They may be microscopic, but the vitamins and minerals in the foods we eat play an important role in our health and wellbeing.
“If we imagine the body as a car, we can put fuel into it in the form of carbohydrates, fats and proteins. But vitamins and minerals are the engine,” says Nathan Baldwin, accredited practising dietitian at Your Geneius.
The difference between vitamins and minerals
While they often get lumped together, vitamins and minerals are actually quite different.
“They are both micronutrients that we need in small amounts for the healthy function of the body, but vitamins are organic substances that contain carbon, whereas minerals are inorganic and do not contain carbon,” explains nutritionist Tori Blake .
While vitamins are produced by plants or animals, minerals originate in the soil and water, and we consume them via the plants or animals that have absorbed those minerals .
Types of nutrients
Vitamins and minerals can both be divided into two groups . Vitamins are either fat-soluble (vitamins A, E, D and K) or water-soluble (vitamin C and B-group vitamins such as B12, folate/B9 and riboflavin/B2 etc).
“The real difference is in the way your body handles those vitamins,” says Blake. “Water-soluble vitamins are absorbed into the water in the body, and if we consume them in excess we flush them out in urine. Whereas fat-soluble vitamins dissolve into fat and get stored in fat cells, so they’re not as easy to eliminate if we have too much of them.”
Because fat-soluble vitamins are stored, it means you’re less likely to develop a deficiency as quickly.
There are also two kinds of minerals: major and trace. “Major minerals are things like potassium, phosphorus, magnesium and sodium and you’ll find them in pretty much all foods, whereas trace minerals like iron, zinc and selenium are found in smaller amounts in food and levels can vary between foods,” says Baldwin.
Why we need them
Vitamins and minerals are right up there with air and water when it comes to what your body needs to keep it healthy and its various systems functioning properly.
“They act as co-factors which help enzymes in the body carry out different processes such as energy production, collagen formation and metabolism, and without them those processes can’t happen,” says Blake.
Every nutrient has its own unique roles. Minerals play a role in bone
, muscle and heart health – to name a few – and are also important for making enzymes and hormones.
Vitamins are important for ‘translating’ food into energy, although that’s just the start of their talents. “For instance, B12 is important for our nerves, vitamin A for our eyes, vitamin K our bones and vitamin C for things like neutralising free radicals and making sure we absorb iron well – the list goes on,” says Baldwin.
Where to get them
We can cover off our vitamin and mineral needs through a wholefoods-based diet that includes plenty of fresh produce (especially fruit and vegetables), and minimal refined or packaged foods.
“You also want lots of variety, because different foods contain different nutrients,” notes Blake.
A good way to achieve this is to eat a rainbow diet, cramming in as many colours of fruit and vegetables as possible.
Supplements may be useful if you’ve got a deficiency that’s been picked up on a blood test, if you have food group restrictions (if, for example, you’re vegetarian or vegan) or if you’re pregnant.
If you’re unsure whether a supplement is right for you chat to a health practitioner such as a GP, naturopath
or pharmacist first.