Unbeknownst to you, your body is hard at work every single day, whether you’re pushing it to its limits at the gym, out and about or even just sat at home on the sofa. While you go about your everyday activities, even resting, your gut is breaking down food to convert into energy, your skin and muscle are repairing themselves, your veins are carrying oxygen from your heart to your limbs, your organs are churning away at their individual jobs.
But they can’t do this alone! In order to create the energy that your body needs to thrive, you need to consume the correct levels of all the essential vitamins and minerals. There are countless nutrients your body uses to survive, some of these are obvious and ones you’ll have heard of many times before, like iron and vitamin C, whereas others are a little more obscure. Knowing what you need and the right amounts can be a tricky business, so while an average healthy, balanced diet usually provides most of what you need, we’re here to help explain what the different vitamins and minerals are, why you need them and where you can find them.
Understanding what the body needs
Although the terms are often thrown and classed together, vitamins and minerals do differ in their basic forms.
There are 13 essential vitamins for the human body. These are organic substances that are broken down by heat, air and acid, and can be more difficult to hold onto in what you consume as cooking can cause them to break down making them useless to the body.
Minerals, on the other hand, are inorganic – they can be found in substances like water and nutrient rich soil and enter your body via the plants and meats you consume.
In addition to this, vitamins also break down into two categories: fat soluble and water soluble.
The fat soluble vitamins, which include all the vitamins in the B group and vitamin C, are stored in the body’s fatty tissue so that they can be used when needed. As such, you don’t need to get the exact right amount every single day of these as your body will release the right amount needed to function correctly when needed.
In contrast, water soluble vitamins are not stored in the body and so must be used immediately. The additional water soluble vitamins will be passed out of the body via the kidneys in the urine if not used.
Why does the body need vitamins and minerals?
Both vitamins and minerals are absolutely essential to keep your body running healthily, but breaking it down even further, each individual vitamin and mineral has its very own part to play in the overall system. Without them, a full healthy body function would be very difficult to achieve.
For example, the body needs the following vitamins and minerals for these specific functions:
Vitamin A – this vitamin is known for its anti-aging properties. The correct levels help your body fight off inflammation, keep your vision active, good brain function, and contribute towards general cell growth.
Vitamin C – for healing wounds and maintaining healthy cells in your skin, bones and blood vessels, you need to consume plenty of oranges, peppers, strawberries and broccoli which contain vitamin C.
Calcium – found in dairy products like milk and cheese as well as nuts and dark leafy greens, calcium contributes towards strong and healthy bones, helps blood to clot properly and regulates muscle contractions.
In addition, many of the micronutrients contained in vitamins and minerals interact with one another, meaning that even if you’re getting enough of a certain vitamin or mineral, it might impact on another’s function. For example, vitamin D help to pull calcium from the foods that contain it, and vitamin C help with absorption of iron.
What happens if you don’t have enough vitamins and minerals?
Ensuring you get the correct levels of all the essential vitamins and minerals is key to living a balanced and healthy lifestyle. Your body will work at its optimum levels, with immune system, digestion, damage repair and organs all functioning properly together.
If, however, you have a deficiency in any of the important vitamins or minerals your body needs to thrive, you will likely suffer side effects. These can range from as
There are even some conditions that can arise from having a deficiency in certain vitamins or minerals which can have short or long term effects on the body. Here are a couple of examples:
Scurvy – this disease comes from a deficiency in vitamin C. It was common amongst sailors back in the day who didn’t have access to fresh fruit and veg. In the early stages, it can cause fatigue and sore limbs; in the long run, especially without treatment, it might cause bleeding gums, severe joint pain and bruised skin.
Anaemia – there are a few different types of anaemia. Some may be caused by an iron deficiency, as your body is unable to produce enough red blood cells to carry oxygen where it’s needed; others might be a result of a vitamin B12 or folate deficiency where your body creates abnormally large red blood cells that don’t function correctly. These result in extreme fatigue, lethargy, feeling faint, headaches and heart palpitations. In the long term, it can cause dramatic loss of appetite and weight loss. This is more common in young women, so if you experience any of these symptoms, check on the NHS website here for further information on what to do.
How can you make sure you have enough vitamins and minerals?
It can be overwhelming taking in all this information and ensuring that you get the right amount of everything your body needs. In fact, it doesn’t have to be as complicated as it first appears. Fortunately, in the vast majority of cases, many people will already get the right levels of vitamins and minerals. In reality, it’s difficult to overdo it on most vitamins and minerals as your body will simply flush out those that it doesn’t need as waste material so any additional shouldn’t cause you any harm at all.
Deficiency can be a problem for some though, and the first step is to analyse your diet with a food diary for a couple of weeks. If you’re consuming a rainbow of fruit and veg, plus healthy meats, grains and drinking plenty of water, as well as avoiding too much processed food, you’ll discover that you’re getting everything you need naturally.
There are exceptions to this though. Some people might be living to a certain diet plan that restricts their levels of certain vitamins and minerals – for example, those eating a vegan diet might struggle to get vitamin B12 as this is mainly contained in animal sourced products such as meat, salmon, milk, cheese and eggs. Some medical conditions, such as ulcerative colitis in terms of vitamin C, or food allergies and sensitivities can cause you to be lacking in others too.
If, after looking at your diet, you do find that you’re lacking in certain vitamins and minerals, you should look at taking supplements that increase the levels. It’s important to consult your doctor to ensure that you get the right ones for you.
If you’re still struggling to understand all the different vitamins and minerals you need and where you can get them all, this handy chart from Qlu Health has laid out everything in an easy to digest format with the water soluble and fat soluble vitamins separated by colour from the minerals, and icons for the best food sources for each one included.