You’ve heard that vitamins and minerals are good for your health. You may have even seen the alphabet soup listed on your supplement bottle too. But what’s the difference between vitamins and minerals?
Vitamins are substances that the body needs to function. There are 13 essential vitamins, which can either be fat-soluble or water-soluble. Vitamins are found in a variety of foods or can be taken as a supplement.
Like vitamins, your body needs minerals to function. While there are only 13 essential vitamins, there are thousands of known minerals. Your body doesn’t necessarily need all of them, but it does need certain minerals to function properly.
Depending on the mineral, you might need large or small amounts. Also, minerals are found in a variety of foods.
Let me straight away ask you the first question before we proceed - Are You Getting What You Need?
Vitamins and minerals are essential nutrients because they perform hundreds of roles in the body. There is a fine line between getting enough of these nutrients (which is healthy) and getting too much (which can end up harming you). Eating a healthy diet remains the best way to get sufficient amounts of the vitamins and minerals you need.
Every day, your body produces skin, muscle, and bone. It churns out rich red blood that carries nutrients and oxygen to remote outposts, and it sends nerve signals skipping along thousands of miles of brain and body pathways. It also formulates chemical messengers that shuttle from one organ to another, issuing the instructions that help sustain your life.
But to do all this, your body requires some raw materials. These include at least 30 vitamins, minerals, and dietary components that your body needs but cannot manufacture on its own in sufficient amounts.
Vitamins and minerals are considered essential nutrients—because acting in concert, they perform hundreds of roles in the body. They help shore up bones, heal wounds, and bolster your immune system. They also convert food into energy, and repair cellular damage.
But trying to keep track of what all these vitamins and minerals can be confusing. Read enough articles on the topic, and your eyes may swim with the alphabet-soup references to these nutrients, which are known mainly be their initials (such as vitamins A, B, C, D, E, and K—to name just a few).
In this article, you’ll gain a better understanding of what these vitamins and minerals actually do in the body and why you want to make sure you’re getting enough of them.
Micronutrients with a big role in the body
Vitamins and minerals are often called micronutrients because your body needs only tiny amounts of them. Yet failing to get even those small quantities virtually guarantees disease. Here are a few examples of diseases that can result from vitamin deficiencies:
Scurvy. Old-time sailors learned that living for months without fresh fruits or vegetables—the main sources of vitamin C—causes the bleeding gums and listlessness of scurvy.
Blindness. In some developing countries, people still become blind from Vitamin A deficiency.
Rickets. A deficiency in vitamin D can cause rickets, a condition marked by soft, weak bones that can lead to skeletal deformities such as bowed legs. Partly to combat rickets, the U.S. has fortified milk with vitamin D since the 1930s.
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Just as a lack of key micronutrients can cause substantial harm to your body, getting sufficient quantities can provide a substantial benefit. Some examples of these benefits:
Strong bones. A combination of calcium, vitamin D, vitamin K, magnesium, and phosphorus protects your bones against fractures.
Prevents birth defects. Taking folic acid supplements early in pregnancy helps prevent brain and spinal birth defects in offspring.
Healthy teeth. The mineral fluoride not only helps bone formation but also keeps dental cavities from starting or worsening.
So far we know that vitamins are substances that are needed for normal cell function, growth, and development. Each vitamin plays an important role in the body. When you don’t get enough of a certain vitamin, you may become deficient.
Vitamin deficiency can cause health problems and may increase your risk of heart disease, cancer, and osteoporosis. Getting the right amount of vitamins can help boost your immunity and maintain optimal health.
There are 13 vitamins:
Vitamin A (retinol)
Vitamin C (ascorbic acid)
Vitamin E (tocopherol)
Vitamin B1 (thiamine)
Vitamin B2 (riboflavin)
Vitamin B3 (niacin)
Vitamin B5 (pantothenic acid)
Vitamin B6 (pyridoxine)
Vitamin B7 (biotin)
Vitamin B9 (folate)
Vitamin B12 (cobalamin)
Type of Vitamins
Vitamins are grouped into two categories: fat-soluble and water-soluble. Fat-soluble vitamins are stored in the body’s fatty tissues. There are four fat-soluble vitamins: A, D, E, and K. These vitamins are absorbed more easily when consumed with a bit of dietary fat.
