When we think about vitamins, many of us think about vitamin supplements – pills – we take daily. Actually, we get vitamins naturally in many foods we eat. However, some people take multivitamins or specialty vitamin supplements to make sure they are getting enough, just in case their daily meals are not balanced.
Vitamins are tiny organic (which in this case means naturally occurring, carbon-based) molecules the body needs in small amounts in order to function properly. Vitamins are vital to life, that’s why they’re called Vita-min: Vita is Latin for “Life”; the “min” part comes from the word “amine” because originally people thought vitamins were made with an amino acid – but that was wrong (we learned about amino acids in the last Health Talk). Anyway, if we do not consume vitamins we will develop deficiencies and become very ill.
Vitamins work in the body in all sorts of ways. Some are used to activate enzymes needed for important bodily functions, some are used to make important substances in our bodies, some help our blood to clot, some help us make energy, some are used as antioxidants, which keep our cells and bodies from being damaged by dangerous waste products called free-radicals. We need them for our eyes, our skin, our hair, our immune system, our bones, our cells. In other words vitamins are important, so it is imperative to eat a variety of foods in order for us to get all of them regularly.
The vitamins our bodies need are:
Vitamin A: found in dark green leafy and deep yellow or orange vegetables, milk and milk products
The B Vitamins (which are really a group of vitamins that include)
- Thiamin: found in whole grain products, pork, enriched and fortified grains (enriched or fortified means it’s been added to a product that wouldn’t usually have it e.g. fortified flour)
- Riboflavin: found in milk, enriched, fortified or whole grain products, and liver
- Niacin: found in protein-rich foods
- Biotin: found in a lot of foods, also made by your healthy gut bacteria
- Pantothenic acid: found in a lot of foods
- Vitamin B 6: found in protein-rich foods
- Folate: found in legumes, vegetables and fortified grain products
- Vitamin B 12: found in meats
Vitamin C: found in fruits and vegetables
Vitamin D: is made in the body with the help of sunshine, also found in fortified milk
Vitamin E: found in vegetable oils
Vitamin K: found in green leafy vegetables and made by your healthy gut bacteria
Eventually I may go through each one but for now just know they are all necessary. Why should we try to get these vitamins from food if we can just pop multivitamin pills and get them that way? Well vitamin supplements are meant to do just that – supplement – to reinforce or support, not replace the nutrients we get from food. They’re useful to prevent deficiencies, that is having too little of a particular vitamin in our body. But using too many vitamin supplements can lead to having too much of some vitamins – and yes, when it comes to our bodies we can definitely have too much of a good thing. It has to do with how our bodies transport and store these vitamins.
Some vitamins, Vitamins A D E and K, are fat-soluble. What this means is they don’t mix well with water (like what most of our blood and body cells are made up of). When we take too much of these vitamins into our bodies we can’t just get rid of the excess by urinating them out (which is how we usually remove excess substances from our body). Instead we store them in our fat cells and in the liver. If we build up too much of these fat soluble vitamins they become toxic and can poison us. No need to be alarmed – we can’t usually get to this point by eating normally and taking safe amounts of supplements. However, if we overdo the supplements over a long period of time, then the substances can build up to toxic levels. We don’t want that, so moderation is the key.
Eating a variety of foods including a lot of plant-based food like fruits, vegetables, nuts, peas etc., can provide our bodies with healthy amounts of necessary vitamins. For vegans, who do not consume any animal-based foods, taking a Vitamin B Complex supplement is often recommended because some of the B vitamins are naturally found mainly in animal products – so vegans often use that alternative way to get them. Supplements, when used in moderation, are a good way to make up the difference if you do not get all your vitamins naturally from your meals. So be smart about the foods you eat and the vitamin supplements you take and remember our key words are variety, moderation and balance.
That’s our quick and dirty overview of vitamins here in Health Talk! In two weeks we will tackle minerals, those little-understood necessities.
© 2015 Kelene Blake, All Rights Reserved