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Nutrient Know-How: Which Vitamins And Minerals We Need For All Our Health And Wellness Needs

Which Vitamins And Minerals We Need

With the first signs of Spring, our thoughts often turn to health and fitness, especially whether we’re getting the right levels of vitamins and minerals from our diets. Out goes stodgy winter food and in comes fresh salads, fruit and stir fries. But, even if you’re doing well on nutrition most of the time, it’s still worth considering topping up with a vitamin and mineral supplement such as a multivitamin and multimineral supplement as certain foods have few natural nutrient sources. Here’s your guide to which vitamins and minerals you might need to help ensure any dietary nutrient gaps are met and your body is fuelled with the very best nutrient needs.

The vitamins

Vitamin D – needed for normal bone health as well as to support our immune function. Depending on the time of year, up to four out of ten British adults and around a third of teenagers are clinically deficient[1]. This is due to several reasons including a lack of natural vitamin D sources in the diet (basically oily fish and eggs) and fewer people having regular access to summer sunshine in the UK.

Sunblock, SPF make up and covering up the skin – all reduce exposure to vitamin D which is why some ethnic minority groups are at greater risk of being vitamin D deficient. Studies show that bone conditions, such as childhood rickets, are now more common while osteoporosis (bone fragility) affects 3.5 million adults in the UK[2].

The Government recommends that everyone from weaning onwards should be taking a daily vitamin D supplement in winter and spring[3] and there is evidence that we should take vitamin D all year round. While the minimum recommended dosage is 10 micrograms, it’s safe to take up to 100 micrograms daily.

Folic acid – needed during pregnancy to support normal foetal development and during later life to slow cognitive decline. Pregnant women have always been advised to take folic acid to prevent a debilitating condition, called spina bifida, which affects thousands of foetuses each year[4]. Government surveys now reveal that a shocking 90% of women are deficient in folate during their child-bearing years and there has been a steady decline in folate status since 2008[5]. This will only result in more babies being at risk from spina bifida.

Dietary sources of folate include liver, green leafy vegetables and fortified breakfast cereals. The daily recommendation is 200 micrograms, or 400 micrograms when planning a pregnancy.

Vitamin B12 – needed for the nervous system and cognitive function. Most children and adults get enough vitamin B12 from the diet, as long as they are eating a variety of animal-based foods, such as meat, poultry, fish and eggs. However, the rise in popularity of plant-based and vegan diets has put thousands of people at risk of low vitamin B12 intakes.

The NHS says that extreme tiredness, pins and needles and a sore red tongue could indicate vitamin B12 deficiency. Elderly people need more vitamin B12 as they have less of ‘intrinsic factor’, a protein in the stomach which helps the body to absorb vitamin B12. Older people should consider supplementing with B complex, not just because of lower absorption but because studies have found that additional B vitamins help slow cognitive decline. Vegans and people following plant-based diets should also take a B12 supplement or use nutritional yeast and fortified foods in meals.

Other B vitamins – needed for normal hair, nails, energy release and hormone regulation. Vitamins B1, B2, B6 and biotin all have vital roles in the body, but you should be getting enough if you are eating a balanced, varied diet. Key sources are meat, fish, eggs, beans and dairy foods. Women can benefit from additional B6 if they are experiencing symptoms around the menstrual cycle or menopause. Extra biotin can support hair growth and condition.

A recent study of blood samples from 1162 American patients reported that too much niacin could be linked to heart disease[6]. However, this was an observational study which didn’t measure diet. Niacin is safe at the levels provided by fortified foods and dietary supplements in the UK.

Vitamin C – an antioxidant needed for immune function and wound healing. Everyone who is eating the recommended 5-a-day fruit and vegetables will be getting enough vitamin C. The trouble is that a quarter of UK adults and a worrying nine out of ten children are nowhere near this according to the National Diet and Nutrition Survey1.

Eating plenty of fruits and vegetables, and drinking a daily glass of orange juice, will provide enough vitamin C. But, while the recommended vitamin C intake is 80mg, higher intakes of around 500-1000mg for 7-10 days have been found to reduce the duration of colds and these are best achieved with a supplement, particularly one that also contains zinc.

The minerals

Calcium – needed for bone and tooth health. Key sources are dairy products, nuts, seeds and green leafy vegetables. However, the popularity of plant milks has led to many women and girls dumping dairy which put their bone health at risk. Surveys show that one in ten women and a quarter of teenage girls in the UK now don’t get enough calcium1.

Encouraging calcium sources from an early age helps children and young people to lay down bone density during the crucial window of bone development. If this isn’t possible, for example due to dislike of dairy foods or a vegan diet, it’s important to offer a calcium supplement combined with vitamin D. This is because the two nutrients work together to ensure normal bone growth.

Magnesium – needed for normalnervous function, mood and bone structure. High fibre foods like legumes, nuts, seeds, and whole grains are all high in magnesium, as well as spinach. But these aren’t popular with many people which explains why four in 10 teenagers and one in ten adults are very low in magnesium1.

While magnesium is best known for its role in bone structure, studies suggest that it can also improve mood and lower stress when taken as a supplement[7].

Selenium – an antioxidant which supports immune function. Plants are the main source of selenium in the diet, but their content depends on soil levels of selenium which are known to be depleted in the UK. A switch to using European grains instead of American led to a reduction in selenium in British diets which persists today[8].

According to the National Diet and Nutrition Survey, a quarter of males and half of females have diets which are too low in selenium1; however, clinical deficiency is still rare. Selenium is difficult to get in the diet, but Brazil nuts are a reliable source – we need just 3-4 daily to meet the recommendation. Selenium is also present in most mineral supplements.

Zinc – needed for immune function and normal fertility. Zinc is mostly found in animal foods so can be another nutrient of concern when people switch to plant-based diets. Vegan sources are tempeh, tofu, quinoa and pumpkin seeds.

Up to a fifth of Brits, particularly teenagers, don’t get enough zinc in their diets1. As teenagers’ diets are often low in several minerals, including zinc, magnesium, iron and iodine1, it’s worth giving them a daily multimineral supplement.

Iron – needed for red blood cells, cognitive function and preventing tiredness and fatigue. The richest sources are liver and red meat which have become less popular over the past decade. Menstruating females need a third more iron than males which is why half of teenage girls and a third of women have low iron intakes, risking deficiency1. Symptoms include tiredness, being out of breath on exertion and brain fog. Boys and men generally get enough iron from their diets as they eat more meat. Girls and younger women should consider a mineral supplement, especially if they have heavy periods or don’t eat red meat.

Iodine – needed for thyroid hormones, skin health, normal growth in childhood and development of the infant brain. Goitre, thickening of the neck due to iodine deficiency, used to be a common sight in inland parts of the UK, leading to the medical condition ‘Derbyshire neck’[9]. Nowadays it’s rare thanks to the use of iodine in dairy production[10] but this could change again as plant milks – which are low in iodine – gradually take the place of cows’ milk. Recent surveys have found that around a fifth of younger women in the UK have low blood levels of iodine[11].

Last word

Every vitamin and mineral is essential to the body as they all have several functions to perform. Clinical deficiencies are rare but reports of malnutrition have become more common in the UK as we veer towards heavily processed foods and away from the meat, fish, vegetables, fruit and wholegrains that our parents and grandparents ate. While the cornerstone of good nutrition is a healthy, balanced diet, a daily multivitamin and mineral supplement can be a safe and convenient way to bridge nutrient gaps in our diets which most of us have.

Dr Carrie Ruxton, dietitian and advisor to the Health and Food Supplements Information Service (www.hsis.org)

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