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Vitamins and minerals: What’s the difference and what are they for?

5 minute read
A woman taking a vitamin

Whether it’s calcium for healthy bones, garlic and horseradish to ward off an incoming cold or slippery elm to soothe your stomach, the market for vitamins and minerals in Australia is booming.

About 60 per cent of Aussies take supplements, spending upwards of $1 billion every year. Every second of every day, there are thousands of chemical reactions going on in our bodies, and vitamins and minerals play an integral role in that process. They help heal wounds, boost our immune system and convert food into energy, among hundreds of other roles.

The human body is capable of doing amazing things, but producing significant amounts of these nutrients isn’t one of them – we have to consume them. The best way to get essential vitamins and minerals is by fuelling your body with foods that naturally contain them, before turning to supplements.

But what is the difference between vitamins and minerals, what are they for, what foods are they found in and is it possible to have too much of a good thing? For those of us who aren’t doctors, dietitians or nutritionists, it can be overwhelming. So, here’s the lowdown from A-Z (or Vitamin A to Zinc).

What are vitamins?

Vitamins are organic substances made by plants and animals and there are 13 known types split into two categories: fat soluble and water soluble.

credit: TEDEd

What are fat-soluble vitamins?

Fat-soluble vitamins include Vitamins A, D, E and K. They're dissolved in fat and can be stored in your body. Together, this powerhouse combination of nutrients helps keep your skin, gastrointestinal tract, eyes, lungs and nervous system in tip-top shape. They also build bones and protect your vision and body.

What are water-soluble vitamins?

Water-soluble vitamins include Vitamins B1, B2, B3, B5, B6, B7, B12, Folate and Vitamin C. These vitamins need to be dissolved in water before they’re absorbed by your body and can’t be stored. Any water-soluble vitamins your body doesn’t use are passed through your system when you pee. These nutrients are absorbed directly into your bloodstream, releasing and producing energy and building proteins and cells.

What foods are rich in vitamins?*

  • Vitamin A (Retinoids): Eggs, fish, butter, cheddar cheese, sweet potatoes, carrots, pumpkin, spinach and mangoes
  • Vitamin D (Calciferol): Fortified milk or margarine and fatty fish
  • Vitamin E (Alpha-Tocopherol): Vegetable oils, margarine, wheat germ, leafy green vegetables, whole grains and nuts
  • Vitamin K: Cabbage, liver, eggs, milk, spinach, broccoli, sprouts, kale and other green vegetables
  • Vitamin B1 (Thiamin): Pork chops, brown rice, ham, soy milk and watermelons
  • Vitamin B2 (Riboflavin): Milk, eggs, yoghurt, cheese, meats, green leafy vegetables, whole grains and cereals
  • Vitamin B3 (Niacin): Meat, poultry, fish, fortified and whole grains, mushrooms, potatoes and peanut butter
  • Vitamin B5 (Pantothenic acid): Chicken, egg yolk, whole grains, broccoli, mushrooms, avocados and tomato products
  • Vitamin B6 (Pyridoxine): Meat, fish, poultry, legumes, tofu and other soy products, potatoes, non-citrus fruits such as bananas and watermelons
  • Vitamin B7: Whole grains, egg yolks, soybeans and fish
  • Vitamin B12 (Cobalamin): Meat, poultry, fish, milk, cheese and eggs
  • Vitamin B9 (Folate): Asparagus, okra, spinach, broccoli, legumes and orange juice
  • Vitamin C (Ascorbic acid): Fruits and fruit juices, potatoes, broccoli, spinach, strawberries, tomatoes and Brussel sprouts
A couple mucking around at a farmers market

What are minerals?

Similar to vitamins, minerals help our bodies to grow, develop and keep healthy. They keep our bones, muscles, heart and brain working properly, and play an important role in making enzymes and hormones. There are two types of minerals that our bodies need to function: macrominerals and trace minerals.

What are macrominerals?

The macromineral group includes calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, sodium, potassium, chloride and sulphur. Macro is Greek for “large” which is why we need a larger amount of this type of minerals.

What are trace minerals?

Trace minerals include iron, manganese, copper, iodine, zinc, cobalt, fluoride and selenium, and our bodies only require these in small amounts.

Which foods are rich in minerals?*

  • Phosphorus: Milk and dairy products, meat, fish, poultry, eggs, liver, peas, broccoli, potatoes and almonds
  • Magnesium: Green vegetables, legumes, cashews, sunflower seeds, whole-wheat bread and milk
  • Sodium: Salt, soy sauce, processed foods and vegetables
  • Potassium: Meat, milk, fruits, vegetables, grains and legumes
  • Chloride: Salt, soy sauce and processed foods
  • Sulphur: Eggs, legumes, nuts and dairy
  • Iron: Liver, shellfish, nuts, seeds, whole-grain products, beans, prunes, cocoa and black pepper
  • Manganese: Fish, nuts, legumes, whole grains and tea
  • Copper: Liver, shellfish, nuts, seeds, whole-grain products, beans, prunes, cocoa and black pepper
  • Iodine: Iodized salt, processed foods and seafood
  • Zinc: Red meat, poultry, oysters, beans and nuts
  • Cobalt: Fish, nuts and green leafy vegetables
  • Fluoride: Fluoridated water and dental products
  • Selenium: Organ meats, seafood, walnuts and grain products
a couple eating breakfast and holding fruit up to their face

Can you have too many vitamins or minerals?

There’s a common misconception that the more vitamins and minerals you consume, the healthier you’ll be, but that’s not the case. Because we can store fat-soluble vitamins in our bodies, they could build up in our systems to potentially-dangerous levels.

Do I need to take vitamin or mineral supplements?

If you eat a healthy diet full of whole grains, nuts, dairy, meats, eggs, fresh fruit and veggies, then chances are you’re consuming a sufficient amount of the vitamins and minerals your body needs to function.

If you’re concerned you’re not getting your daily dose, or if you’ve made any major changes to your diet (including eliminating meat or dairy), it’s best to turn to a doctor or accredited practicing dietitian for advice before taking any supplements.

Understanding what’s in our food is the first step to making sure we’re getting enough of the good stuff. If you’re not quite sure how to read a nutrition label, we’ve got you covered.

For a variety of lunch, dinner and snack ideas that are jam-packed with healthy ingredients, check out The Check Up’s dedicated recipes section.

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