Water-soluble vitamins are used by the body right away. They are not stored by the body and have to be regularly consumed. Any leftover water-soluble vitamins are excreted in the urine. Vitamin C and the B-vitamins are water-soluble. Vitamin B12 is the exception because it can be stored in the liver for many years.
Difference Between Fat Soluble and Water Soluble
Functions and Sources of Vitamins
Each of the 13 vitamins plays a specific role in the body. It’s important to get enough of each vitamin to maintain optimal health.
Vitamin A (retinol) helps form and maintain healthy teeth, bones, soft tissue, mucus membranes, and skin. Vitamin A is found in dark-colored fruit, dark leafy vegetables, egg yolks, fortified milk and dairy products (cheese, yogurt, butter, and cream), and meats such as liver, beef, and fish.
Vitamin C (ascorbic acid) is an antioxidant that supports healthy teeth and gums. It helps the body absorb iron and maintain healthy tissue. This vitamin is also considered to have immunity-boosting properties, as it helps wounds to heal. Vitamin C is found in citrus fruits and other vegetables including broccoli, brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, potatoes, spinach, and tomatoes.
Vitamin D is known as the “sunshine vitamin” because the body produces it after sun exposure. Depending on location and skin pigmentation, the body only needs 10 to 15 minutes of sunshine a few times a week to produce all of the vitamin D it needs to function. Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin that helps the body absorb calcium, a mineral required for the development and maintenance of healthy teeth and bones. Vitamin D also helps maintain the proper levels of calcium and phosphorus in the blood. Vitamin D is found in fatty fish (salmon, mackerel, herring etc), fish liver oils, fortified cereals, and fortified milk and dairy products (cheese, yogurt, butter, and cream). People who live in areas with limited sunlight may not make enough vitamin D and it’s difficult to get enough vitamin D from food sources alone. This is when supplementation can help.
Vitamin E (tocopherol) is an antioxidant that helps the body form red blood cells and also allows for the use of Vitamin K. Vitamin E is found in avocado, dark green vegetables (spinach, broccoli, asparagus, and turnip greens), oils (safflower, corn, and sunflower), papayas, mangos, nuts and seeds, and wheat germ.
Vitamin K is essential for blood coagulation and may also support bone health. Vitamin K is found in cabbage, cauliflower, cereals, dark green vegetables (broccoli, Brussels sprouts, and asparagus), dark leafy vegetables (spinach, kale, collards, and turnip greens), and meat products such as fish, liver, beef, and eggs.
Vitamin B1 (thiamine) helps cells convert carbohydrates into energy. This vitamin also supports heart function and healthy nerve cells. Thiamine is found in dried milk, eggs, enriched breads, lean meats, legume, nuts and seeds, organ meats, peas, and whole grains.
Vitamin B2 (riboflavin) works with the other B-vitamins. It is important for body growth and red blood cell production. Riboflavin is found in asparagus, broccoli, eggs, kidneys, lean meats, liver, low-fat milk, and spinach.
Vitamin B3 (niacin) helps maintain healthy skin and nerves. It can also help lower cholesterol. Niacin is found in avocado, eggs, enriched breads and fortified cereals, fish, lean meats, legumes, nuts, potatoes, and poultry.
Vitamin B5 (pantothenic acid) is essential for the metabolism of food. It also assists in the production of hormones. Pantothenic acid is found in avocados, broccoli, eggs, kale, legumes and lentils, milk, mushrooms, organ meats, potatoes, poultry, and whole-grain cereals.
Vitamin B6 (pyridoxine) helps produce red blood cells and maintain brain function. Because this vitamin plays a role in the proteins that are part of many chemical reactions in the body, your body requires more of it when you eat more protein. Pyroxidine is found in avocado, bananas, legumes, meat, nuts, poultry, and whole grains.
Vitamin B7 (biotin) is essential for the metabolism of proteins and carbohydrates and supports healthy hair, skin, and nails. It also assists in hormone production. Biotin is found in chocolate, cereal, egg yolks, legumes, milk, nuts, organ meats, pork, and yeast.
Vitamin B9 (folate) works with vitamin B12 in red blood cell production, It also plays a role in the production of DNA. Folate is especially important for pregnant women, as a deficiency can cause birth defects. While many foods are now fortified with folic acid (a form of folate), folate can be found naturally in asparagus, beets, broccoli, dried beans, leafy green vegetables, lentils, oranges, peanut butter, and wheat germ.
