What are vitamins and minerals?
Essentially, vitamins and minerals are collective groups of nutrients that are necessary for the proper development, growth and functioning of the human body. Vitamins are organic substances are are required for the biochemical reactions in the body whereas minerals are inorganic substances the body needs to perform a variety of essential functions.
The human body is not normally able to synthesize vitamins in the amounts needed for optimal functioning. As a result, we must obtain those vitamins in adequate amounts by external means, either through the food we eat or by taking nutritional supplements. Vitamins are necessary for the body to utilize fats, proteins, minerals and carbohydrates, as well as to assist the body in functions such as fighting infection, keeping the mind alert, blood coagulation, and promoting good eyesight.
Although most medical experts will agree that the best way to obtain the vitamins our bodies need is through eating a balanced diet. However, the typical North American diet can often be lacking in vitamins and for that reason many people turn to supplements in order to bolster the levels of vitamins we take in.
The 13 known vitamins can be broken down into two categories: fat-soluble vitamins and water-soluble vitamins. Vitamins A, D, E and K fall into the category of fat-soluble vitamins or, put another way, vitamins that dissolve in fat but that do not dissolve in water. These vitamins are stored by the body, creating reserves that can tapped when the body needs them. Caution should be taken with ingesting fat-soluble vitamins, however. There is a fairly high risk of toxicity if taken in too-large amounts.
There are two kinds of Vitamin A. The first, retinol, is found in animal sources such as meat and dairy products. The second, beta-carotene, is a plant-based form of vitamin A. Good sources of beta-carotene include yellow and orange vegetables as well as green leafy vegetables. Those looking to boost their retinol should increase their intake milk, cheese, butter, liver, eggs and fish.
Vitamin D can, in fact, be synthesized in the body, with the help of ultraviolet light from sun exposure. Vitamin D helps th ebody to absorb calcium and phosphorus as well as assisting in the production of insulin and the fortification of the immune system against infection. Typically, good food sources of vitamin D are those that have been artificially fortified, such as bread and milk.
Part of a group of vitamins collectively known as antioxidants, vitamin E is charged with the task of protecting the body’s cells from damage caused by free radicals. By protecting the body against free radicals, vitamin E and the other antioxidants protect the body against a variety of diseases, including cataracts, heart disease and cancer. Vitamin E can be found in a variety of food sources, such as whole grains, green vegetables and vegetable oil.
Vitamin K is essential for the body’s ability to coagulate the blood as well as assisting in bone formation. Vitamin K is readily sourced from meat, dairy products and green leafy vegetables.
Water-soluble vitamins include vitamin C and the B-complex vitamins. As their collective name indicates, these vitamins dissolve easily in water and are only stored in small amounts in the body. Excess amounts of water-soluble vitamins are eliminated from the body via the urine. Although there is less of a risk of toxicity where water-soluble vitamins are concerned, it is also easier to develop a deficiency in these substances.
Probably one of the most well-known vitamins, vitamin C has a long history of being used as a remedy for the common cold. It works this this respect because of its ability to strengthen the immune system against infection. Vitamin C helps the body process carbohydrates and it also helps the body produce fats and proteins, it promotes healing and promotes the formation of connective tissues. Further, Vitamin C is instrumental in the production of various hormones and the release of certain kinds of brain chemicals. Vitamin C is easily obtained from a variety of food sources, including citrus fruits, melons, green vegetables, tomatoes, potatoes as well as meat, fish and dairy, although in smaller amounts. The concentration of vitamin C in raw vegetables is greater than that which can be found in cooked vegetables.
B complex vitamins help keep the body’s metabolism working as it should, in many cases with several of these vitamins working together. B vitamins are non-toxic as they are water soluble and, therefore, it is not common to have too much of these vitamins in the body. B vitamins serve several functions in the body, including keeping the nervous system healthy and helping the body to produce disease-fighting white blood cells. Vitamin B1 (also known as thiamin) removes excess lactic acid from the body, and folic acid helps in healthy fetal and infant development. Niacin (also known as vitamin B3) has been shown to be very helpful in controlling the levels of bad cholesterol in the blood.
There are many good food sources of B-complex vitamins. These include organ meats such as liver, poultry, fish, yeast, wheat germ, spinach, dairy and certain legumes include soybeans and peas.
The body requires higher concentrations of minerals than of vitamins. Of the seven minerals – calcium, phosphorous, magnesium, sodium, potassium, chloride and sulfur – the body needs at least 100 mg daily. Trace elements such as zinc and iodine are only required in small amounts but are still necessary for the healthy development and functioning of the body.
Iron plays an important role in carrying oxygen to the tissues in the body. Deficiency in iron can lead to a condition known as anemia and, for this reason, iron-fortified multivitamins are very popular, especially among women who are at a higher risk of anemia due to menstruation. Food sources of iron include red meat, liver, dark green vegetables and legumes.
Necessary for healthy bones and teeth, calcium is the most abundant mineral in the body. It also is necessary for blood clotting and the healthy release of neurotransmitters in the brain. Good sources include: green leafy vegetables, beans, nuts and dairy products.
Zinc is found in all of the body’s cells. It promotes healing and helps the body fight infection. Pregnant women should take care not to become deficient in zinc because that can lead to abnormal fetal development. Animal products are the best source of zinc.