A closer look at vitamins and minerals

Anita Marlay, R.D., L.D.
Special to the Lake Sun, USA TODAY NETWORK
Eating a healthy diet is the best way to make sure you get enough of the vitamins and minerals you need every day.

Your body works hard every day to keep your organs functioning properly, heal wounds, repair cell damage, convert food to energy and keep your immune system in good order. To do all this, your body requires some raw materials that it cannot manufacture on its own. Vitamins and minerals are essential nutrients the body needs. They are often called micronutrients because your body only needs tiny amounts. Yet failing to get even those small quantities can result in various vitamin deficiency diseases.

Some vitamins are classified as fat-soluble. These vitamins gain entry to the body through lymph channels in the intestinal wall during digestion. Excess amounts of fat-soluble vitamins are stored in the liver and fat tissues, which allows the body to tap into these reserves as needed. Because fat-soluble vitamins are stored, toxic levels can build up if you use supplements in excess. The four fat-soluble vitamins are A, D, E and K.

Vitamin A is important for vision, healthy skin and the immune system. A chronic deficiency in vitamin A can lead to blindness. Vitamin A-rich foods include dark leafy greens, dark orange vegetables and fruits, and dairy products.

Vitamin D is needed to help the body absorb calcium. Excess vitamin D is stored in the bones. The most common food sources for vitamin D include fortified milk and egg yolks. Our bodies can make vitamin D with exposure to sunshine. A deficiency in vitamin D can cause rickets, a condition marked by soft, weak bones and bowed legs.

Vitamin E is an antioxidant that protects cell walls. It can be found in vegetable oils, wheat germ, egg yolks, nuts and seeds.

Vitamin K is needed for proper blood clotting. Leafy greens and green vegetables are the best sources of vitamin K.

Water-soluble vitamins are absorbed directly into the bloodstream during digestion and travel freely throughout the body. The kidneys usually excrete excess amounts, so we need small frequent doses of these vitamins. They are not as likely as fat-soluble vitamins to reach toxic levels, but it’s possible. There are nine essential water-soluble vitamins, most of which are part of an enzyme needed for energy metabolism.

Thiamine is important for nerve function and can be found in most nutritious foods including pork, whole grains, nuts and seeds.

Riboflavin is important for normal vision and skin. It’s found in milk, leafy greens, and enriched breads and cereals.

Niacin helps with the nervous system and digestive health. It is primarily found in whole grain, enriched breads and cereals, leafy greens, mushrooms, asparagus, and peanut butter.

Pantothenic acid and biotin are found widespread in foods and help with energy metabolism.

Pyridoxine or B6 helps form red blood cells and maintain brain function. It can be found in meat, fish, poultry, and some fruits and vegetables.

Folic acid is needed for making DNA and new cells, especially red blood cells. Folic acid is now added to most refined grains.

B12 is important for proper nerve function. It is not found in plant foods –– only in meat, poultry, fish, seafood, eggs, milk and milk products. People older than 50 and some vegetarians may need to use supplements to get enough B12.

Vitamin C or ascorbic acid is important for the immune system and aids in iron absorption. It’s found only in fruits and vegetables. Citrus fruits, vegetables in the cabbage family, strawberries, peppers, tomatoes and potatoes are good sources. Going months without vitamin C can lead to bleeding gums and eventually scurvy.

Our body needs and stores a fairly large amount of minerals as well. Major minerals travel through the body in different ways. The key function of sodium, chloride and potassium is to maintain the proper balance of water in our bodies. Calcium, phosphorus and magnesium are important for healthy bones. Sulfur helps stabilize protein structures, including those that make up hair, skin and nails. Too much of one major mineral can result in a deficiency of another. Imbalances in minerals are usually caused by overloads from supplements, not food sources.

Trace minerals such as iron, zinc, chromium, copper, fluoride, iodine, manganese, molybdenum and selenium all have vital jobs in the body as well. The difference between “just enough” and “too much” of the trace minerals is tiny. Food is generally a safe source of trace minerals, but supplements can provide too much.

Vitamins and minerals are essential nutrients because they perform hundreds of roles in our bodies. Eating a healthy diet is the best way to make sure you get enough of the vitamins and minerals you need every day. Sometimes, though, you need a little extra, and specific vitamin or mineral supplements may be recommended. A general multivitamin can provide some insurance that you are getting all the vitamins and minerals that you need. Just make sure to use a reputable brand that doesn’t exceed the maximum daily allowances of each vitamin and mineral.

Couscous Corn and Tomato Salad

Serves 6

2 cups pearl couscous

3 tsp lemon zest, divided

6 Tbsp fresh lemon juice, divided

1/3 cup olive oil

1 shallot, finely chopped

2 scallions, white part finely chopped, green parts sliced

1 ½ cup fresh corn kernels (about 2 large ears)

2 pints cherry tomatoes, halved

2 cups chopped green herbs such as basil, dill, and parsley

6 ounces fresh mozzarella, torn

¼ cup grated parmesan cheese

Prepare couscous per package directions. Drain, and rinse under cold water. Toss with 1 tsp lemon zest and 3 Tbsp lemon juice.

Whisk oil, remaining zest and juice with ½ tsp salt and ¼ tsp pepper. Add corn, shallot, scallion whites and tomatoes.

Toss veggies with couscous, and fold in the scallion greens, mozzarella, herbs and parmesan cheese.

Nutrition Information: 420 calories, 15 g fat, 12 g protein, 295 mg sodium, 60 g carbs, 15 g fiber

Anita Marlay, R.D., L.D., is a dietitian in the Cardiopulmonary Rehab department at Lake Regional Health System in Osage Beach, Missouri.