Vitamin B12 (cobalamin) helps support metabolism, red blood cell production, and the central nervous system. Cobalamin is found in animal sources such as eggs, meat, milk, organ meats, poultry, and shellfish.
A closer look at water-soluble vitamins
Water-soluble vitamins are packed into the watery portions of the foods you eat. They are absorbed directly into the bloodstream as food is broken down during digestion or as a supplement dissolves.
Because much of your body consists of water, many of the water-soluble vitamins circulate easily in your body. Your kidneys continuously regulate levels of water-soluble vitamins, shunting excesses out of the body in your urine.
Vitamin B1 (Thiamin)
Vitamin B2 (Riboflavin)
Vitamin B3 (Niacin)
Vitamin B5 (Pantothenic acid)
Vitamin B7 (Biotin)
Vitamin B9 (Folic acid/Folate)
What they do?
Although water-soluble vitamins have many tasks in the body, one of the most important is helping to free the energy found in the food you eat. Others help keep tissues healthy. Here are some examples of how different vitamins help you maintain health:
Release energy. Several B vitamins are key components of certain coenzymes (molecules that aid enzymes) that help release energy from food.
Produce energy. Thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, pantothenic acid, and biotin activates energy production.
Build proteins and cells.cells. Vitamins B6, B12, and folic acid metabolize amino acids (the building blocks of proteins) and help cells multiply.
Make collagen. One of many roles played by vitamin C is to help make collagen, which knits together wounds, supports blood vessel walls, and forms a base for teeth and bones.
Words to the wise
Contrary to popular belief, some water-soluble vitamins can stay in the body for long periods of time. You probably have several years’ supply of vitamin B12 in your liver. And even folic acid and vitamin C stores can last more than a couple of days.
Generally, though, water-soluble vitamins should be replenished every few days.
Just be aware that there is a small risk that consuming large amounts of some of these micronutrients through supplements may be quite harmful.
For example, very high doses of B6—many times the recommended amount of 1.3 milligrams (mg) per day for adults—can damage nerves, causing numbness and muscle weakness.
A closer look at fat-soluble vitamins
Rather than slipping easily into the bloodstream like most water-soluble vitamins, fat-soluble vitamins gain entry to the blood via lymph channels in the intestinal wall. Many fat-soluble vitamins travel through the body only under escort by proteins that act as carriers.
Absorption of fat-soluble vitamins
Food containing fat-soluble vitamins is ingested.
The food is digested by stomach acid and then travels to the small intestine, where it is digested further. Bile is needed for the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins. This substance, which is produced in the liver, flows into the small intestine, where it breaks down fats. Nutrients are then absorbed through the wall of the small intestine.
Upon absorption, the fat-soluble vitamins enter the lymph vessels before making their way into the bloodstream. In most cases, fat-soluble vitamins must be coupled with a protein in order to travel through the body.
These vitamins are used throughout the body, but excesses are stored in the liver and fat tissues.
As additional amounts of these vitamins are needed, your body taps into the reserves, releasing them into the bloodstream from the liver.
Fatty foods and oils are reservoirs for the four fat-soluble vitamins. Within your body, fat tissues and the liver act as the main holding pens for these vitamins and release them as needed.
To some extent, you can think of these vitamins as time-release micronutrients. It’s possible to consume them every now and again, perhaps in doses weeks or months apart rather than daily, and still get your fill. Your body squirrels away the excess and doles it out gradually to meet your needs.
What they do
Together this vitamin quartet helps keep your eyes, skin, lungs, gastrointestinal tract, and nervous system in good repair. Here are some of the other essential roles these vitamins play:
Build bones. Bone formation would be impossible without vitamins A, D, and K.
Protect vision. Vitamin A also helps keep cells healthy and protects your vision.
Interact favorably. Without vitamin E, your body would have difficulty absorbing and storing vitamin A.
Protect the body. Vitamin E also acts as an antioxidant (a compound that helps protect the body against damage from unstable molecules).
Words to the wise
Because fat-soluble vitamins are stored in your body for long periods, toxic levels can build up. This is most likely to happen if you take supplements. It’s very rare to get too much of a vitamin just from food.
Recommended Dietary Allowances
The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for each vitamin indicates how much of each vitamin most people should get each day. While the RDA for vitamins may be used as a goal, how much of each vitamin you need depends on factors such as your age, gender, and health.
