The A-C of vitamins – Vitamins: what do you need, how do you get them? by Dr Sarah Jarvis

We all want to be in the best possible health – and we certainly want the best for our children. Most of us can get enough vitamins from a healthy balanced diet – but some of us need a little extra help.

Vitamins can be divided up into two main groups. The fat soluble vitamins – A, D, E and K – are mostly found in fatty foods like dairy foods, oily fish, liver and oils, margarine and butter. If we eat more of these than we need, our bodies can store the excess to use later, so we don’t need to eat them every day. On the down side, because we don’t get rid of surplus vitamins, taking too much of these vitamins can be dangerous. For instance, high levels of vitamin A can make your bones more fragile and can damage your unborn baby’s eyes if you take too much when you’re pregnant.

The water soluble vitamins – B vitamins, C and folic acid – can’t be stored in the body so we need to eat them every day. They are also more easily destroyed by heat (such as prolonged cooking of foods) and can leach out into cooking water and be lost. They are mostly found in fruit, vegetables and grains. If these foods are exposed to air for too long vitamins can be lost, but they aren’t destroyed by canning or freezing. That’s why frozen or canned fruit and vegetables may actually be higher in vitamins than ‘fresh’ food left in the back of the vegetable drawer!

Vitamin A

Vitamin A, otherwise known as retinol, can help give you keen eyesight and protect you against infection, as well as contributing to skin that glows with health. Adults need about 0.6mg (for women) or 0.7mg (for men) a day. Nobody should take more than 1.5mg a day of vitamin A, and there is no group of adults who need supplements if they have a reasonable diet including eggs, dairy products or oily fish. In fact, taking too much is a more common risk than too little, especially for pregnant women. Because most animals store vitamin A in the liver, pregnant women should avoid liver or liver products, including pate, and always steer clear of supplements containing vitamin A (except under specific medical advice). Some children may find it hard to get enough in their diets and supplements are recommended for the under 5s.

The vitamins B

For some reason, there is only one of most vitamins, but several members of the vitamin B family.
Vitamin B3 (niacin) helps produce energy and repair the nervous system and digestive organs. Again, dairy foods, fish and eggs are good sources in the diet, as are wheat and corn (maize). Women need about 13mg a day and men 17 mg a day. Most doctors know that high levels of niacin can reduce high cholesterol and is actually used to treat this condition, but it also causes troublesome flushing of the skin and can damage your liver in the long term. The Department of Health doesn’t recommend supplements for any group.

Vitamin B6, or pyridoxine, needs to be eaten every day. It plays a key part in making haemoglobin, an essential component of red blood cells, and storing energy. Found in whole cereals, white meat, bread, eggs, milk and vegetables, adults need about 1.2mg (women) and 1.4mg (men) a day. Foods fortified with vitamin B6 can be an important source of vitamin B6, especially for children and toddlers. Actimel, which may help reduce infections in children from the age of 3, has now been fortified with vitamin B6. Supplements of more than 10mg a day are not recommended except under medical advice because of the small risk of nerve damage from long term of high doses.

Vitamin B12 is important for making red blood cells; releasing energy from food; and keeping the nervous system in top form. Vegans can find it hard to get enough because it’s mostly found in meat, fish, eggs and dairy products. Yeast extract (Marmite) is high in vitamin B12 but also in salt, which should be restricted in children. We need only small amounts  – 0.0015mg a day for adults – of vitamin B12. Apart from vegans, most groups including pregnant women and children should get enough from a balanced diet.

Vitamin B2 (riboflavin) also comes from milk and eggs, but rice is another useful source. Like many other B vitamins, it plays a role in making red blood cells and keeping the nervous system healthy. Vitamin B1 (thiamine), found in similar foods to other B vitamins, helps keep nerves healthy. You and your child shouldn’t need supplements.

Folic acid is actually a B vitamin. It’s essential for pregnant women to reduce the risk of spina bifida (abnormal development of the spinal cord) in babies. All women planning pregnancy should take 400micrograms a day until 12 weeks pregnant. Some women need more, especially if they have had a previous baby affected by spina bifida.

Vitamin C

Vitamin C helps all sorts of cells and tissues in your body. Most fruit and veg, especially citrus fruit, are good sources – just another reason for you and your child to veg out!

Vitamin D

There has been growing concern in recent years about the number of people who are deficient in vitamin D. It’s very hard to get enough vitamin D even from a healthy diet (oily fish and egg yolks are the main sources) – about 80% of our vitamin D is absorbed by our skin from exposure to sunshine. But we’ve all heard the messages about too much sun being bad for our skins – sunburn is the single biggest risk factor for the potentially deadly melanoma skin cancer – and it’s often hard to strike a balance.

But vitamin D is essential for strong bones, and low levels may be linked with osteoporosis in later life and rickets in children. In very severe cases, recent research suggests there might also be a connection with Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS or cot death), and in adults may be a risk factor for diseases as diverse as cancer and heart disease.

To reduce the risk of vitamin D deficiency, the Department of Health recommends that pregnant women and breastfed children over 6 months, as well as bottle fed infants taking less than a pint of formula feed a day, should take vitamin D supplements until the age of 5. Pregnant women should take 400units (10 micrograms a day). Even after pregnancy and over 5, it’s important to maximise vitamin D in the diet – and Actimel have fortified their drinks with vitamin D.

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