To understand why we need vitamins, it is better to figure out what vitamins really are. Vitamins are small molecules that our body requires to perform certain biochemical reactions in our cells. The human body has no way to produce vitamin molecules itself, so the vitamins must come from the food that we eat. Inside of our body, vitamins are used in many different and unique ways. For example, vitamin A is involved in the production of retinal that is used within the photoreceptors of our eyes to sense light. We cannot produce retinal without vitamin A, and therefore without vitamin A we cannot see. At the same time the different vitamins B are very often built into the structure of different enzymes that are crucial to certain chemical changes in our cells. For example, each copy of the enzyme called aspartate aminotransferase that transfers amines between amino acids contains two vitamin B6 molecules. Another illustration of the irreplaceable role of vitamins’ involvement in crucial reactions in our body is the participation of vitamin C in the formation of collagen. In this case, without vitamin C, collagen, which is the main structural protein of the connective tissue, cannot be produced. The first signs of lack of vitamin C in our body are weak blood vessels and loose teeth, which are held in their sockets by collagen. So vitamins are absolutely vital and essential for us!
There are two types of vitamins: fat-soluble and water-soluble.
Fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E, K) are usuallypresent in fatty foods such as meat and meat products, animal fat and vegetable oils, dairy products, liver and oily fish.Although our body needs these vitamins every day to function properly, we do not need to eat foods containing them every day. This is because they are transported around the body in fat, and our body stores these vitamins in the liver and fatty tissues for future use.
Water-soluble vitamins (B, C, folic acid), on the other hand, are not stored in the body, so we need to have them regularly. They are found in fruit, vegetables and grains. They are transported around the body in water and the excess is passed through urine. That is why we need to eat foods containing these vitamins every day.
Unlike the fat-soluble kind, water-soluble vitamins can be destroyed by heat or by 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 many 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 even better to eat foods raw if possible.
It is very clear that we all need vitamins to live a long and healthy life, and a varied diet is essential to obtain the nutrients we need. Too little of just one vitamin may disturb the body’s balance and cause health problems. But taking too many vitamins can also be dangerous. That is why it is important to know that there is a specific recommended daily allowance (RDA) for vitamins. For example, the RDA for Vitamin A is 900 mcg (micrograms) for men and 700 mcg for women.
Plenty of foods contain vitamins naturally, and it is our responsibility to make sure our daily diet provides sufficient vitamins. However, modern processing techniques have considerably reduced the vitamin and mineral content of many foods. In addition, living a hectic lifestyle, some people tend to eat a lot of processed or even junk food. These foods do not provide the vitamins that are required for our bodies to function properly. So these days people often take various multi-vitamin supplements. However, current research findings suggest that some isolated synthetic vitamins at high concentrations can be potentially harmful. For example, there’s increasing evidence that excess folic acid (the synthetic version of folate or the isolated form – separated from the food matrix) may contribute to the development of colorectal cancer. Multivitamins contain the recommended daily amount of folate – 400 mcg, but folic acid is also added to our foods like cereal products, including breads, rice, and pasta. A person taking a multi-vitamin can easily exceed the recommended total intake, and maybe even the safe upper limit of 1,000 mcg. Interestingly, that excess isn’t a problem with folate found naturally in foods. Similar results have been published for isolated and synthetic Vitamins C and E.
This may be because our body cannot properly metabolize synthetic or isolated forms of vitamins due to our unique genetics.Presently, it seems, we just do not know yet, and it is quite possible that a combination of many environmental and genetics factors might play a role. In any case, accumulating new findings raise questions about the use of multivitamins as a safety net. Experts agree that the best way to get the nutrients we need is through food. A balanced diet that contains plenty of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, offers a mix of vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients that collectively meet the body’s needs. This is due to the synergistic interactions of these nutrients, which play an enormous role in our nutrition and health.
Try to eat a wide variety of fresh foods:
– Add vegetables to other dishes you like. For example, add aubergine to your lasagne or stir broccoli into macaroni and cheese.
– Add different vegetables to your soups.
– Experiment with different raw vegetables and fruit combinations in your salads.
– Drink your vegetables, fruits, and berries by making fresh juices and smoothies as often as possible.
Enjoy your healthy meals!
Dr Irina Schurov