More is not always better, as high doses of certain vitamins can be toxic. This is especially true for fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E, and K), which are stored in fat cells and can build up in the body. Talk to your healthcare provider about your vitamin needs.
Before we further understand Minerals, lets get the difference between vitamins and minerals
Although they are all considered micronutrients, vitamins and minerals differ in basic ways. Vitamins are organic and can be broken down by heat, air, or acid. Minerals are inorganic and hold on to their chemical structure.
So why does this matter? It means the minerals in soil and water easily find their way into your body through the plants, fish, animals, and fluids you consume. But it’s tougher to shuttle vitamins from food and other sources into your body because cooking, storage, and simple exposure to air can inactivate these more fragile compounds.
Interacting—in good ways and bad
Many micronutrients interact. Vitamin D enables your body to pluck calcium from food sources passing through your digestive tract rather than harvesting it from your bones. Vitamin C helps you absorb iron.
The interplay of micronutrients isn’t always cooperative, however. For example, vitamin C blocks your body’s ability to assimilate the essential mineral copper. And even a minor overload of the mineral manganese can worsen iron deficiency.
Minerals are naturally occurring substances that are essential for building bones, making hormones, regulating your heartbeat, and supporting healthy muscles and brain function.
Minerals can be classified as macrominerals or trace minerals. Macrominerals are needed in larger amounts:
Trace minerals are needed in small amounts
The best way to get the minerals your body needs is by eating a wide variety of foods. Minerals have certain functions in the body and can be found in a variety of food sources.
A closer look at major minerals
The body needs, and stores, fairly large amounts of the major minerals. These minerals are no more important to your health than the trace minerals; they’re just present in your body in greater amounts.
Major minerals travel through the body in various ways. Potassium, for example, is quickly absorbed into the bloodstream, where it circulates freely and is excreted by the kidneys, much like a water-soluble vitamin. Calcium is more like a fat-soluble vitamin because it requires a carrier for absorption and transport.
What they do
One of the key tasks of major minerals is to maintain the proper balance of water in the body. Sodium, chloride, and potassium take the lead in doing this.
Three other major minerals—calcium, phosphorus, and magnesium—are important for healthy bones. Sulphur helps stabilize protein structures, including some of those that make up hair, skin, and nails.
Words to the wise
Having too much of one major mineral can result in a deficiency of another. These sorts of imbalances are usually caused by overloads from supplements, not food sources.
Here are two examples:
Salt overload. Calcium binds with excess sodium in the body and is excreted when the body senses that sodium levels must be lowered. That means that if you ingest too much sodium through table salt or processed foods, you could end up losing needed calcium as your body rids itself of the surplus sodium.
Excess phosphorus. Likewise, too much phosphorus can hamper your ability to absorb magnesium.
A closer look at trace minerals
A thimble could easily contain the distillation of all the trace minerals normally found in your body. Yet their contributions are just as essential as those of major minerals such as calcium and phosphorus, which each account for more than a pound of your body weight.
What they do
Trace minerals carry out a diverse set of tasks. Here are a few examples:
Iron is best known for ferrying oxygen throughout the body.
Fluoride strengthens bones and wards off tooth decay.
Zinc helps blood clot, is essential for taste and smell, and bolsters the immune response.
Copper helps form several enzymes, one of which assists with iron metabolism and the creation of hemoglobin, which carries oxygen in the blood.
The other trace minerals perform equally vital jobs, such as helping to block damage to body cells and forming parts of key enzymes or enhancing their activity.
Words to the wise
Trace minerals interact with one another, sometimes in ways that can trigger imbalances. Too much of one can cause or contribute to a deficiency of another.
Here are some examples:
A minor overload of manganese can exacerbate iron deficiency. Having too little can also cause problems.
When the body has too little iodine, thyroid hormone production slows, causing sluggishness and weight gain as well as other health concerns. The problem worsens if the body also has too little selenium.
The difference between “just enough” and “too much” of the trace minerals is often tiny. Generally, food is a safe source of trace minerals, but if you take supplements, it’s important to make sure you’re not exceeding safe levels.
A closer look at antioxidants
Antioxidant is a catchall term for any compound that can counteract unstable molecules such as free radicals that damage DNA, cell membranes, and other parts of cells.
Your body cells naturally produce plenty of antioxidants to put on patrol. The foods you eat—and, perhaps, some of the supplements you take—are another source of antioxidant compounds.