What's so Vital about Vitamins?


So, what's the big deal about vitamins? And what IS a vitamin?

Vitamins are carbon-based substances that are essential to life that must be supplied by the diet, and are not burned for energy. So, rather than being distinguished by the kind of chemical they are, they are distinguished by the fact that we need them.

The existence of vitamins was discovered in the early 20th century, and with this discovery came the realisation that just by eating the right foods, some extremely serious and life-threatening diseases could be prevented. One example of this is scurvy, which is a severe deficiency of vitamin C that affected people on long sea voyages because of a lack of access to fresh fruit and vegetables.
With the exception of vitamin B12, all vitamins can be found in plant sources. There are plenty of B group vitamins in grains and legumes (beans, peas and lentils), which are essential for creating energy from food. Vitamins A and C are plentiful in fruits and vegetables. They are antioxidants, as are vitamins E (in avocados, nuts and seeds) and K (in leafy greens). Vitamin C is well known for supporting immune function, vitamin E for healthy skin and eyes, and vitamin K for healthy blood function and wound healing. Vitamin D is unique in that it is produced by the body when we are exposed to sunlight as well as being available from dairy, eggs and meat, so it is classified as both a hormone and a vitamin, but it is very important in the maintainence of healthy calcium levels in the body, for strong bones and teeth and good growth and regeneration of tissues including bones, but also muscle tissue.

All the vitamins and minerals you could possibly need from a day's food easily fit into a teaspoon, so whilst it can be a bit daunting to keep track of what vitamins are in which foods, eating a diverse range of foods from the different food groups will generally keep you well covered and avoid any need for artificial supplements, which can be expensive and don't tend to be all that tasty. Plenty of fruit, vegetables and whole grains with a sensible amount of animal protein in the diet will do an enormous amount to support gratifying immunity, energy levels and healthy skin. Vegetables of similar colours often have similar nutrients in them, so a variety of bright colours in your dinner is a good indicator that you're maximising the spectrum of vitamins. This week's recipes for Couscous with Mediterranean Vegetables and Osso Bucco (Italian-Style Tomato, Herb and Beef Stew) have been prepared with this in mind. Combine a varied, balanced diet with drinking plenty of water and you are well on the way towards doing what you can to be at your best, but if you are confused about your nutrition or are concerned about your energy levels in the longer term, you may benefit from a visit to your local dietician or GP.

Article by Elise Ruthenbeck