Angela Dowden: Working through the Vitamins maze

Getting enough vitamins and minerals can be a bit of a challenge. Here&rquo;s a quick guide to consuming what you need.

Vitamins and minerals are needed in such tiny quantities, and yet their effects on our health can be profound. They keep our bones and teeth strong as well as maintaining our energy levels and without vitamins our health could be weakend.

Fortunately the varied diet most of us now have access to means very severe vitamin deficiencies are rare, but it&rquo;s still possible to fall short. For example a lack of iron can cause anaemia, too little calcium can increase your chance of osteoporosis, whilst not getting enough folic acid before and during pregnancy can increase the chance of birth defects.

The government&rquo;s National Diet and Nutrition Survey http://www.food.gov.uk/science/dietarysurveys/ndnsdocuments/ndns0809year1 gives useful information on which groups have the poorest intakes of which nutrients. Here&rquo;s some of their findings.

The elderly lack Vitamin D Over 65s are recommended to have 10mcg vitamin D daily, but the average intake is only around one third this amount.

Females routinely fall short of iron On average teenage girls achieve only just over half the intake they need, whilst women full short by 20 per cent.
Most adults fall short of selenium The average intake is 43mcg per day in women and 55mcg in men, versus the daily recommendations of 60 and 75mcg.
Women can lack magnesium with intake being on average 15 per cent lower than the recommended amount.

Do these findings mean you should take a supplement if you are in an at risk group? Not necessarily, as if you know which nutrients you are most likely to fall short of you can focus on eating more of the foods that contain them (see the table below).

If you do decide on a supplement, an A-Z multivitamin is usually best as a high dose of one nutrient by itself can actually be harmful. For instance, large doses of vitamin A have been linked with birth defects, whilst beta carotene, though an important antioxidant in the context of a balanced diet, has been linked with increased lung cancer risk in smokers who take high dose supplements of the nutrient by itself. For information on safe doses go to: http://www.food.gov.uk/news/newsarchive/2003/may/howadviceproduced.
Key vitamins and minerals and where to find them
Vitamin A: In liver, eggs, fortified breakfast cereals, carrots, red peppers.

Needed for healthy eyes, respiratory passages, skin and children&rquo;s growth.

Vitamin B complex: In grains, meat, fish, breakfast cereals, nuts, milk and yeast extract.

For health nerves, muscles, energy release.

Vitamin C: In fruit and vegetables, fruit juices.

Vital for healthy immunes system, connective tissue, gums.

Vitamin D: In oily canned and fresh fish, eggs, spreads and fortified breakfast cereals.

Essential for strong bones, also for the immune system.

Vitamin E: In sunflower oil and seeds, nuts (especially hazelnuts and almonds).

Important antioxidant which protects cells from damage.

Calcium: In dairy products (low fat are healthiest), nuts, canned fish and green vegetables.

Vital for strong bones, a good intake may help with maintaining a healthy weight too.

Iron: In lean red meat, nuts (especially cashews), curly kale, spinach and other green vegetables.

For healthy red blood cells.

Zinc: In wholemeal bread and pasta, beef and lamb, nuts, sardines.

Required for cell replication, healthy immune system, skin and reproductive system.

Selenium: In Brazil nuts, tuna, lamb&rquo;s kidneys.

Vital protective antioxidant. Important for the immune system and protection against viruses.

Magnesium: In wholemeal bread, All bran, nuts (particularly Brazil nuts and almonds), sunflower and sesame seeds, bananas.