This vitamin gets an A

Nutrition team

Vitamin A is one of the fat-soluble vitamins, found in both animal and vegetable foods.

Vitamin A has a number of essential functions. Also known as retinol or visual purple, vitamin A is used to generate the pigments found in the retina in the eye and promotes good vision, particularly in dim light. Adequate intake ensures healthy mucous membranes (lining of the nose and mouth etc.), helping the body to resist infection and enhance immunity.

Vitamin A also has roles in normal growth and reproduction and can be used in treating yeast infections, warts, cold sores and shingles. It also helps in the growth and maintenance of healthy teeth, bones and skin. Optimal vitamin A intake may help to fight against certain cancers and, applied to the skin, can promote the healing of minor cuts and burns.

The richest sources of vitamin A are liver, kidney, milk, cheese, cream and fish liver oils. Unfortunately, these foods also have high fat and cholesterol content, so it is recommended that you do not look to these sources to fulfil your requirement for vitamin A. Instead, go for plant foods which are rich in beta-carotene, a precursor of vitamin A.

The vegetable sources of beta-carotene are fat- and cholesterol- free and the body regulates the conversion of beta-carotene to vitamin A based on the body's own needs. The main sources of beta-carotene are carrots, broccoli, spinach, peppers, tomatoes and most dark green leafy vegetables. Cantaloupe melon, pink grapefruit and apricots are also good sources. Generally, the more intense the colour of a fruit or vegetable, the higher the beta-carotene content.

As a fat-soluble vitamin, the body can store vitamin A. Deficiency is rare but low levels can reduce resistance to infection, cause a flaky scalp and contribute to heavy or prolonged menstrual periods. In severe cases, deficiency of this nutrient can cause night blindness or even complete blindness. On the other hand, too much vitamin A can be harmful to the body and pregnant women, or those planning a pregnancy, should avoid vitamin A supplements or vitamin A-rich food as high doses can be toxic to the unborn baby.

The best way to get your daily requirement of Vitamin A and beta-carotene is to eat a balanced, healthy diet of foods from all of the major food groups, including plenty of fruit and vegetables.

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