What have vitamins and minerals ever done for us?

At this time of year, your social media feeds tend to be awash with people trying to get healthier. New year, new you - ring any bells?

From fad diets to intense fitness plans, there’s no shortage of people telling you they have the key to your 2021 #bodygoals. One thing that you might see a lot of are vitamin and mineral supplements, in the form of gummies, tablets or powders that can be mixed with water to make a drink.

Vitamins and minerals are good for you - they keep our body ticking, supporting everything from hair growth to heart health. But before you reach for the supplement shelf at your local supermarket, it may surprise you to know that apart from one or two exceptions, a healthy, balanced diet is all you need to get the nutrients your body needs to survive.

So let's take a look at some of the vitamins we need, and where we can find them. We've also enlisted Liverpool-based Dr Simon Bowers to help!

Vitamin D

This is something you may have seen mentioned in the news over the past months. This is because vitamin D has been reported to have immune-strengthening properties, which some have suggested make it useful in staving off the worst coronavirus symptoms.

There hasn’t actually been enough research to confirm this properly, but vitamin D is amazing at keeping us healthy in many other ways. It helps us take in and regulate calcium and phosphate, both of which are needed to keep bones, teeth and muscles healthy, so it’s still pretty important.

The potentially tricky part is where to get it. The best source of vitamin D is actually the Sun, but if you’re living in the UK, you might be looking out your window and worrying that you’re not getting any at all.

Not a lot of options to get sunlight at the moment

While we tend to get what we need during the summer, in the winter months the NHS, public health bodies across the UK and the Department for Health and Social Care all recommend adults take a supplement of 10 micrograms a day. This is because there are barely any foods that have as much vitamin D as we need in a day. The foods that do contain some though are:

  • oily fish – such as salmon, sardines, herring and mackerel
  • red meat
  • liver
  • egg yolks
  • fortified foods – such as some fat spreads and breakfast cereals

Fortified just means extra nutrients have been added to it. Some cereals such as bran flakes tend to be fortified with lots of vitamins and minerals, so if anyone makes fun of you for having boring cereal, you can just tell them you’re fighting a global pandemic - sort of. However, to make sure the benefits you receive from the added vitamins don't go to waste, it's good to look for cereals that are low in sugar, and to not add any yourself.

Dr Bowers says: "Doctors recommend exposing your forearms to the sunlight, even on a cloudy day, between May and September for 30 minutes to help the sunlight transform the vitamin D we eat into its active form in the skin, that can then work to help us stay healthy.

"Don’t forget sunscreen on sunny days though as enough UVB light should get through even the highest SPF factors to work its magic on your vitamin D."

Molybdenum

It’s very likely that you’ve never heard of this trace mineral. Although in large quantities this silvery metal is actually quite toxic, our bodies require small amounts of it in order to stay healthy.

Molybdenum is necessary to kickstart a number of chemical reactions in the body, mainly ones that break down harmful toxins in order to safely get rid of them. It’s also stored all over your body - in your liver, kidneys, spleen, lungs, brain, and muscles.

Luckily again, because of the small amounts needed by the body and the fact that it’s found in plenty of vegetables like potatoes and carrots, we all tend to get the amount we need through a healthy and balanced diet.

Vitamin K

You may have heard all about your vitamin As, Bs and Cs, but have you ever heard of vitamin K?

It’s a group of vitamins that the body uses to help heal wounds by clotting our blood. There’s also some evidence to suggest vitamin K helps keep our bones healthy, too.

Vitamin K is one of those handy vitamins that can be found in large amounts in a lot of good foods, so it’s very rare for anyone to have a deficiency of it. Not only that, but your liver actually stores any vitamin K that you don’t need to use straight away, so you’ve often got a supply ready to go should you need it. It can be found in:

  • green leafy vegetables – such as broccoli and spinach
  • vegetable oils
  • cereal grains

Adults need about 1 microgram a day of vitamin K for each kilogram of their body weight. A microgram is a thousand times smaller than a milligram, so you don’t need very much of it at all. Micrograms are often written on the back of food packets like so: μg. This is just the Greek symbol μ followed by the letter g.

Potassium

Potassium is a bit of a miracle mineral. In a nutshell (which is incidentally one places you can find it), it helps all of the cells in your body work the way they should. Without potassium, your nerves wouldn’t work properly, your muscles in including your heart would have a hard time functioning, and it helps you make proper use of other vital nutrients such as protein and carbohydrates.

If you're bananas about potassium, you can get your potassium from bananas

The most well-known source of potassium is bananas, but you can also find it in:

  • some vegetables such as broccoli, parsnips and Brussels sprouts
  • beans and pulses
  • nuts and seeds
  • fish
  • meat such as beef and chicken

As you can see, it’s a fairly extensive list, meaning you should be able to get all the potassium you need from your diet so there’s no need for supplements. Especially as the effects of too much potassium can be quite nasty - stomach pain, feeling sick and diarrhoea to name a few.

Dr Bowers says that that's not all: "Doctors worry about very high potassium levels as it can also damage your heart." So if you're eating any of the above on a regular basis, you're getting enough, and have no need to top it up with supplements.

Iodine

Fish is usually touted as great a source of lots of things that are good for us. You’ve probably heard of omega-3, but one other thing they provide is something you may be more familiar with from your chemistry lessons: iodine.

Iodine helps make thyroid hormones, which stabilise your bodies metabolic rate. Put more simply, the thyroid is a small, butterfly shaped gland in your neck, which produces hormones that help keep things like your heart rate and body temperature at a healthy level, and iodine keeps this process going.

There's something fishy about people who don't think you can get your daily recommended amount of iodine from fish

As we mentioned before, seafood is your best source of iodine, but of course not everyone wants to or can eat fish. Iodine is found in soil, so plant foods such as cereal and grains can contain it, but the amount will vary depending on how much iodine was in the soil they were growing in. The NHS recommends vegans take iodine supplements to mitigate this uncertainty, but you can also find plant milks that are fortified with iodine too.

Luckily, as Dr Bowers says, "a balanced diet high in fruit and veg, low in fat, salt and sugar and with moderation in most things means most young people shouldn’t have to think about vitamins and minerals at all" - so with no need to buy supplements unless your GP says so, this is excellent news for your wallet!

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