What are vitamins anyway?
The easiest way to think of it is like this: vitamins are essential nutrients, which the body needs in small amounts for optimal wellbeing.
They help to maintain the immune system, and ensure that your body’s cells and organs can keep working properly.
Vitamins differ from minerals
in that the former are organic and are broken down by the body, while minerals are inorganic and hold onto their chemical structure.
13 essential vitamins
There are 13 known vitamins, all of which fall into one of two categories: they’re either water-soluble
Water-soluble vitamins aren’t stored in the body and include vitamin C and the eight B vitamins, which are also known as the ‘energy’ vitamins, thanks to the important role they play in energy production.
However, it’s worth noting that, while vitamin B12 and folate (which is another B vitamin) are water-soluble, they buck the trend slightly, because they can be stored by your liver.
On the other hand, as the name suggests, fat-soluble vitamins, such as vitamins D and E, are soluble in fats, or lipids, rather than water, which means your body’s able to store them.
- Thiamine, also known as vitamin B1, helps to convert carbohydrates in food into energy for the brain, nervous system and muscles. Thiamine is found in small amounts in a range of foods including whole grains, wheat germ, nuts, sesame seeds, legumes and pork. Plus, most wheat flour destined for bread making is fortified with thiamine
- Riboflavin, also known as vitamin B2, is primarily involved in energy production, but it also helps to support your vision and skin health. Milk and other dairy products are the main source of riboflavin in the diets of most Australians, followed by cereal and cereal products. However, egg whites, leafy green vegetables, and meat also contain riboflavin
- Niacin, also known as vitamin B3, is essential for the body to convert nutrients from the food you eat into energy. It’s also necessary for healthy skin and for the normal function of blood cells, the brain and your nervous system. Good sources of niacin include meats, poultry and fish, as well as wholegrain breads and cereals, nuts and mushrooms. Your body can also make a small amount of niacin by converting tryptophan, an amino acid, into the B vitamin
- Pantothenic acid, also known as vitamin B5, plays a critical role in the utilisation of fats, proteins and carbohydrates for energy production. It’s also important for the production of neurotransmitters, steroid hormones and red blood cells. Pantothenic acid is found in a wide range of foods, but particularly good sources include meats, eggs, peanuts, whole grains, mushrooms, avocados and legumes.
- Vitamin B6 is extremely versatile and wears a lot of hats, playing a role in everything from supporting the normal, healthy function of the nervous and immune systems to the formation of red blood cells and some brain chemicals. Good sources of vitamin B6 include meat, poultry, nuts, legumes, green leafy vegetables, fish and shellfish
- Biotin, also know as vitamin H, helps your body metabolise energy and amino acids and produce something called glycogen, which gets stored as fuel for your cells. Biotin is also important for healthy hair and skin. Cauliflower, liver, egg yolks, peanuts, chicken and mushrooms are all good sources of biotin
- Folate, also known as vitamin B9, is vital for cell development and is extremely important in pregnancy. It helps to ensure the proper development of a baby’s nervous system, as well as DNA production and cell growth. Folate-rich foods include green leafy vegetables, legumes, seeds, liver, poultry, citrus fruits and eggs. All flour used for bread making in Australia is fortified with folic acid, the synthetic form of folate, with the exception of flour that’s used in breads labelled as ‘organic’
- Vitamin B12 is the eighth and final B vitamin. On top of its ‘energy production’ role, it also plays a key role in the normal functioning of the brain and nervous system, as well as in the formation of red blood cells. It’s good friends with folate, and both depend on the other in order to work properly. Almost all vitamin B12 comes from animal foods such as meat, chicken, fish, eggs and dairy products, so people following a vegan diet may be at a higher risk of deficiency
- Vitamin C or ascorbic acid as it is also known, plays a role in a number of important functions including the production of collagen (which strengthens your skin, blood vessels and bone), an amino acid called L-carnitine and some of the brain’s neurotransmitters. Vitamin C also acts as an antioxidant, boosts how much iron you absorb from the food you eat, and even has infection-fighting abilities. Citrus fruits, strawberries, kiwifruit, green vegetables, and capsicum are good sources of vitamin C
- Vitamin A, which is also known as retinol, supports healthy vision and helps to maintain normal immune and reproductive systems. Vitamin A is found in orange and green coloured fruit and vegetables such as spinach, carrot, pumpkin and apricots. It’s also found in eggs and meat. Its role in eye health is thought to be responsible for sparking the old wives’ tale that carrots are good for seeing in the dark. The ‘night vision’ part isn’t true, but eating carrots can certainly help to maintain healthy eyesight, thanks to the hit of vitamin A they deliver
- Vitamin D is a vitamin and a hormone, one that helps to maintain healthy blood calcium and phosphorus levels, to support muscle and bone strength. A healthy immune system also depends on having adequate levels of vitamin D. The best natural source of vitamin D in Australia is sunlight, which triggers the production of the vitamin in the skin, but it’s vital to combine safe sun exposure with the need to keep your vitamin D levels topped up. Some foods, like fatty fish, liver, eggs and mushrooms, contain small amounts of vitamin D, but it’s difficult to achieve healthy levels through diet alone
- Vitamin E acts as an antioxidant, helping to maintain the integrity of cells and protecting them from things called ‘free radicals’, which are unstable atoms that can damage cells. Avocado, almonds, sunflower seeds, spinach, vegetable oils and wheatgerm are all good sources of vitamin E
- Vitamin K is essential for bone health and to ensure that your blood clots normally. Around 50 per cent of vitamin K is made by intestinal bacteria, with the rest being provided by dietary sources. Vitamin-K-rich foods include green leafy vegetables such as kale, cabbage, spinach and broccoli, as well as peas and green beans