How can I get the essential vitamins and minerals into my diet?

Every cell in our body requires an optimal level of nutrition in order to function normally. Most people eat far too much. Yet even if we overeat, we can still fail to get enough of the important micronutrients that are essential to function and age normally. This is because many of the excess calories in our diets are empty calories, instead of being packed with the essential micronutrients (vitamins, minerals and other biochemicals) needed for optimal health and wellbeing. Even minor deficiencies can increase risk factors for major chronic diseases, such as heart disease, diabetes, cancer and osteoporosis.

The best way to make sure we get what we need is to consume the kind of balanced and varied diet described elsewhere in this book. People whose diets include highly processed foods with little fresh fruit and vegetables are likely to have an inadequate intake of many micronutrients.

Recommended dietary intake

The Recommended Dietary Intake (RDI) is one way to check whether we are getting enough nutrients. RDIs are available on the nutritional content of most food labels. The RDI is the average daily dietary intake level that is sufficient to meet the nutrient requirements of 98% of healthy individuals. However, they are not the same as our individual requirements for health. The amount we need to minimize DNA damage or to be truly vibrant and healthy is sometimes much more than the RDI. RDIs also don’t take into account conditions in which requirements may be higher. For example, higher nutrient intake is required by stress, living in polluted environments, active lifestyles, certain polymorphisms in genes or even when we have a cold, when our body cannot get or cannot efficiently use all the nutrients it needs.

Given these demands this is when we may benefit from nutritional supplements. Of course supplements, particularly multivitamins, are also widely used by people hoping to offset a poor diet. For an increasing number of people, multivitamins now constitute a substantial proportion of their total vitamin and mineral intake. However, regardless of any hype, a tablet can never provide the full complement of nutrients and phytochemicals of a varied diet. A poor diet should never be used as an excuse for supplementation.

The essential vitamins

Vitamins are chemicals that are essential for good health. They cannot be generated in sufficient quantities by our body, so we must rely on our diet (or supplements) to get what we need. Vitamins act in all parts of the body with diverse functions, including antioxidant effects, regulation of growth and metabolism. Vitamins are broadly classified by their biological activities, so any one vitamin may refer to a family of different natural chemicals.

Last Reviewed 27/Feb/2014

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Dr Merlin Thomas

Professor Merlin Thomas is Professor of Medicine at Melbourne’s Monash University, based in the Department of Diabetes. He is both a physician and a scientist. Merlin has a broader interest in all aspects of preventive medicine and ageing. He has published over 270 articles in many of the worlds’ leading medical journals
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