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The ABCs of vitamins

Making sure you and your family consume the recommended amounts of vitamins is a key element in maintaining a healthy diet. Each vitamin plays its own role within our body, has its own responsibilities and is sourced from a different food type.

What are vitamins?

Vitamins allow your body to break down and use the basic elements of food – proteins, carbohydrates and fats. Certain vitamins are also involved in producing blood cells, hormones, genetic material and chemicals in your nervous system.

There are two type of vitamins:

  • Fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E, K): these vitamins are stored in the liver and fatty tissue when not in use, so it is possible to build up reserves. It is recommended, however, that you don’t over-consume these vitamins on a regular basis.
  • Water-soluble vitamins (B group, C): these vitamins are dissolved easily in water, so pass through your digestive system and are then urinated from the body. These are not stored within your body, so regular intake is required.

Vitamin A

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What is it: Vitamin A helps maintain your healthy skin, teeth, skeletal and soft tissue, and skin. In addition, it also boosts your immunity to fight infections and is essential for vision.

Sources: Animal livers are also a prime source of vitamin A, containing up to 80 times more than other food sources. However, orange, red and dark green fruits and vegetables are rich in beta-carotene and other carotenoids, which are also great sources of vitamin A. These include the likes of carrots, sweet potato, apricots, broccoli, spinach and other leafy greens. Other sources include oily fish, egg yolk, milk, cheese and butter.

Do I need it? Pregnant women are advised to avoid liver sources of vitamin A due to a link with possible birth defects, however plant sources of this vitamin are absolutely fine – in fact it is important for tissue repair and helping to fight infection.

Vitamin B group

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What is it: These vitamins work together to help break down and release energy from food. They also help to keep nerves and muscle tissue healthy, and assist in blood formation. More specifically, vitamin B2 helps keep eyes and skin healthy, while vitamin B9 (also known as folate or folic acid) works with vitamin B12 to form healthy red blood cells.

Sources: Pork, fish, peas, fresh and dried fruit, nuts, kidney beans, wholegrain breads, brown rice, asparagus, mushrooms, sunflower seeds, tomatoes and some fortified breakfast cereals.

Do I need it? Women who are pregnant, or who may become pregnant, are advised to take at least 400mcg of folic acid daily to help reduce the risk of neural tube defects, such as spina bifida, in unborn babies. All adults need at least 3mcg of vitamin B12 (pregnant women should take 4mcg).

Vitamin C

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What is it: Possibly the most well-known of vitamins, vitamin C is essential for the growth and repair of tissues throughout your body. Vitamin C helps to form and maintain collagen in our skin, tendons, ligaments and blood vessels. It is also important in absorbing iron from non-meat sources, so doctors will advise taking some vitamin C-rich food or drink alongside iron-rich foods – for example, a small glass of orange juice with your iron-fortified breakfast cereal.

Sources: Citrus fruits, kiwi fruit, berries, mango, blackcurrants, broccoli, spinach, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, tomatoes, peppers and courgettes.

Do I need it? True vitamin C deficiency, which leads to scurvy, is rare, but people lacking in intake may suffer from dry and splitting hair, bleeding gums, gingivitis, nose bleeds, and a decreased ability to fight off coughs, colds and other infections. If you are pregnant, you are advised to up your vitamin C intake by 33% as it is needed to help your baby’s teeth and bones develop and strengthen.

Vitamin D

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What is it: Vitamin D is often known as the ‘sunshine vitamin’ as it is manufactured when the skin is exposed to the sun. It’s function is to strengthen bones and teeth, while also regulating the amount of calcium and phosphate in the body.

Sources: Aside from the primary source of sunlight exposure, vitamin D can be found in dairy products, oily fish, oysters, egg yolk, fortified foods such as margarine and some breakfast cereals.

Do I need it? Deficiency, although uncommon, can lead to rickets in children or weakened, soft bones in adults. The Food Safety Authority of Ireland recommends that all infants from birth to one year in Ireland should take vitamin D supplement drops.

Vitamin E

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What is it: Vitamin E is important for healthy nerves and muscles, as well as helping to protect cell membranes and supporting the immune system.

Sources: Avocado, nuts, sunflower oil, some margarines, leafy green vegetables, tuna, salmon, butternut squash and sweet potato.

Do I need it? Vitamin E is a fat-soluble vitamin, which means you don’t need it every day as any of the vitamin your body doesn’t need immediately is stored for future use. Deficiency is rare, occurring only in premature babies and in people who have a medical condition preventing them from absorbing it properly through food.

Vitamin K

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What is it: Vitamin K helps wounds heal properly because it is needed for clotting. It is also needed to help build strong bones and can help protect against osteoporosis.

Sources: Dark green leafy vegetables, parsley, liver, eggs, fish oils and dairy products. It is also made by bacteria in the intestine.

Do I need it? Vitamin K deficiency is very rare. It occurs when the body can’t properly absorb the vitamin from the intestinal tract, for example after long-term antibiotic treatment which has killed off the necessary bacteria. In newborns, it can take time for the intestines to develop the bacteria needed, so babies are now given a vitamin K injection at birth to build up their stores and to eliminate the risk of haemorrhagic disease, which can be a serious threat to new babies.

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