You may already know that it’s essential to get enough vitamins and minerals in your diet. These micronutrients play a key role in helping the body function properly. Without them, we face an increased risk of illness and disease. However, we can enjoy a healthy life with them, supported by high functioning organs, muscles, bones, and a robust immune system.
The importance of vitamins and minerals is widely spoken about, but you might be confused or curious about the difference between vitamins and minerals. This article will shed light on the differences between these essential nutrients by exploring each one in more detail. Later we’ll explore how you can add more of both vitamins and minerals to your diet and optimize your health.
Vitamins are organic chemical compounds – they come from carbon-based life forms such as plants and animals. They’re crucial for our health, and we need to get them from external sources (food and supplements) because the body doesn’t produce them naturally.
The body needs vitamins to work properly, and since it can’t produce them on its own, we need to get them from our food (and sunlight in the case of vitamin D). Fruits and vegetables are packed full of vitamins, which is one of the main reasons why we’re encouraged to boost our fruit and veg intake. Some vitamins are also found in meat and fish, such as vitamin B12.
Different vitamins play different roles in the body. For example, vitamin C is known to boost immune system functioning. It also supports iron absorption (a mineral) and promotes the production of collagen. Vitamin D promotes a healthy nervous system and helps the body absorb calcium (another mineral), leading to healthier, stronger bones and teeth.
Types of vitamins
There are thirteen essential vitamins that we need for optimal health. Broadly speaking, there are two types of vitamins; water-soluble and fat-soluble. The body finds it easy to break down water-soluble vitamins. They are digested and used easily and almost immediately after consumption, but they don’t stay in the body for long. Fat-soluble vitamins are harder to break down but remain in the body for longer than water-soluble vitamins. Let’s take a closer look at both types.
The four fat-soluble vitamins are:
- Vitamin A
- Vitamin E
- Vitamin D
- Vitamin K
These vitamins are absorbed by body fat (adipose tissue). They are stored in the liver and adipose tissues throughout the body and can remain there for several days after consumption.
There are nine water-soluble vitamins. These are:
- Vitamin C
- Vitamin B1 – thiamine
- Vitamin B2 – riboflavin
- Vitamin B3 – niacin
- Vitamin B5 – pantothenic acid
- Vitamin B6 – pyridoxine
- Vitamin B7 – biotin
- Vitamin B9 – Folate, or folic acid
- Vitamin B12 – cyanocobalamin
Since they’re water-soluble, these vitamins are absorbed easily but also need to be consumed every few days. They are absorbed into the bloodstream and act quickly but also leave the body quickly through urination.
Minerals are inorganic chemical compounds – unlike vitamins, they do not come from carbon-based sources. Instead, minerals are found on the earth. They are present in soil and water and are equally as important for health and functioning as vitamins.
Minerals are involved in forming and maintaining healthy bones and muscles, immune system functioning, and healthy brain function. Minerals and vitamins often work together, where a given vitamin will support the body’s absorption of a given mineral.
Types of minerals
There are two types of minerals humans need for optimal function. These are macrominerals and trace minerals. We need macrominerals in larger amounts and trace minerals in smaller amounts.
The macrominerals we need for good health and function are:
Trace minerals are equally essential for proper functioning. These are:
The main difference between vitamins and minerals
We’ve already mentioned that vitamins come from organic substances such as plants and animals, while minerals typically come from inorganic materials like water and soil. There is also a difference in the chemical make-up and structure of these types of nutrients.
However, you may be more interested to learn about the differences in the role played by each. While vitamins and minerals generally work together to optimize health and function, they also play distinct roles.
The role of vitamins
What do fat-soluble vitamins do?
Vitamins A, E, D, K – all the fat-soluble vitamins – play a crucial role in:
- The formation and maintenance of healthy bones
- Immune system health
- Protection against disease
- Mineral and other vitamin absorption
What do water-soluble vitamins do?
