Vitamins and minerals
Vitamins and minerals are vital for good health. We normally get our supply of vitamins and minerals from our diet, although the sun stimulates the body to make the vitamin D we need.
Why are vitamins so vital?
Vitamins help make sure your body's cells work properly, by controlling the growth and repair of tissues. They also stimulate energy production. You need to make sure you have the RDA (Recommended Daily Amount) of each vitamin. You should be able to manage this if you eat at least five servings of fruit and vegetables each day, some cereal or wholegrains, and a helping of lean meat or oily fish.
What about supplements?
Some health experts say that we can get all the vitamins and minerals we need from our usual diet. But, as most of us don't eat a recommended diet, supplements can top up our daily needs.
If you feel you aren't getting enough vitamins from your diet, you could try vitamin supplements - but these are no substitute for a good diet, and should be taken with care. In fact, the European Commission has endorsed rules which mean that vitamin pills must carry health warnings stating that they have no medicinal value, and that taking too many is unhealthy. This is likely to be enforced in 2002, and will also say which substances can and cannot be put in the pills.
For most vitamins - sticking to the RDA is the key. The main exceptions to this are if you have been told by your GP that you are deficient in a particular mineral or vitamin, or if you are aware that your diet is deficient, if for example, you don't eat fruit or vegetables at all.
Vitamins at different life stages
Special circumstances mean that we sometimes have to rethink our diets. For example:
Elderly people or people on their own can find it hard to motivate themselves to prepare healthy meals, and should think about topping up their vitamin and mineral intake. Supplements that contain calcium and vitamin C can help maintain healthy tissue and bones, and help prevent infections and colds. These are found naturally in fruit, green vegetables, dairy products and oily fish. Talk to your GP before taking any vitamin supplements, to make sure you're not taking too high a dose and to check that they will not adversely interfere with any medication you are taking.
Most experts agree that women should boost their vitamin intake before and during pregnancy. Multivitamins with iron and folic acid help mums stay healthy. Folic acid taken before conception and for the first three months of pregnancy can help reduce the risk of birth defects. Vitamin C assists the absorption of iron, so try drinking a glass of orange juice when you take an iron supplement.
Vegetarians might consider taking protein and calcium supplements to replace the vitamins and minerals that are found in meat and dairy products. This is particularly true if you have simply eliminated meat from your diet, rather than substitute meat with other high protein vegetarian foods such as pulses, beans and so on.
Chart of vitamins
Vitamin A is important for healthy bones, teeth, skin and hair. It protects the linings of the respiratory, digestive and urinary tracts from infection.
It can also help you see better at night!
Plant foods: Green leafy vegetables such as spinach, fortified cereals, and yellow/orange coloured fruit and vegetables - especially carrots.
Animal foods: Liver, fish oils, egg yolks and milk.
Vitamin B1 (Thiamine)
Controls the enzymes that are involved in stimulating the chemical reactions which convert sugar (glucose) into energy.
Helps produce the energy needed for nerves, muscles and heart to function properly.
Plant foods: Wholemeal bread and grains, brown rice, wholewheat pasta, bran, pulses (peas, beans), nuts, eggs.
Animal foods: Liver, pork, fish.
Vitamin B2 (Riboflavin)
Promotes the production of hormones by the adrenal glands (lie above the kidneys, and secrete adrenalin); stimulates the release of energy; maintains a healthy mouth, tongue and skin.
Plant foods: Green vegetables such as broccoli, wholegrains, cereals, wheatgerm, brewer's yeast.
Animal foods: Liver, cheese, eggs, milk.
Vitamin B3 (Niacin)
There are two main forms of niacin - nicotinamide and nicotinic acid.
Helps energy production from fats and carbohydrates, helps the functioning of the nervous and digestive systems.
Promotes production of the sex hormones (eg testosterone) and also helps maintain a healthy skin.
Plant foods: Nuts, beans.
Animal foods: Lean meat, liver, poultry and fish.
Vitamin B6 (Pyridoxine)
Helps formation of red blood cells and antibodies, aids nervous and digestive systems and helps maintain healthy skin.
Plant foods: Most fruit and vegetables, especially bananas, potatoes, dried beans and whole grains.
Animal foods: Liver, poultry, pork, fish.
Helps keep nervous system healthy; aids production of genetic matter, which is essential for formation of new cells.
Only found in animal foods.
If you don't eat animal products, it's essential that you take a B12 vitamin supplement.
Folic acid (one of the B-complex vitamins)
Aids production of genetic material; helps maintain a healthy nervous system. Pregnant (or trying to get) women should take a folic acid supplement.
Mostly plant foods, such as spinach, broccoli, mushrooms, dried beans, peas, whole grains. Also found in liver.
Vitamin C (Ascorbic acid)
Boosts the immune system, helps wounds heal, improves iron absorption, maintains health of gums, teeth, bones and blood vessels.
Not stored by the body, so you need to include it every day in your diet.
Plant foods: Most fruit and vegetables, especially citrus fruit, berries, kiwis, blackcurrants, spinach and other green leafy vegetables, and potatoes. Eat raw when you can, to get maximum benefit; cooking/processing can destroy the vitamin.
Essential for normal growth and development, helps form strong teeth and bones as aids calcium absorption from food. Maintains healthy blood clotting, muscles and nerves by controlling blood levels of calcium.
Most vitamin D comes from sunlight.
Plant foods: Some cereals.
Animal foods: Oily fish such as tuna (and try cod liver oil), milk, liver, eggs.
Helps in formation and protection of red blood cells; protects cell linings in lungs and other tissues, may slow down cell ageing.
Plant foods: Whole grains, green leafy vegetable such as spinach or curly kale, nuts.
Animal foods: Fish, meat.
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