Vitamins, minerals and supplements - Introduction

Vitamins and minerals are essential nutrients your body needs in small amounts to work properly.

Most people should get all the nutrients they need by eating a varied and balanced diet.

The pages in this section contain advice and information on vitamins, minerals and trace elements essential for health, including:

  • what they do
  • how much you need
  • what happens if you have too much
  • safety advice about supplements

For information about nutrition for children, see vitamins for children.

Vitamin and mineral supplements

If you choose to take vitamin and mineral supplements, be aware that taking too many or for too long can cause harmful effects.

Some people may need to take vitamin and mineral supplements. For information on who could benefit from supplements, see Do I need vitamin supplements?

If you're trying to cut down on your salt intake, you might want to avoid vitamin and mineral supplements that come as effervescent or fizzy tablets, as they can contain up to 1g of salt per tablet.

Get more tips for a lower-salt diet.

What are vitamins?

There are two types of vitamins: fat-soluble and water-soluble.

Fat-soluble vitamins

Fat-soluble vitamins are found mainly in fatty foods and animal products, such as vegetable oils, milk and dairy foods, eggs, liver, oily fish and butter.

While your body needs these vitamins every day to work properly, you don't need to eat foods containing them every day.

This is because your body stores these vitamins in your liver and fatty tissues for future use. These stores can build up so they are there when you need them. However, if you have much more than you need, fat-soluble vitamins can be harmful.

Fat-soluble vitamins are:

Water-soluble vitamins

Water-soluble vitamins are not stored in the body, so you need to have them more frequently.

If you have more than you need, your body gets rid of the extra vitamins when you urinate. As the body does not store water-soluble vitamins, these vitamins are generally not harmful. However, this doesn't mean that all large amounts are necessarily harmless.

Water-soluble vitamins are found in a wide range of foods, including fruit, vegetables, potatoes, grains, milk and dairy foods. Unlike fat-soluble vitamins, they can be destroyed by heat or being exposed to the air. They can also be lost in water used for cooking.

This means that by cooking foods, especially boiling them, we lose some of these vitamins. The best way to keep as many of the water-soluble vitamins as possible is to steam or grill foods, rather than boil them, or to use the cooking water in soups or stews rather than pouring it away.

Water-soluble vitamins are vitamin C, the B vitamins and folic acid.

There are also many other types of vitamins and minerals that are an important part of a healthy diet.

What are minerals?

Minerals are necessary for three main reasons:

  • building strong bones and teeth
  • controlling body fluids inside and outside cells
  • turning the food you eat into energy

Minerals are found in foods such as meat, cereals (including cereal products such as bread), fish, milk and dairy foods, vegetables, fruit (especially dried fruit) and nuts.

Essential minerals include calcium and iron, although there are also many other types of minerals that are an important part of a healthy diet.

What are trace elements?

Trace elements are also essential nutrients that your body needs to work properly, but in much smaller amounts than vitamins and minerals.

Trace elements are found in small amounts in a variety of foods such as meat, fish, cereals, milk and dairy foods, vegetables and nuts.

Examples of trace elements are iodine and fluoride.

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