Your body needs a number of vitamins and minerals to stay healthy. These nutrients are involved in many of your body’s essential functions, including cell growth and repair, metabolism and muscle function. But how do these nutrients work in the body? And what can you do to make sure you get what you need?
Vitamins provide nutrients to help your body carry out different functions. There are two types of vitamins:
Because your body can’t make most vitamins — apart from vitamin D — you have to get them from the food you eat.
You can find water-soluble vitamins in fresh fruit, green vegetables and grains. It’s best to eat green vegetables raw, steamed, grilled or stir-fried to preserve the vitamins. If you boil these vegetables, most of the vitamins will be lost into the water.
Because fat soluble vitamins can be stored in the body, high intakes of these vitamins can result in harmful levels. This is unlikely to happen when vitamins are consumed in food, but it is possible to overdose on fat-soluble vitamins when taken in supplement form. Fat-soluble vitamins are less easily to be lost during cooking than water-soluble vitamins.
See our vitamins and minerals table for a more complete list of some common vitamins, their functions and food sources.
Minerals and trace elements are chemicals that we need in small amounts for the body to work properly. They are as essential as vitamins and you also need to get them from the food you eat. For example, you need:
Minerals and trace elements are mainly found in meat, cereals, fish, milk and dairy foods, vegetables, dried fruit and nuts.
See our vitamins and minerals table for a more complete list of some common vitamins, their function and sources.
Generally you can get the vitamins and minerals you need by eating a healthy balanced diet.
Vitamin D is the only vitamin that you are unlikely to get enough of from your diet as it is found naturally in only a few foods, and only in small amounts. For most people, you get the vitamin D you need from sun exposure as it’s used to produce vitamin D in your skin.
However, it’s important to balance getting enough sun to maintain healthy vitamin D levels with protecting your skin from the sun to prevent skin cancer. The amount of sun exposure needed for healthy vitamin D levels depends partly on your skin type, the time of year and where you are. You need to wear sunscreen when out in the sun during peak UV times (UV index is 3 or above). Outside of these times, check the Cancer Council guide to see how much sun you can safely get.
Some people may become low in vitamin D because it’s harder for them to make sufficient vitamin D from the sun. These include older people, especially those who are housebound or living in aged care homes, people with darker skins, and people who wear concealing clothing.
If you are concerned about your vitamin D levels, see your doctor. They will be able to check your vitamin D levels and advise you if you need to supplement your level by taking vitamin D tablets. Do not take vitamin D supplements without seeking your doctor’s advice as too much vitamin D can lead to other, sometimes serious problems.
Generally, if you’re eating a healthy, varied diet, it’s unlikely you’ll need supplements. The best way to get your vitamins and minerals is from a healthy, well-balanced diet, because we absorb vitamins and minerals better when eaten as part of our usual diet.
Supplements are usually only required if your doctor, accredited practicing dietitian or pharmacists advises you to add to (not replace) your healthy eating plan. For example, you may need an iron supplement if a blood test shows you have anaemia.
However, if you add a supplement when it’s not necessary, you run the risk of having too much of a vitamin or mineral in your body. And some vitamins and minerals, particularly fat-soluble vitamins, can be harmful in excessive quantities. For example, too much vitamin A can cause skin changes and damage your liver, or if you’re pregnant it can harm your unborn baby.
So before taking any supplements, always check with your doctor, pharmacist or accredited practicing dietitian to make sure this is appropriate for you.
Your vitamin and mineral requirements can change at different times of your life. Some common examples of when you might have higher requirements include:
It’s quite possible to get the vitamins and minerals you need from a balanced vegetarian diet with careful planning. The exception is vitamin B12 for vegans, as this vitamin is naturally found in foods of animal origin (e.g. eggs and milk) which a vegan diet avoids. Vegans should look for foods fortified with vitamin B12 and they may also need a vitamin B12 supplement. An accredited practicing dietitian or doctor can give you advice.
Well-planned vegetarian and vegan diets can be healthy diets as they are generally low in saturated fat and high in fibre. However, like any other diet, a badly-planned vegetarian or vegan diet can still be nutritionally unsound.
If you are a vegetarian or vegan try to:
Dietitians Association of Australia
Eat for health
Dietitians Association of Australia (DAA). Pregnancy. [online] [Accessed 13 May 2014] Available from: www.daa.asn.au
Dietitians Association of Australia (DAA). Vegetarian diets. [online] [Accessed 13 May 2014] Available from: www.daa.asn.au
Dietitians Association of Australia (DAA). A guide to vegetarian eating factsheet. [online] 2011. [Accessed 13 May 2014] Available from: www.daa.asn.au
National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC). Nutrient reference values. [online] Available from: www.nrv.gov.au
National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC). Australian dietary guidelines: summary. [online] 2013 [Accessed 13 May 2014] Available from: www.eatforhealth.gov.au
National Health Service. Vitamins and minerals [online]. [Last updated Nov 2012; accessed 13 May 2014]. Available from: www.nhs.uk
Nowson CA McGrath JJ Ebeling PR et al. Vitamin D and health in adults in Australia and New Zealand: a position statement. Med J Aus 2012; 196: 1–7.
Osteoporosis Australia. Building healthy bones throughout life. An evidence-informed strategy to prevent osteoporosis in Australia. Med J Aus 2013; Open 2 Suppl 1; 1–10.
Last updated: 11 June 2014
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