What are vitamins and minerals?

In this website, you’ll learn why vitamins and minerals are considered essential to good health and what you should know about the latest research regarding their benefits.

What are vitamins and minerals?

Vitamins and minerals are substances your body needs to grow properly, stay healthy and function normally. It’s possible, and highly recommended, that you get these substances from the foods you eat. However, it sometimes can be difficult to get the recommended amount of some vitamins and minerals from a diet alone. That’s why it’s not unusual to hear that taking a multivitamin or other supplement on a daily basis can make good sense. Nevertheless, knowing when you might need a supplement, what kind of vitamin and minerals are best, and how much your body needs can often be confusing.

Food or supplements?

You can get your entire daily requirements of vitamin C by just popping a pill. You can get the same amount by eating a large orange. So which is better? In most cases, the orange is better. Whole foods — such as fruits, vegetables, grains and dairy products — have benefits you can’t find in a pill, including:

  • Greater nutrition: whole foods contain a variety of nutrients your body needs — not just one. An orange, for example, provides vitamin C as well as beta carotene, calcium and other nutrients. Vitamin C supplements lack these other nutrients.
  • Essential fiber: Fiber is important for digestion. It also helps prevent certain diseases. For instance, soluble fiber (found in beans, some grains, and some fruits and vegetables) and insoluble fiber (found in whole grains and some fruits and vegetables) may help prevent heart disease, diabetes and constipation.
  • Phytochemicals: many foods — including some fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes and nuts — contain naturally occurring food substances called phytochemicals. These substances may help protect you against cancer, heart disease, osteoporosis and diabetes.

Do you need a supplement?

Although supplements may not offer all the benefits that whole foods can provide, there are times when taking vitamins and minerals in pill form may be appropriate. For instance, if you don’t eat the recommended servings of fruits, vegetables and other healthy foods, you may benefit from a multivitamin that contains a variety of essential nutrients.

Multivitamins can also be helpful if you are a strict vegetarian, eat a diet that’s limited because of food allergies or intolerance, or have a disease or condition that doesn’t allow you to digest or absorb nutrients properly. Older age and certain lifestyle habits, such as smoking and excessive alcohol consumption, also can make it difficult to get all the nutrients you need from food.

As for boosting the amount of specific vitamins and minerals, there are times when this can make sense, especially for women. If you’re pregnant or trying to become pregnant, certain nutrients — such as calcium, folic acid and iron — are needed more than ever to protect your health and the health of your developing baby. In addition, supplementing your diet with additional calcium and vitamin D is often considered crucial following menopause to protect against osteoporosis and the risk of fractures.

Having the right balance of vitamins and minerals in your body is important for good health. However, getting too much of some nutrients, usually from high-dose supplements, can be dangerous. This is especially true with some fat-soluble vitamins, which are absorbed and then stored in your body’s fat for use as needed. Yet, it’s generally not recommended that you take megadoses of water-soluble vitamins either. Even though these vitamins aren’t stored in large amounts in your body, some can be toxic in large amounts.

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