Vitamins & Minerals
Vitamins provide nutrients to help your body carry out different functions. There are two types of vitamins:
- water-soluble vitamins(e.g. vitamin C, the B vitamins) — these can’t be stored in your body and need to be replaced regularly from your diet.
- fat-soluble vitamins(vitamins A, D, E and K) — these can be stored in your body but should still be part of a healthy diet.
Because your body can’t make most vitamins — apart from vitamin D — you have to get them from the food you eat.
You can find water-soluble vitamins in fresh fruit, green vegetables and grains. It’s best to eat green vegetables raw, steamed, grilled or stir-fried to preserve the vitamins. If you boil these vegetables, most of the vitamins will be lost into the water.
Because fat soluble vitamins can be stored in the body, high intakes of these vitamins can result in harmful levels. This is unlikely to happen when vitamins are consumed in food, but it is possible to overdose on fat-soluble vitamins when taken in supplement form. Fat-soluble vitamins are less easily to be lost during cooking than water-soluble vitamins.
Minerals are chemicals that we need in small amounts for the body to work properly. They are essential as vitamins and you also need to get them from the food you eat for example you need:
- calcium for strong bones and teeth
- sodium for fluid balance and nerve function
- iron for transporting oxygen in the blood and energy metabolism
- iodine for thyroid hormone function.
Minerals and trace elements are mainly found in meat, cereals, fish, milk and dairy foods, vegetables, dried fruit and nuts.
How do I get enough vitamins and minerals?
Generally you can get vitamins and minerals you need by eating a healthy balanced diet.
- Aim to eat a variety of nutritious foods from every food group, including plenty of vegetables and some fruit each day.
- Your meals should contain moderate amounts of starch-containing and protein-rich foods. Starchy foods include whole grains, potato, rice or pasta. Protein-rich foods include eggs, meat, fish and pulses such as peas, beans and lentils.
Vitamin D is the only vitamin that you are unlikely to get enough of from your diet because it is only found naturally in very few foods, and only in small amounts. For most people, you get the vitamin D you need from the sun exposure as t’s used to produce vitamin D in your skin. However, it’s important to balance getting enough sun to maintain healthy vitamin D levels with protecting your skin from the sun to prevent skin cancer. The amount of sun exposure needed for healthy vitamin D levels depends partly on your skin type, the time of year and where you are. You need to wear sunscreen when out in the sun during peak UV times (UV index is 3 or above).
It’s quite possible to get the vitamins and minerals you need from a balanced vegetarian diet with careful planning. The exception is vitamin B12 for vegans, as this vitamin is naturally found in foods of animal origin (e.g. eggs and milk) which a vegan diet avoids. Vegans should look for foods fortified with vitamin B12 and they may also need a vitamin B12 supplement. An accredited practicing dietitian or doctor can give you advice.
Well-planned vegetarian and vegan diets can be healthy diets as they are generally low in saturated fat and high in fibre. However, like any other diet, a badly-planned vegetarian or vegan diet can still be nutritionally unsound.
If you are a vegetarian or vegan try to:
- eat five servings of vegetables and two serves of fruit every day
- eat plenty of iron-rich foods such as lentils, beans, nuts, pumpkin seeds, tofu and iron-fortified breakfast cereals
- eat a mix of plant protein foods throughout the day such as beans, tofu, tempeh, whole grains, nuts and seeds to get the full range of amino acids if you avoid eating eggs and dairy foods
- eat Brazil nuts, sunflower seeds, barley and whole grains to keep your selenium levels up
- drink soya, rice or oat drinks fortified with calcium to ensure you get enough calcium.