Idiots Guide to Vitamins & Minerals

We all need vitamins and minerals to be fit and healthy, to give us energy and to aid our fight against infection and disease. As these nutrients can’t be manufactured naturally by our bodies, they have to be obtained from the food we eat. A well-balanced diet should include meat, fish (especially oily), eggs, cereals and dairy products, with plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables (ideally at least 5-a-day), avoiding too many processed, fatty or sugary foods.

Even if we manage to eat our recommended 5-a-day of fruit and vegetables, produce in the shops may not be absolutely fresh, and certain vitamins, especially vitamin C, degrade very quickly. Also, the time it can take to transport fruit and veg to the supermarket or shop, the length of storage and whether the produce is seasonal can greatly affect its nutritional value. And even after preparation and cooking, the retention of many vitamins in food can be as little as 40% of the original value!

Certain groups of people are still vulnerable to nutritional deficiencies, even if they eat fairly healthily. Vegans or vegetarians who don’t eat meat or dairy produce may not get enough vitamin B12, needed for red blood cell formation, energy and the nervous system. Pregnant women, or women with heavy periods, may need more iron to prevent anaemia and low energy levels. Also, people who are ill, heavy drinkers, smokers and crash dieters often have higher than average nutritional requirements. For example, each cigarette smoked destroys some vitamin C, and studies have shown that smokers require double the amount of vitamin C as non-smokers. So taking a vitamin and mineral supplement would be beneficial in all these circumstances.

What are Vitamins?
Vitamins are compounds needed by the body in small quantities to enable it to grow, develop and function. They help to produce energy, build tissues, remove waste and ensure that each system works efficiently. There are two types of vitamins that we need: fat-soluble and water-soluble.

FAT-SOLUBLE VITAMINS (vitamins A, D, E & K) - are found mainly in fatty foods such as animal fats, vegetable oils, dairy foods, liver and oily fish. Your body needs these vitamins every day to work properly. However, you don't actually need to eat foods containing them every day. This is because, if your body doesn't need these vitamins immediately, it stores them in your liver and fatty tissues for future use, if and when you need them. But, if you have much more than you need, fat-soluble vitamins can be harmful.

Incidentally, vitamin D is produced within the body when the skin is exposed to the ultraviolet (UVB) rays in sunlight. So spending a few minutes in the sun each day supplies all the vitamin D your body needs, but obviously not so easy during the winter. However, your body is able to store enough vitamin D to carry you through to spring, as long as you get enough exposure during the rest of the year.

WATER-SOLUBLE VITAMINS (vitamins B6, B12, C, biotin, folic acid, niacin, pantothenic acid, riboflavin, thiamine) - are found in fruit, vegetables and grains. They are not stored in the body, so you need them more frequently. If you have more than you need, your body gets rid of the extra vitamins when you urinate. Because the body doesn't store water-soluble vitamins, generally these vitamins aren't harmful. But unlike fat-soluble vitamins, they can be destroyed by heat or by being exposed to the air. They can also be lost in the water used for cooking. By cooking food, especially boiling, we can lose these vitamins from the food we eat. The best way to keep as much of the water-soluble vitamins as possible is to steam or grill, rather than boil or fry.

What are Minerals?
Minerals are essential nutrients that your body needs in small amounts to work properly - calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, sodium and sulphur. They can be found in varying amounts in a variety of foods such as meat, cereals, bread, fish, milk, dairy foods, vegetables, fruit (especially dried fruit) and nuts. Minerals are necessary for building strong bones and teeth, controlling body fluids inside and outside cells, and turning the food we eat into energy.

A Shortcut to Health?
Some people assume that taking vitamin pills by the handful acts as a kind of ‘insurance policy’, or even means that they don’t have to bother watching what they eat. But many studies have shown that vitamins from supplements do not act on the body in the same way as vitamins from foods. Supplements should only be used to ‘fill the gaps’ where a regular balanced diet is not possible, or when outside influences like smoking or illness take their toll.

Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA)
Established by government health organisations, RDA is defined as the average daily dietary intake level that is sufficient to meet the nutrient requirements of a healthy individual. They are not the levels necessary for optimum health, as they are based on the needs of the average healthy person.

Milligram or Microgram?
These are the most common measurements you will see on a supplement label. One microgram (also listed as mcg or µg) is a thousand times smaller than a milligram (mg).

When to Take
It depends on the supplement you are taking. For example, the fat soluble vitamins and essential fatty acids in cod liver oil are best absorbed if there is fat present in the diet at the same time, so should be taken with meals. Mineral supplements, such as iron, should ideally be taken at least one hour before or after eating, as some foods can affect the absorption of minerals. For other supplements, eating with food may be less important. The best advice is to follow the recommendations provided by the manufacturer or retailer. As it is important to take supplements regularly if they are to be of benefit, getting into the habit of taking them with a meal could help as part of a regular routine.

How Long to Take
Supplements are not an instant fix. Generally the body requires a steady, regular supply of nutrients from the diet and/or supplements for metabolism, growth and repair of body tissues, as not all nutrients are stored in the body. If you don’t regularly eat a varied diet, have long-term ill health, or are a heavy smoker or drinker, then supplements should be part of a long term routine.

Possible Dangers
More is not necessarily better. This is particularly true with the fat-soluble vitamins that will be stored in the liver, like vitamin A. They can eventually reach toxic levels and cause liver damage. Even the water-soluble vitamin C can cause diarrhoea at levels of 2000mg a day, which is lower than the amount some people take in the hope of staving off colds.

Most people will benefit from regularly taking a good multivitamin to ensure any imbalances in the diet are righted before health problems arise.

Who can Benefit?
If you are vulnerable to nutritional deficiencies because you smoke, drink heavily, etc, here are some suggested beneficial supplements you can take.

Vitamin B complex - one tablet twice a day with food
Vitamin C - 500mg twice a day (reduce dose if diarrhoea develops)
Vitamin E - 400mg a day

Heavy drinkers
Vitamin C - 500mg twice a day
Vitamin E - 250mg daily
Vitamin B complex - one tablet each morning with food
Milk thistle - 250g three times a day

Stress sufferers
Vitamin B complex - one tablet twice a day with food
Calcium/magnesium - 500mg calcium & 200mg magnesium twice a day with food (sometimes sold as single supplement)
Ginseng (panax) - 100-300mg extract twice a day

Vitamin B complex - one tablet twice a day with food