Water-soluble vitamins help you release energy from the food you consume. That energy is then used for carrying out important bodily functions such as digestion, skin repair, and immune system functioning.
Vitamin C is renowned for helping the body produce collagen. Collagen promotes skin health by strengthening the walls of our blood vessels. It also helps the skin heal wounds quickly.
Many B vitamins – namely thiamine (B1), riboflavin (B2), and niacin (B3) increase our energy levels.
Pyridoxine (B6), folate (B9), and cyanocobalamin (B12) help the body build muscle. These b vitamins support amino acids, the body’s building blocks, thus making it easier to create and maintain muscle.
The role of minerals
Minerals play a crucial role in blood health. Iron, for example, is required for the formation of healthy red blood cells. Calcium is responsible for a strong musculoskeletal system. Sodium helps to regulate the balance of water and electrolytes in the body.
How to add more vitamins and minerals to your diet
A healthy diet is a balanced diet. You should aim to incorporate all of the major food groups in your daily or weekly diet to get enough of each vitamin and mineral, support your body’s health and function, and reduce your risk of illness and disease.
Some nutrients are easier to find and consume than others. A recent study reports that many US adults fail to get sufficient amounts of certain essential nutrients in their diet.
According to the journal Nutrients, ‘a varied and balanced diet, rich in nutrient-dense foods such as fruits, vegetables, and dairy products, is able to provide the amounts of vitamins and minerals needed. There is ample evidence; however, that food choice or availability often preclude such a diet. This can lead to a significant proportion of the population not meeting their optimum dietary needs.’
Below we’ve listed the most common nutrients that many US adults lack, along with common sources.
Calcium is crucial for bone health. A lack of calcium in your diet can lead to dental issues, osteoporosis, and cataracts, among several other health issues.
You can add more calcium to your diet by adding leafy green vegetables and dairy. Contrary to popular belief, you don’t have to consume animal products to get enough calcium in your diet. You can replace dairy products with plant-based alternatives like soymilk or almond milk, among others.
You can get a lot of potassium from bananas and carrots, leafy greens like spinach and broccoli, and healthy-fat foods like avocado. It’s worth making an extra effort in your day to add more potassium to your diet. It plays a vital role in nerve health. It also helps cells take in other nutrients while assisting them in eliminating waste.
Like potassium, magnesium is also vital for nerve health. It also plays a role in protein production and energy regulation. You can add more magnesium to your diet by consuming more seeds and nuts. Cashews and pumpkin seeds are particularly magnesium-rich.
Vitamin E functions as an antioxidant and promotes healthy organ function. Many oils and seeds are rich in vitamin E, such as sunflower oil, sunflower seeds, and peanuts. You can also boost your vitamin E intake by adding whole grains such as barley, brown rice, and oatmeal to your diet.
Iron plays a key role in producing healthy new red blood cells. These blood cells are responsible for transporting oxygen around the body to all the major organs, so getting enough iron in your diet is crucial for your overall health. Lean meats and liver are excellent sources of iron. If you exclude meat, you can still obtain sufficient amounts of iron from legumes such as kidney beans and chickpeas, as well as nuts and dried fruit.
Do supplements work?
Supplements are nutrients in pill, capsule, gel, liquid, or tablet form. There is a wide variety of supplements available on the market, and they can be bought over the counter. Popular supplements and vitamin complexes often include; vitamin d, iron, and omega-3.
It’s essential to note that supplements are not intended for use as a complete replacement. They should be used wisely, in conjunction with a healthy and balanced diet, and are most appropriate for people who have a deficiency in one nutrient or another.
Vitamins and minerals play both different and complementary roles in the body. We need all of the essential vitamins and minerals to help our body function properly. One thing they both have in common is that many of us lack adequate intake.
By adding more vitamins and minerals to your diet, you can reduce your risk of illness and disease and reap the benefits of improved immune system functioning, increased oxygen flow, healthier skin, and stronger bones and muscles.