Considered a micronutrient, vitamins are organic compounds that are needed by the human body in small amounts. They are vital for our existence and the normal functioning of body systems. Insufficient amount of vitamins in our diet may cause nutritional deficiencies.
There are 13 compounds have been classified as vitamins. Vitamin A, D, E and K are fat soluble vitamins which tend to accumulate in the body and can be potentially harmful if ingested in large amounts. Vitamin C and the eight B vitamins - biotin, folate, niacin, pantothenic acid, riboflavin, thiamin, vitamin B6 and vitamin B12 - dissolve in water and any excess is excreted.
Fat Soluble Vitamins
Vitamin A - Referred to as retinol or retinoic acid, vitamin A is essential to maintain healthy skin and vision, promote growth of bones, and build our immune system. Vitamin A rich animal foods are fortified dairy products, eggs, and liver. Good plant sources include dark green leafy vegetables and brightly colored fruits and vegetables (carrots, tomato, melons, cantaloupes, and pumpkins). Deficiencies in vitamin A can result in night blindness and dry cornea.
Vitamin D - Abundant in egg yolk, cold water fish, fortified milk, and mushrooms, Vitamin D can be synthesized by our skin by exposure to sunlight. Crucial for adequate absorption of calcium in the body, vitamin D is stored in our bones. Sub optimum levels of D may cause bone deformities such as rickets and osteomalacia.
Vitamin E - Chemically known as ‘tocopherols, vitamin E acts as a strong antioxidant and protects cells from free radical damage. It is essential for maintaining red blood cells and healthy skin. Vitamin E can be added into your diet through nuts, wheat germ, avocados, whole grains, and fatty fish.
Vitamin K - Good sources of vitamin K include avocadoes, kiwi fruit, collard greens, and parsley. Vitamin K is responsible for proper blood clotting mechanism and deficiency in this vitamin may result in excessive bleeding or hemorrhage.
Water Soluble Vitamins
Vitamin B1 or Thiamine - Whole grains, oats, eggs, nuts and seeds, soy beans, asparagus, and pork are abundant in thiamine. Needed for carbohydrate metabolism and proper functioning of heart, nerves, and muscles, insufficient consumption of thiamine may result in beriberi.
Vitamin B2 or Riboflavin - Found in bananas, cottage cheese, milk, eggs, and beans, vitamin B2 plays a crucial role in energy production and proper functioning of mucus membranes, nerves, and blood vessels. Deficiency in B2 can cause a condition called ariboflavinosis.
Vitamin B3 or Niacin - Required for better digestion and maintaining healthy skin and brain activity, vitamin B3 is available in sweet potatoes, chicken, salmon, dates, whole grains, brewer’s yeast, and lean red meats.
Vitamin B5 - Rich sources of B5 are milk, eggs, peanuts, beans, meats, brown rice, and broccoli. Vitamin B5 is essential for digesting carbohydrates and fats.
Vitamin B6 - Also known as pyridoxine, B6 is found in whole grains, fish, bananas, papaya, eggs, and dark leafy vegetables. Processing methods such as milling, canning, or freezing reduces this vitamin in food. Deficiency leads to anemia and neurological disorders.
Folic Acid - Related to pregnancy complications and birth defects, adequate amount of folic acid is a must. Fortified breakfast cereals, leafy vegetables, sunflower seeds, baker’s yeast, and lentils are good sources of folic acid. Studies relate folate consumption to reduced risk of heart diseases and certain cancers.
Vitamin B12 – Vitamin B 12 works closely with folic acid to build red blood cells, proteins, and new cells. Dietary sources include shellfish, poultry, milk, whole grains, and soy products.
Vitamin C - C is a potent antioxidant and critical for collagen production, wound healing, brain function, healthy bones, and protein metabolism. Eating Vitamin C rich foods helps to improve the absorption of iron in the body. Rich sources are citrus fruits, berries, bell peppers, spinach, guava, tomatoes, and kiwi fruit.
Recommended Daily Allowance of Vitamins
Reference: Recommended Dietary Allowances, Vitamins: Food and Nutrition Board, Institute of Medicine, National Academies, www.nap.edu. A RDA is the average daily dietary intake level; sufficient to meet the nutrient requirements of nearly all (97-98 percent) healthy individuals in a group.
Natural Foods Vs Use of Supplements
Though the best route of entry for vitamins is a healthy diet, getting all the vitamins in the recommended amounts naturally can become challenging. Here multivitamin supplements come to the rescue. However overdoing supplements without proper medical guidance may result in unsafe intakes. FDA clearly mentions that "supplements may be useful when they fill a specific identified nutrient gap that cannot or is not otherwise being met by an individual’s intake of food."
For healthy individuals, a balanced diet comprising of whole grains, beans, fruits, vegetables, and ‘good’ fats offer a nutrient mix which can collectively meet our daily nutrient needs. Sadly, a diet of this quality is not the norm, and thus taking a simple multi-vitamin may be your best defense against potential deficiencies. Furthermore, according to American Academy of Family Physicians, vitamin supplements are especially recommended for certain health problems, vegetarians, and pregnant or breastfeeding women.
The Bottom Line
It is important to note that vitamin supplements are not a replacement for a healthful diet. The foods that we eat do not provide vitamins in isolation but as a complete nutrition package. The range of naturally occurring substances, antioxidants, enzymes, co enzymes, minerals, and fiber found in natural foods, together with vitamins, prevents diseases and promotes holistic wellbeing.
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