Vitamins and minerals are nutrients the body needs to function properly. Most of them can be obtained in sufficient quantities by eating a healthy and balanced diet. However, some people don't get everything they need. In such cases, supplements can be taken. Nutrient needs vary with age, gender, certain stages of life (e.g., pregnancy or breastfeeding), lifestyle habits, (e.g., smoking), and illness.
Some vitamins and minerals are considered "essential." This means that they aren't produced by the human body and must be obtained from an external source such as:
- Dietary supplements (e.g., multivitamins)
- Exposing the skin to sunlight
Their roles in the body
Some functions require a single specific nutrient, while others require several. The following vitamins and minerals are associated with these functions:
|Folic Acid (Vitamin B9)||Fetal development, blood formation|
|Beta-carotene||Converted into vitamin A in the body (see vitamin A)|
|Biotin (Vitamin B7)||Helps transform food into energy|
|Vitamin A||Protects eye health|
|Vitamin B1 (Thiamine)||Glucose metabolism; brain and nerve health|
|Vitamin B2 (Riboflavin)||Necessary for other vitamins to work; promotes mucous membrane health (e.g., lips)|
|Vitamin B3 (Niacin)||Helps turn food into energy; promotes healthy skin, nerves, and digestion|
|Vitamin B5 (Pantothenic acid)||Helps transform food into energy|
|Vitamin B6 (Pyridoxine)||Protein and lipid metabolism; proper functioning of the nervous system|
|Vitamin B12 (Cobalamin)||Blood cell formation; proper functioning of the nervous system|
|Vitamin C||Gum and tooth health; promotes iron absorption|
|Vitamin D||Helps with the absorption of calcium for strong bones; contributes to proper functioning of the muscles, nerves, and immune system|
|Vitamin E||Maintains red blood cells; inhibits platelet aggregation|
|Vitamin K||Ensures blood clotting|
|Calcium||Strong teeth and bones|
|Iron||Delivery of oxygen to cells; cognitive development in children|
|Magnesium||Strong teeth and bones|
|Zinc||Required for growth; supports the immune system|
Myths and realities
People on restrictive diets (e.g., vegetarians) must make sure that they are meeting their nutritional requirements either through their diet or by supplementing with certain vitamins and minerals.
That being said, it would be wrong to assume that supplements are sufficient to make up for all deficiencies. Nutrients such as fibre, fats, protein, and calories are also essential. These nutrients are not found in vitamin and mineral supplements. For this reason, it's important to maintain a healthy, balanced, and varied diet, as recommended by Canada's Food Guide.
Vitamins and minerals don't provide our bodies with energy. Rather, they help our bodies convert the calories we get from food into energy. There's no evidence that adding supplements to a healthy diet improves the functioning of our immune system (e.g., vitamin C). There's also not enough evidence to determine whether they can prevent dementia.
Some vitamins are being studied to determine the risks and benefits in relation to certain chronic diseases (e.g., cardiovascular disease, diabetes), but research is ongoing.
Vitamin and mineral supplementation needs
When dietary preferences and restrictions exclude certain types of foods, some nutrients may require special attention. The advice of a health care provider may be required. Taking vitamin and mineral supplements is unlikely to pose a health risk for most people. However, it's important to make sure not to exceed the safe upper limits for all nutrients. In some cases, supplements may interact with certain drugs. Tell your health care provider about any supplements you may be taking.
If you eat a variety of foods that are high in nutrients, vitamin and mineral supplements are usually not necessary. However, some supplements are recommended during certain life stages.
Pay attention to these key nutrients among the following groups:
- Babies (folic acid, calcium, iron, vitamin D)
- Children (calcium, iron, vitamin D)
- Adolescents (calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, zinc, fibre, vitamins A, C, and D)
- Women of childbearing age, who are either pregnant or breastfeeding (folic acid, calcium, iron, and vitamin D)
- Adult males (natural sources of vitamin A such as carrots, squash, and sweet potatoes)
- People aged 50 and over (calcium, vitamins B12 and D)
- Vegetarians/vegans (calcium, iron, zinc, vitamins B12 and D)
- People with a specific health problem, such as anemia or osteoporosis (as recommended)
When should I see a health care professional?
A wide range of information is available on proper nutrition, vitamins, and minerals. Make sure to seek the advice of professionals who've undergone specific, recognized training. Any advice you receive must suit your needs and health condition. For more information about vitamins and minerals, consult your pharmacist or nutritionist.
Speak with your health care provider in the following cases:
- You are planning on getting pregnant
- You or your child do not consume milk or other beverages that are fortified with vitamin D
- You or your child are vegan or vegetarian
- Your child is fussy, their growth is stunted, or they have a number of allergies
- You are not sure if either you or your child are getting enough nutrients from the food you eat
- You don't know how much of a supplement you should take or have recently changed age groups