Why Are Vitamins and Minerals Important in Our Diet?

Lucy Bell-Young

by Lucy Bell-Young

20th October 2021

We need vitamins and minerals for various purposes. They are essential micronutrients that act as coenzymes, cofactors, macromolecule components, electrolytes, and structural components of tissues such as bones. Micronutrients help control the breakdown of nutrients and the precise release of energy by our cells for various metabolic processes.

The human body can synthesise some vitamins on its own, like vitamin D and vitamin B complex. But in order for this to happen, the body has to get minerals from dietary sources, like vegetables. The most important vitamin, vitamin C, is something that also has to be derived from dietary sources. Most other vitamins and all minerals can only be derived from normal dietary sources and supplements.

Why Do We Need Vitamins and Minerals in Our Diet?

There’s no such thing as one standard dietary guideline for everyone. Individuals need a range of dietary requirements that depend on different factors, such as age, level of physical activity, sex, weight, and health status. Generally, however, you don’t really have to precisely measure your dietary intakes of micronutrients. As long as you’re not deficient in any of the essential nutrients, you can remain relatively mineral-healthy.

If, however, you want a more comprehensive dietary guide, you can refer to the Dietary Reference Values. Using this, you’ll have a good idea of how much nutrients you need on a daily basis, depending on your age and other criteria. Many of the vitamins and minerals we need can be found in milk, fruits, and vegetables.

We need vitamins and minerals in relatively small amounts compared to the macronutrients we need. The latter is measured in grams per kilogram of body weight per day. The former is measured in milligrams and micrograms per kilogram of body weight per day. For instance, a 15-year-old needs 40 milligrams of vitamin C per day based on the Reference Nutrient Intake (RNI) values.

The traditional ‘balanced diet’ comprises the GO, GROW, and GLOW food groups. 

  • The GO foods include carbohydrates (sugars and starch), such as grains, which are sources of energy. 
  • GROW foods are the building blocks of the cells and tissue, which are proteins, including both animal and plant proteins. 
  • GLOW foods provide micronutrients, ensuring healthy physiological functions. These foods include fruits and vegetables, which are great sources of both vitamins and minerals.

Typically, these food groups are also arranged as a food pyramid. At the bottom are the GO foods, providing the base with the largest proportion. Next are the GLOW foods that boost immunity and maintain healthy physiological functions, such as hormone synthesis. On the third level are the GROW foods, including poultry, fish, meats, and dairy products. On the top of the pyramid are the fats, oils, and sweets, which are meant to be consumed sparingly.

Infographic of food pyramid

Why Are Vitamins and Minerals Important For Our Daily Health?

All organisms, especially multicellular large organisms like humans, have complex mechanisms for maintaining homeostasis. This is about maintaining physiological balance and internal stability while adjusting to the continually changing external conditions. Homeostasis is synonymous with the health of an organism. An organism that’s unable to maintain homeostasis is either sick or dying.

Vitamins and minerals are important in maintaining homeostasis. For example, sodium and chloride ions have the important role of maintaining the osmotic pressure inside cells. Other minerals have a direct role in maintaining the autonomic functions of the organs, like the heart and lungs. Calcium, for instance, has a crucial role in transmitting signals from the nervous system to muscles to control their contractions.

When sufficient in supply, the roles of most vitamins and minerals are barely noticeable. We take them for granted and only notice when there are deficiencies. 

For instance, if the daily intake of selenium falls below 60 micrograms per kilogram of bodyweight per adult male for a prolonged period of time, noticeable effects may be impaired production of thyroid hormones and reduced cognitive functions. Low selenium levels are associated with depression, anxiety, and confusion. Your immune system may also be compromised.

How Do You Get Minerals into Your Diet?

The human body cannot produce minerals. These micronutrients have to be derived from daily diet, including both food and beverages. Minerals essentially come from soil. They are absorbed by plants and get incorporated into their tissues either as dissolved ions or as components of their tissues. This is why fruits and vegetables are great sources of minerals, and should be part of your regular diet.

Even common food seasonings, such as spices and condiments, have minerals in them. Soy sauce, for example, is rich in sodium, which is an important mineral that acts as an electrolyte. Meanwhile, bananas are an excellent source of potassium.

How Do You Get Vitamins into Your Diet?

Virtually all foods that we eat, especially non-processed food, are good sources of vitamins. The meat and internal organs of animals are good sources of vitamin B complex. The eight vitamin B complexes can all be derived from animal sources, including:

  • B-1 (thiamine)
  • B-2 (riboflavin)
  • B-3 (niacin)
  • B-5 (pantothenic acid)
  • B-6 (pyridoxine)
  • B-7 (biotin)
  • B-9 (folic acid)
  • B-12 (cobalamin)

You may also take vitamin supplements upon the recommendation of your doctor. Avoid taking high doses of fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E, K) as they may accumulate in your adipose tissues and become toxic.

Infographic showing which areas of the body need which vitamins and minerals and where to find them

How Are Minerals and Vitamins Absorbed?

Most vitamins and minerals are absorbed directly into the bloodstream through the small and large intestines during digestion. Since most vitamins and minerals are water soluble, they are easily dissolved in the blood. Additionally, many vitamins and minerals have specific metabolic pathways as they function as cofactors and coenzymes.

Other vitamins, particularly the fat soluble ones, are stored in the tissues for later use. Some are broken down to become components of biomolecules, while other minerals become permanent parts of living tissues like bones. Most vitamins aid in metabolic processes as coenzymes.

What Can Interfere With Mineral Absorption in Our Diet?

Some of the natural chemical contents of the food that we eat are considered as anti-nutrients, preventing the absorption of some essential minerals in our diet. Here are some examples of anti-nutrient compounds in food:

  • Glucosinolates: These are found in some vegetables like broccoli and cabbage. They can prevent the absorption of iodine.
  • Lectins: These are found in legumes and peanuts. They can interfere with the absorption of calcium, iron, and zinc.
  • Oxalates: Green leafy vegetables and tea have these compounds. They can interfere with calcium absorption.
  • Phytates: These are found in whole grains, legumes, and some nuts. They can affect the absorption of zinc, iron, magnesium, and calcium.

There are other factors that can prevent or interfere with mineral absorption. These include cooking and food preparation techniques. Boiling, for example, can remove a significant amount of vitamins and minerals from vegetables. Your health status can also affect mineral absorption. If you have an infection in your gastrointestinal tract, for example, you may have difficulty absorbing some minerals.


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