Vitamins & Minerals: Why they matter
Vitamins & minerals are collectively known as micronutrients. They are exceptionally important for maintaining and optimising health. Even though they are required in relatively small quantities, many functions within the body are dependent on sufficient amounts of these micronutrients – and even a single micronutrient deficiency can cause significant imbalances, symptoms and ill health.
If you are looking after your calories and macronutrients (proteins, fats and carbohydrates) effectively whilst eating a largely wholefood diet with a good level of variety then the chances are you are looking after your micronutrients without paying much attention to them.
The field of nutrition was first established through the discovery that scurvy could be treated with appropriate levels of vitamin C back in 1842. Nutritional science and research have come a long way since then.
Vitamins are considered organic compounds that need to be obtained from the diet because we don’t have the ability to make them fast enough to meet everyday demands.
Some vitamins are water soluble and some vitamins are fat soluble. Water soluble include the B vitamins and vitamin C, whereas fat soluble include A, D, E & K.
Minerals originate in the earth that are not able to be synthesised by living organisms. Plants get minerals from soil and we get minerals from eating plants or the animals that also ate plants.
There are 14 different minerals and although we need them in relatively small amounts they are crucial to human health. Consider magnesium, this mineral is involved in well over 300 metabolic processes in the body, ranging from energy production, the production of brain chemicals, calcium absorption, protein metabolism, vitamin D activation, muscle contraction and relaxation etc.
How many vitamins and minerals do you need and where do I get them from?
We require vitamins and minerals at varying levels and each of us are completely individual as to our demands for these nutrients, factors such as physical activity, stress levels, genetic variations, absorption of nutrients, gut microbiome health and pre-existing imbalances, insufficiencies and deficiencies.
Certain bodies have tried to establish requirement levels such as the Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA), Adequate Intake (AI) and the Dietary Reference Intake (DRI) etc.
Most of these recommendations are focused on what levels do we need to avoid deficiency, and none consider individual needs.
Your starting point is a largely wholefood diet with minimised levels of refined and processed foods and adequate calories for your energy demands. Our food diversity has certainly changed over the years, more intensive and commercial farming practices are also factors in why we may not be getting the levels and diversity we perhaps could have.
Different foods provide different levels of nutrients. In general animal-based foods are very nutrient dense and have a high bioavailability of nutrients as well, that is not to say you cannot get all nutrients from a plant-based diet, however it can be more challenging, especially with certain nutrients like vitamin B12, zinc, iron etc.
Likewise, plant-based foods can be rich in nutrients that some animal-based foods are not as rich in. Plant-based foods are a significant source of fibre and phytonutrients as well, so it is in my opinion that a largely plant-based diet, supplemented with some animal proteins is optimal for most people, with individual cases varying from this rule of thumb.
Below is a summary that looks at certain vitamin and minerals involved in supporting bone health alone and the foods that are good sources of those nutrients:
Vitamin A Rich Foods
- Sweet potato
- Butternut squash
- Green leafy veg
Vitamin C Rich Foods
- Kiwi fruit
- Brussels sprouts
Potassium Rich Foods
- Coconut water
- Honeydew melon
- Root vegetables
- Leafy greens
Silica Rich Foods
- Green beans
Phosphorus Rich Foods
- Dairy foods
- Cashew nuts
- Brazil nuts
Magnesium Rich Foods
- Pumpkin, sesame, flax and sunflower seeds
- Green Beans
Zinc Rich Foods
- Sea Vegetables
- Pumpkin Seeds
- Sesame seeds
Chromium Rich Foods
- Romaine Lettuce
Calcium Rich Foods
Vitamin D Foods
- Wild Salmon
There is probably no way other that complex testing to understand if you are getting optimal amounts of nutrients, but with a varied diet you a most likely going to hit a least your minimum requirements.
Additional Factors to consider for vitamin and mineral status
Organic vs Non-Organic
We discuss organic vs non-organic in greater detail in my article titled Organic vs non-organic
Raw vs cooked
Raw, steaming or waterless cooking is one way of preserving certain nutrients in food. However, other foods you will unlock the nutrients by cooking them or make them more absorbable.
Some people will struggle to digest raw or lightly cooked foods, whereas others will be totally fine. Raw vs cooked will depend on the food you are eating and your own personal health and digestive capabilities.
Some foods feel like they are meant to be eaten raw, like most fruits and salad type veggies, whereas other veggies and plant-based foods like potato, broccoli, cabbage etc do better when cooked. I’d suggest a mix of raw and cooked foods, so long as you are avoiding digestive troubles you are probably doing fine. You’ll probably find that you eat more cooked in the winter and less in the summer, this is also pretty common, and I see no reason why this cannot be embraced to eat seasonally.
To Supplement or Not to Supplement?
Having said the above over the years there has been a significant emphasis on the need for micronutrient supplementation, even though our food, drink and sunshine are the natural provider. Whilst supplementation may be useful in some individuals, if you are firstly not managing your calories and macronutrients effectively and not eating a largely wholefood diet, then focusing on micronutrient supplementation is not the starting point for you.
There should always be a priority order when looking at optimising one’s nutrition. Supplementation is what it says it is, to supplement and should never be seen as a replacement. Food has the ability to provide the calories, macronutrients and micronutrients required by the body for good health. In certain populations, such as people with certain genetic variations, athletic populations, people with pre-existing diseases, symptoms, deficiencies and insufficiencies supplementation can certainly be of use.
I remember learning from Paul Chek in the late 90’s and he mentioned an analogy that stuck with me when considering when to introduce supplementation.
“You can’t build a strong boat out of rotten wood and golden nails”
Your wood is your nutrition and lifestyle and the golden nails the supplements. Let’s also consider that not all supplements are created equal, in fact most supplements on the market I would consider being more harmful than helpful to human health.
Research has and will always provide varying results when it comes to supplement use. This is because we all have individual needs; different studies will use different forms of nutrients that all have varying effects and absorption levels and they will typically use a variety of dosages within studies.
Most studies are also look at clear one pill for one ill therapeutic effect. Nutrients are designed to work with one another for a combined effect, hence why food is your foundation.
High dose nutrient therapy can cause imbalances elsewhere in the body if not done correctly, my recommendation is that supplementation with nutrients is typically something you should gain professional advice, by someone with strong biochemistry and physiology education and understanding about nutrients. If you are already taking medications, then you must work with your GP or a qualified nutrition professional to avoid drug-nutrient interaction that might impact your health or the effectiveness of your medication.
Vitamins and Minerals Summary
- Eat a varied diet, choosing wholefood the large majority of the time.
- Eating adequate calories and balanced macronutrients will likely cover your micronutrient intake without much thought.
- A largely plant-based diet supplemented with varying levels of animal protein, dependant on demands, I have found to be physiologically optimal. However, your personal preference may not be to eat animal-based foods and therefore you may have to consider appropriate supplementation where necessary.
- Certain individuals may have to emphasis certain nutrients and sometimes supplementation with micronutrients can be useful.
- If you want to use nutritional supplementation then get professional advice and consider lab testing to guide your choices and dosages.
This article was written together with my colleague, Lara Rickard, who is a Registered Dietitian specialising in female hormone health.
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