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