What are vitamins and minerals?
Vitamins and minerals are types of nutrients. They are often described as micronutrients because they are needed in smaller amounts than macronutrients such as protein and carbohydrates.
Although they are needed in smaller quantities, vitamins and minerals are essential for health. Without them you have an increased risk of many different health conditions. Some vitamins can be stored in the body. These are called fat soluble vitamins and include vitamins A, D, E and K. Other vitamins are water soluble, and include vitamin C, B6 and folic acid. You need to replace these more often.
Are minerals or vitamins more important?
Vitamins tend to get more attention, but minerals are equally important. Essential minerals include iron, magnesium, and calcium. Each vitamin and mineral play a key role in keeping you healthy. But they often work together too. So, getting enough of all the vitamins and minerals is important for your health.
Why do we need vitamins and minerals?
While many vitamin supplements advertise micronutrients as being immune boosting, both vitamins and minerals offer many other benefits.
- Bone health. Vitamin D works together with calcium to help reduce your risk of osteoporosis.
- Good vision and skin health. Vitamin A supports your eyesight and vitamin C helps with collagen production which is needed for healthy skin.
- Cellular protection. Some vitamins act as antioxidants which protect your cells from environmental damage.
- Energy levels. Magnesium, B vitamins and iron all work to support your energy levels.
People who don’t get enough vitamins and minerals may be at greater risk of a wide range of health conditions. These include heart problems, certain cancers, cognitive decline, disorders of the immune system, as well as bone and teeth issues.
Which vitamins and minerals are most important?
All vitamins and minerals are important. But your lifestyle and current health might affect which vitamins and minerals you need to prioritise. For example, if you are a vegetarian or vegan then it’s important to get enough B12, iron and omega 3 fatty acids. If you are pregnant then you’ll need to ensure you get enough folic acid, Vitamin D, choline, and DHA (form of omega 3).
There are also nutrients many people in the UK don’t get enough of. For example, up to 49 per cent of girls aged 11-18 don’t meet their recommended intake of iron. This puts them at potential risk of iron deficiency anaemia. Other common low intakes include:
What foods have vitamins and minerals in them?
We all know that fruits and vegetables are rich in vitamins and minerals. But you can also find these key micronutrients in foods such as dairy, meat, nuts, seeds, and some grains. Below are some examples of where you can find specific vitamins and minerals.
- Vitamin C – red peppers, strawberries, broccoli, and citrus fruits
- Vitamin E – wheatgerm, sunflower seeds
- Iodine – seafood, iodised salt, milk products
- Magnesium – almonds, dark green leafy vegetables, dark chocolate
- Iron – red meat, spinach, dried apricots
How much of each vitamin and mineral do I need?
You can look up how much of each micronutrient you need to be healthy. Ideally, you would get enough vitamins and minerals from your diet. This is more likely to happen if you eat a balanced diet, covering all main food groups.
Focusing on eating a range of different foods can help, as you get different vitamins and minerals from different items. For example, if you always eat peanuts then you will be getting some iron and potassium. But if you alternate these with Brazil nuts and walnuts you can also get selenium and calcium too.
You can get a variety of micronutrients by eating a range of foods from different groups, such as:
- wholegrains including oats, brown rice, and rye bread
- dairy or fortified dairy free products
- nuts, seeds, and legumes
- oily fish, lean meat, and eggs
- berries, dark green leafy vegetables and other colourful vegetables and fruits
What about supplements?
There is mixed evidence about the benefits of taking a multivitamin and mineral supplement. Although they are not a substitute for a healthy balanced diet, there are some occasions when supplementation is recommended.
During the winter in the northern hemisphere (including the UK) vitamin D supplementation is needed. This is because from October – April there is not sufficient sunlight to give you the amount of vitamin D you need to be healthy. Also, during pregnancy it’s recommended you take a folic acid supplement to support the healthy development of your baby’s brain.
If you are unsure about whether you need more vitamins and minerals, then chatting to a registered nutritionist or dietitian can help you to work out what your personal needs are. This is particularly important if you suffer from a chronic health condition, have digestive issues, or are planning to have a child.