What are vitamins

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Information & Advice

Written on05/10/2010

What are vitamins?

Most of us have heard of vitamins but how many of us could say, definitively, what they are? Luckily Ernie Woodhouse, Boots' technical adviser for vitamins, minerals and supplements, knows exactly what he's talking about.


"They're nutrients that are vital for the functioning of our bodies," says Ernie, who has worked in vitamins for seven years. "We wouldn't survive without them."

What are the main vitamins?

You're likely to have heard of most of the main vitamins. They include:

vitamin a

What are vitamins? Vitamin A (Retinol):

You can find Vitamin A in foods like cheese, full fat milk, eggs and oily fish. It helps maintain skin health, helps strengthen immunity and helps vision in dim light.

vitamin b

What are vitamins? B Vitamins:

There are eight different B vitamins and they include Vitamin B6 and Vitamin B12. Vitamin B6, found in foods such as pork, chicken, cod, bread, and vegetables, helps you store energy from food. Vitamin B12, found in meat, cod, salmon, milk and cheese, helps you release energy from food and creates red blood cells.

vitamin c

What are vitamins? Vitamin C:

You've probably already heard where to find Vitamin C - fruit and vegetables are a good source, with peppers, broccoli and oranges being particularly beneficial. Vitamin C helps the body absorb iron, maintain healthy bones, teeth and tissue and contributes to the functioning of the immune system.

vitamin d

What are vitamins? Vitamin D:

Known as the "sunshine vitamin" because sunlight is our main source of Vitamin D. It is also found in liver, oily fish and eggs and helps keep bones healthy.

vitamin e

What are vitamins? Vitamin E:

Vitamin E protects cell membranes from damage. Olive oil, nuts and seeds are good sources of Vitamin E.

vitamin k

What are vitamins? Vitamins K:

The main K Vitamins are K1 and K2. Vitamin K is found in green, leafy vegetables and they help with blood clotting and bone maintenance. "Vitamins do all sorts of jobs," says Ernie. "We can produce a small number of them ourselves but most of them have to be obtained from our diet and environment. This is why they are called essential nutrients."

What are minerals?

Sitting alongside vitamins on the supplements shelf are dietary minerals. Again, you've probably heard of many of them. They are contained in a variety of foods, including cereals, bread, fish, meat, dairy products, fruit and vegetables and help build strong bones and energise us.



Spinach, nuts, fish, meat and dairy all contain magnesium, which helps, turn our food into energy.



Found in dairy foods and some green vegetables like broccoli, calcium helps us build strong bones.



Bananas, pulses and meats like beef and chicken are all good sources of potassium, which helps control the balance of fluids in our bodies.



Liver, meat, beans and green vegetables such as kale, spinach and watercress contain iron, which helps make red blood cells.

So why take supplements?

Ideally, vitamins and minerals should come from a healthy, balanced diet. "But the bottom line is we, as a nation, don't eat properly," says Ernie, pointing to the latest UK Diet and Nutrition survey, conducted in 2010, which found that vitamin and mineral intakes were poor.

"The latest survey says many of us have a poor diet with low in takes of many essential vitamins and minerals, including iron, magnesium, selenium, zinc and calcium," he says.

What is the Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA)?

There are several different ways of expressing the amount of vitamins and minerals you need to stay healthy. The one that most people will have heard of is the RDA (Recommended Daily Allowance).

The RDA is a Europe-wide standard that is based on the amount of a vitamin or mineral that is sufficient to meet the needs of the average adult and is a good measure of dietary adequacy. There are various groups of the population who may benefit from taking a supplement if they don't eat a healthy, balanced diet. These include:

  • Pregnant and breastfeeding women
  • Strict vegetarians
  • Infants and Children
  • The ageing population
  • Smokers
  • People on a restricted diet

Vitamins: Where should you start?

"There's not really a way of working it out. It's more about looking at your diet, your age and lifestyle" says Ernie. Your starting point should be a chat with a nutritionist or pharmacist. They will be able to suggest if it's necessary to take supplements and at what levels. Too much of certain vitamins or minerals can be harmful: for example, if you're pregnant having large amounts of Vitamin A (Retinol) can harm your unborn baby. Remember: if your diet is balanced and healthy, you may not need to take supplements.

"The starting point has to be a healthy diet but we live in the real world and we realise people don't always do that. Hand on heart, I know I don't," says Ernie. "Therefore supplements can be a way of making sure you're getting what you need on a daily basis."

Which groups of people might consider taking supplements?

Vitamins for pregnant women:

First, think about prenatal vitamins. "If you're trying for a baby, or already pregnant, folic acid is key," says Ernie. Women are advised to take a supplement of 400 micrograms of folic acid every day before conception and up to the twelfth week of pregnancy. And remember to avoid taking any Vitamin A (Retinol) supplements during pregnancy since large amounts can harm your unborn child. Another supplement to consider is Vitamin D for bone health. The Government's Food Standards Agency advises you should be taking 10 micrograms during pregnancy and while breastfeeding. You may want to consider taking a pregnancy-specific multi-vitamin. Ask your GP or pharmacist for guidance.

Vitamins for vegetarians:

Three important nutrients for vegetarians are B12, zinc and iron. "Meat is most people's main source of these," says Ernie. You may also want to consider how much calcium your diet provides you with. This, Ernie says, can vary according to what you eat. "The term 'vegetarian' spans a whole host of eating preferences," he says. "If you avoid dairy products then calcium is something to consider."

Vitamins for children:

The Food Standards Agency advises that children's energy and nutrient needs are high in relation to their body size. Children need calcium (to help build strong bones and teeth), Vitamin C (to protect cells from damage and help maintain a healthy immune system), Vitamin A (for healthy skin and good vision), as well as iron (for healthy blood).

Vitamins for the elderly:

The FSA also recommends that older people consider taking 10 micrograms of vitamin D daily as they don't utilise it as effectively as younger age groups.

Vitamins for smokers:

The more you smoke, the more Vitamin C you lose from your tissues and blood. However, your body requires more Vitamin C to counteract the damage that smoking causes to your cells. To make up for this disturbance, a smoker needs to increase their Vitamin C intake to around 2,000mg a day. This can't be achieved by diet alone, so a supplement is needed. Smokers should also avoid taking Beta Carotene as a supplement. Smokers should also try to increase their intake of antioxidants, mainly from fruit and vegetables. That said, no amount of supplements can protect the body against the damage caused by smoking.

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