A Guide to Vitamins

Many Australians take some sort of vitamin pill (or several!), but most people don’t actually need to. Most of the essential vitamins and minerals you need to stay healthy can be obtained through your food, which is why it’s so important to eat a well-balanced diet.

Learn more about vitamins and how to get the right amounts.

What are vitamins?

Vitamins are chemical compounds essential for normal growth and metabolism; you need them to stay healthy.

The main role of vitamins is to help convert the food you eat into energy and living tissues, such as bones, muscles, blood, nerves, and skin. Vitamins also help your body resist infection and protect body cells. Although vitamins are essential to life, they’re actually only required in tiny amounts.

Because vitamins can’t be made by your body (with the exception of vitamin D), you must obtain vitamins from food. Most vitamins aren’t stored in the body to any great extent, so must be replenished regularly, which makes it so important to eat a well-rounded diet.

New research also suggests vitamins (and minerals) play a significant role in the prevention or slowing of many diseases such as heart disease, cancer, cataracts, osteoporosis, and birth defects. The total effects of vitamins on the body are still not fully known or understood.

There are two broad groups of vitamins:

  • Fat-soluble vitamins, including vitamins A, D, E, K, and betacarotene
  • Water-soluble vitamins, including the B vitamins, (B1, B2, B3, B6, B12) vitamin C, and folate.

Understanding the recommended dietary intake (RDI)

The RDI is the amount of each essential nutrient which is considered adequate by the National Health and Medical Research Council to meet your nutritional requirements. They’re designed to prevent nutritional deficiency diseases such as scurvy, beriberi, pellagra, rickets and anaemia. Following RDI recommendations for vitamins and other nutrient intakes helps keep your body in good health.

However, it’s important to remember the RDIs don’t address any extra nutrient needs of people with certain chronic ailments, or who smoke or are on prescribed medications. These factors may influence the amount you require of specific vitamins.

Are you at risk for vitamin deficiency?

Many people are vulnerable to nutritional deficiencies and need to take extra care to improve the quality of their diet. Supplements can also be taken to boost nutrients in the body, if needed. People at risk for vitamin deficiency include:

  • Elderly people who are light eaters; find preparation and cooking of food an effort; are unable to chew or swallow properly; or are on prescribed medications which may reduce appetite or increase their vitamin/mineral needs.
  • Teenagers & young adults who lead erratic lifestyles and tend to eat haphazardly.
  • Women who are on oral contraceptives; have heavy menstrual blood losses; suffer from osteoporosis; are pregnant or breastfeeding; have premenstrual syndrome; have anaemia. (Note: Pregnant women should never take supplements containing vitamin A.)
  • Cigarette smokers may require extra vitamins; eg. vitamin C and E, betacarotene.
  • Many heavy drinkers lack B vitamins, vitamin C, magnesium, and zinc. Heavy alcohol intake also encourages poor dietary habits.
  • Dieters, dancers and models who overly restrict quantity and variety of foods.
  • People on long-term prescribed medication. Many commonly prescribed drugs interfere with nutrient absorption and metabolism. Alcohol and coffee can also interfere with your absorption of nutrients.
  • Vegans may lack vitamin B12 and iron.
  • People with intestinal malabsorption may suffer deficiencies.
  • People with chronic ailments. Medically-directed supplementation may benefit many medical conditions. (Don’t stop your current medication unless directed by your doctor.)

Are you at risk of vitamin overdose?

Although vitamins are important for your body, more is not always better. In fact, it’s very easy to overdose on vitamins, even to toxic levels, by taking too many supplements. Before taking a supplement, do the research and talk to your doctor about whether you really need it. Always be aware of toxicity levels for any supplements you are taking. Usually, a multivitamin taken in the recommended dosage is a safe bet – even so, it pays to check. In fact, it could save you a lot of money on expensive supplements if you check before buying a supplement – for example, multivitamins often contain such small doses of the nutrients they contain, they’re barely worth taking! And other vitamins you don’t need are simply a waste of money, and potentially problematic for your health.

Note: Pregnant women should never take supplements containing vitamin A.

Tips to prevent vitamin loss in food

Obtaining the vitamins you need from your food, rather than supplements, is the best approach. However, as the vitamin content of food can be decreased depending on how food is handled, stored, and cooked, follow these tips for keeping foods as vitamin-rich as possible!

  • The longer the storage period, the greater the vitamin loss. Shop more frequently for fresh fruits and vegetables. Frozen vegetables and fruits often retain their nutrients longer than poorly-stored fresh produce. Avoid dehydrated vegetables.
  • Oxygen can destroy some vitamins, so avoid buying pre-cut produce and cut up fruits and vegetables yourself when you’re ready to eat or cook with them. Don’t thaw frozen vegetables before using.
  • Scrub vegetables clean rather than peeling them.
  • Use minimum amounts of water in cooking to avoid loss of water-soluble vitamins, such as vitamins B & C, and the leeching out of minerals. Cook vegetables whole or in large chunks to lessen the surface area exposed to water.
  • Cooking methods which are quick and limit exposure of foods to high temperatures are preferable; eg. steaming, stir-frying and microwaving.
  • Don’t overcook vegetables. Cook vegetables until they are softened, but still crispy and colourful.
  • For the freshest produce, ideally grow your own vegetables and fruits. Many varieties are easy to grow and are ideal for small spaces or containers.

Vitamin supplements

Vitamin supplements can be useful for people who can’t obtain sufficient amounts of vitamins from food – perhaps as a result of illness or special dietary requirements.

However, there are many other nutritional factors with vitamin-like qualities which can only be obtained by eating a wide variety of foods. Vitamin supplements are not a substitute for a healthy diet.

Large doses of vitamins or minerals can also have side effects and should only be taken under medical supervision. Always check with your doctor before buying or trying any new vitamin or mineral supplements!

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