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vitamins do i need

What vitamins do I need?

We hear so much about the importance of a healthy balanced diet - but what does that actually mean? Eating a good amount of fruit and veg goes without saying: they're packed full of vitamins and minerals and because they all have different nutrients, a wide variety gives the best benefits. Almost half of us take at least one vitamin or mineral supplement, but do we really need them?

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What vitamins should I take?

Vitamin A

Let's start at the top of the alphabet with vitamin A. It has several important functions, including supporting vision in dim light and keeping your immune system healthy.

Interestingly, some studies have suggested it has cancer-protective properties too. The main source of vitamin A in your diet is beta carotene.

Do I need a vitamin A supplement?
If you eat liver, dairy foods, oily fish and fortified spreads, you should be getting all you need from your diet. However, if your intake of these is limited, yellow fruit - mango, papaya and apricots - carrots, peppers and spinach are also reasonable sources.

B vitamins

Unlike other vitamins, there are different subgroups of B vitamins. Most people can get enough of these four subgroups through their diets:

  • Vitamin B1 (thiamine) - helps the body to break down and release energy from food and keep your nervous system healthy. Good sources include peas, fresh fruit, nuts and wholegrain foods.

  • Vitamin B2 (riboflavin) - helps your body release energy from food and is crucial for your eyes, nervous system and skin. Dairy foods, mushrooms and eggs are high in B2.

  • Vitamin B3 (niacin) - is important for your nervous system and is found in meat, fish, wheat flour, and eggs.

  • Vitamin B6 - helps store energy and is found in pork, poultry, nuts, soya, oats and wheatgerm.

There are certain people who may need to take vitamin B12 and folic acid supplements:

  • Vitamin B12 - If you're vegan or eat little or no meat or dairy, it can be hard to get enough vitamin B12. Our bodies need this to use folic acid in red blood cells and so a deficiency can lead to anaemia. Consider a supplement if your diet is low in meat and dairy. Your body also gets less efficient at absorbing it over time, so it may be worth considering a supplement if you're over 50.

  • Folic acid - which prevents anaemia, is plentiful in veg and beans. However, all women who are planning for a baby should take a folic acid supplement from before they start trying until three months into their pregnancy.

Vitamin C

Citrus fruits, fruit juice and green leafy veg - including broccoli, Brussels sprouts, spinach and kale - are high in vitamin C. Shortage leads to scurvy, with bleeding from skin and gums. The British Navy got the nickname 'limey' after a British doctor worked out that a daily ration of lime juice would prevent this.

But vitamin C is also a powerful antioxidant which can strengthen your immune system - partly by cementing the barriers between surface cells - skin, and the mucous membranes lining your nose and eyes - to help prevent germs from penetrating. It helps activate your immune system to mop up invading germs.

Do I need a vitamin C supplement?
It is a water-soluble vitamin so you need to top up your levels with vitamin C-rich foods every day.

Vitamin D

Vitamin D is the one vitamin we recommend everyone in the UK takes as a vitamin supplement. Known as the 'sunshine vitamin', the vast majority of the vitamin D in our bodies is made in our skin when we're exposed to sunlight.

Vitamin D is a fat soluble vitamin, which means your body can store it and doesn't need sunshine every day. But the UK sun isn't strong enough to allow us to make vitamin D between October and March - that means many people are short of vitamin D, especially in winter.

One of the main roles of vitamin D in our bodies is to help us absorb and use calcium, essential for strong bones. So keeping your intake of vitamin D up can reduce your risk of osteoporosis, or thinning of the bones.

There is also some research that suggests keeping your vitamin D levels topped up might reduce your risk of heart disease, depression, multiple sclerosis and even cancer.

In recent years there has been a lot of interest in the role vitamin D plays in helping keep our immune system healthy - and possibly even guarding against, or reducing the severity of, COVID-19 infection.

Do I need a vitamin D supplement?

Although it's still under debate, we recommend that everyone should take a supplement of at least 10 micrograms (equivalent to 400 IU, or international units) every day during winter. For most, we also recommend keeping this up all year round, especially if you don't get outside much. You can take at least twice that much without coming to harm, although you shouldn't take more than 100 micrograms a day.

Vitamin E

As well as helping to strengthen your immune system, vitamin E is important for healthy functioning of skin and eyes. Another fat-soluble vitamin, plant oils, nuts, seeds, and wheatgerm offer good supplies.

Vitamin K

Like the B vitamins, vitamin K is actually a group of vitamins. They're best known for helping with blood clotting function. This means that if you’re taking the anticoagulant medicine warfarin, you'll need to monitor your intake of vitamin K-rich foods: too much can make your medication less effective. Almost all leafy greens - kale, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, Swiss chard - are rich in vitamin K.

The best of the rest

In addition to a wide selection of vitamins, a varied and balanced diet can provide an array of minerals and other micronutrients. These include:

  • Cobalt - in fish, nuts, green leafy vegetables, oats and other cereals. It's an essential component of vitamin B12.

  • Copper - in nuts, offal and shellfish also plays an important role in the blood, helping with production of white blood cells - part of the immune system - and releasing iron from red blood cells.

  • Iron - is an integral part of haemoglobin, which carries oxygen around your body in red blood cells. Along with red meat and liver, you can get iron from pulses, beans, nuts, wholemeal bread and dried fruit

  • Selenium - supports efficient functioning of your immune system. You can get this vitamin from foods such as sunflower seeds, offal, seafood and Brazil nuts.

  • Zinc - in meat, shellfish, dairy food, wheatgerm and some cereals - plays a central part in wound healing and white blood cell function.

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Calcium and bones

Calcium forms the basis of strong bones and teeth. You need 700 mg a day as an adult unless you're a woman past the menopause, in which case you should almost double this to 1200 mg daily. Dairy and fish with bones - sardines, tinned salmon, pilchards - are great sources, but other foods are fortified with calcium.

Do I need a calcium supplement?
Consider a supplement if your intake is low.

Omega-3 fatty acids

Getting some omega-3 fatty acids in your diet may help protect against heart disease. Oily fish are the richest source, although squid, crab and mussels also have some. A single portion of oily fish a week is enough for most people. If you don't eat fish, you can get some omega 3s in flaxseed, soya, walnuts or chia seeds.

Do I need an omega-3 supplement?
If you don't eat a lot of the above mentioned foods, , consider taking a daily supplement.

With thanks to 'My Weekly' magazine where this article was originally published.

Article history

The information on this page is peer reviewed by qualified clinicians.

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