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Vitamins and Minerals: What We Need and Why

--by Mark Abell

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Understanding the role vitamins and minerals play in the body is the key to understanding what we need and why. For those of us who generally eat a well balanced diet, taking vitamin tablets may not necessary. There are, of course, exceptions, including pregnant and lactating women, those who suffer bone loss due to osteoporosis, and adolescents who need calcium for the development of their bones. While vitamin tablets may not be necessary, minerals, on the other hand, may need to be supplemented, depending on age, gender, and doctor recommendation.

Vitamins

A vitamin is any group of organic substances - other than proteins, carbohydrates, fats, minerals, and organic salts - which are essential for normal metabolism, growth, and development. Vitamins regulate metabolic processes, control cellular functions, and prevent diseases, such as scurvy and rickets.

Let's examine what each vitamin does for us, what happens if there is a deficiency, and from what foods we can get them.

Vitamin A:
Essential for normal growth, integrity of the skin, and bone development. Lack of Vitamin A can lead to infection of the cornea, conjunctiva (the red part of the eye), trachea (windpipe), hair follicles, and renal system. Deficiency can also cause night blindness. Vitamin A is found in butter, butterfat in milk, egg yolk, some fruits (prunes, pineapples, oranges, limes, and cantaloupe), green leafy vegetables and carrots.
Vitamin B Complexes:
  • Vitamin B1 (thiamine) affects growth, appetite, and carbohydrate metabolism. Alcoholics can be especially deficient. B1 is found in whole grains, nuts, egg yolk, fruits, and most vegetables.
  • Vitamin B2 (riboflavin) affects growth and cellular metabolism (the ability of the cell to take in food, make energy and discard waste). Found in liver, meat, poultry, eggs, milk, and green vegetables.
  • A deficiency in Vitamin B6 (niacin) will cause pellagra, which is associated with the "four D's": dermatitis, diarrhea, dementia, and death. Found in liver, meat, poultry, and green vegetables.
  • Vitamin B12 (biotin, folic acid, and cyanocobalamin) is found in leafy green vegetables, organ meats, lean beef and veal, and wheat cereals. A deficiency will result in pernicious anemia and neurological problems, including numbness and weakness.
Vitamin C (ascorbic acid):
Necessary for the formation of connective tissue between cells as well as maintenance of the "cement" that secures cells to membranes. A deficiency will lead to scurvy (shallow complexion, loss of energy, pain in legs and joints, bleeding gums, and muscle pain). Vitamin C is found in raw cabbage, carrots, orange juice, lettuce, celery, onions, tomatoes, and all citrus fruits.
Vitamin D:
Necessary for the development of bones and teeth, a deficiency can lead to rickets and tooth decay. It is essential in the metabolism of calcium and phosphorus, two of the most important constituents of bone and teeth. Vitamin D is manufactured in the skin with exposure to sunlight, and is also found in milk, cod liver oil, salmon, egg yolk, and butter fat.
Vitamin E:
Although the exact function of this vitamin is not clearly understood, it is essential to humans and has been related to the healing of scars. A deficiency is extremely rare, as Vitamin E is found in many foods.
Vitamin K:
Essential for blood clotting, Vitamin K is found in fats, oats, wheat, rye, and alfalfa.

Minerals

If you think minerals aren't important in the diet, think again. Minerals are essential, acting as "co-factors of enzymes" (enzymes would not exist or function without minerals), and as organizers of the molecular structure of the cell and its membrane. There are fourteen trace minerals necessary for survival, a few of which are discussed below.

Chromium:
Necessary for the maintenance of normal blood sugar levels. Chromium works with insulin in assisting cells to take in glucose and release energy. Some good sources include meats, unrefined foods, fats, and vegetable oils. Chromium Picolinate has not been shown to cause weight loss and its effectiveness at improving insulin's ability to break down glucose is being questioned.
Copper:
Needed for the production of red blood cells and the formation of connective tissues. Also plays a major role in the defense against free radicals. Some sources include meat, seafood, nuts, and seeds.
Fluorine:
Maintains the structure of teeth. Taken regularly, Flourine will help protect teeth from acidic decay. Sources include water (in some areas), seafood, kidney, liver, and other meats.
Manganese:
Activator of many enzymes. Manganese is very closely related to the synthesis of DNA, RNA, and protein. Sources include whole grains and cereals, fruits, and vegetables.
Selenium:
Important in protecting lipids of cell membranes (cell walls are made up of a lipid (fat) layer), proteins, and nucleic acids against oxidant damage. Sources include broccoli, chicken, cucumbers, egg yolk, garlic, liver, milk, mushrooms, onions, seafood, and tuna.
Zinc:
Zinc represents only 0.003 percent of the human body, but is essential for synthesis of protein, DNA and RNA. It is required for growth in all stages of life. Sources include meats, oysters and other seafood, milk, and egg yolk.

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