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Despite having a well-balanced diet and taking additional supplements, your body may not be getting the nutrients it needs.
What are vitamins and minerals and why do we need them?
Vitamins are a group of organic compounds present in a variety of natural foods. The body requires vitamins in small amounts to function correctly and remain healthy. Vitamins are crucial for many different bodily functions such as aiding the formation of new blood cells, keeping our eyes healthy and strengthening our immune systems. When the body does not get a sufficient supply of a vitamin, a deficiency will occur. We need to obtain vitamins from our diet because the body cannot synthesise them quickly enough to meet our daily needs.
There are currently 13 recognised vitamins that are either fat or water soluble. Thiamine (B1), riboflavin (B2), niacin (B3), pantothenic acid (B5), pyridoxine (B6), biotin (B7), folate (B9) and cobalamin (B12) are all water-soluble vitamins, while vitamins A, D, E and K are all fat soluble. When there are excess levels of fat-soluble vitamins in the body, they are stored in fat cells. In contrast, the body does not store water-soluble vitamins, instead, it excretes excess water-soluble vitamins as waste.
Although they are all considered micronutrients, vitamins and minerals are not one and the same. Vitamins are organic and can be broken down when exposed to heat and air, whereas minerals are inorganic and therefore not so easily changed. This means minerals are more easily transported from plants, animals and liquids than the more fragile vitamins. Vitamins and minerals also interact with each other in both positive and negative ways. Vitamin C helps the body absorb iron, but also blocks our intake of copper. Some of the 16 essential minerals the body needs include calcium, potassium, magnesium and iron.
How do we get the vitamins and minerals we need?
The majority of people should get most of the nutrients they need through eating a balanced and varied diet. There are, however, circumstances where an individual may not get all the vitamins they need from diet alone, vitamin D for example. There are a limited number of foods that contain vitamin D, including the flesh of fatty fish (mackerel, tuna and salmon), fish liver oils, egg yolks, beef liver and cheese. However, these food types are not enough to provide the body with optimum vitamin D levels. Because of this, many in the UK are vitamin D deficient. It is recommended that everyone (including pregnant and breastfeeding women) should look at taking a daily 10mcg vitamin D supplement during the autumn and winter months.
People with hypothyroidism have an increased risk of pernicious anaemia which makes it difficult to absorb vitamin B12. Vegetarians and vegans are also at risk of low vitamin B12 as there are almost no plant sources of this vitamin.
Where vitamin intake is restricted such as the case with vitamin D and B12 for many people, the use of supplements are a good way to ensure the body is receiving the necessary nutrients. There are also times in life where an individual’s vitamin requirement may change, as is the case during pregnancy. It is recommended that pregnant women supplement 400 mcg folic acid daily from the time they stop using contraception until they're 12 weeks pregnant. This is to help prevent birth defects, such as spina bifida.
Are vitamins and minerals easily absorbed by the body?
Just because our diets are nutritious and well-balanced, doesn't necessarily mean we're getting all the nutrients we need. Several factors impact how well the body absorbs nutrients from foods ingested, including how the food is prepared, age, health status, time of day, and other foods eaten at the same time. To make sure the body is absorbing the maximum amount of nutrients, there are a number of handy tips to follow which help increase vitamin absorption.
Pair vitamin C-rich foods with iron. This helps to convert the non-heme iron into heme iron which the body finds easier to absorb. This is particularly beneficial for those consuming plant-based iron sources.
Include healthy fats with each meal. Fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K dissolve in a source of dietary fat and are carried through the intestines to the liver until they are needed. Because of this, there must be enough healthy fats in your diet to fully reap the benefits of the fat-soluble vitamins.
Cut down your alcohol consumption. Alcohol affects the number of digestive enzymes in the body and the cell lining of the stomach and intestines, making it harder for the nutrients from digestion to enter the bloodstream.
Cook quickly. Water-soluble vitamins break down easily when exposed to heat and water. To help keep these vitamins intact, avoid extended cooking methods such as boiling or baking and instead steam microwave or lightly saute foods containing these vitamins.
Eat red foods cooked. Lycopene, found in red food such as tomatoes and red peppers, actually increases when exposed to heat. Lycopene is linked to decreased risk of cancer and heart attacks.
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