Nutrition 102 – Vitamins

DISCLAIMER: THIS INFORMATION IS FOR EDUCATIONAL PURPOSES ONLY. I AM NOT A REGISTERED DIETICIAN AND THIS SHOULD NOT BE TAKEN AS MEDICAL ADVICE.

Nutrients are compounds found in our food that are essential for life and health. They provide energy, build and repair tissue and regulate chemical processes in the body, such as our metabolism. They are classified into two categories: macronutrients and micronutrients. Macronutrients are nutrients we need in larger amounts; whereas, micronutrients are needed in smaller amounts. There are six classes of nutrients: protein, carbohydrates, lipids, water, vitamins and minerals. If you missed the article on macronutrients, you can check it out here. Today, we’ll be focusing on micronutrients, more specifically, vitamins.

Vitamins

Vitamins do not provide energy, however, they are important to the body’s growth, maintenance and metabolism. They are classified as either water soluble (all the Bs and C) or fat soluble (A, D, E & K). Solubility affects how a vitamin is absorbed, transported and stored in the body. It is better to consume vitamins through the foods we eat rather than through supplementation, as some can build up to toxic levels. Consuming below recommended levels can also be a problem even if deficiency levels aren’t reached. Diets high in antioxidants can reduce your risks of lung, colon and stomach cancers.

Vitamin A

Vitamin A is important for your vision, though it is possible to reach toxic levels. This is why vitamin A levels are reduced in prenatal vitamins, as high levels can cause birth defects. As an antioxidant, it helps to preserve healthy cells. Symptoms of deficiency include night blindness, increased susceptibility to infections and stunted bones.

Benefits:

  • Antioxidant
  • Growth and maintenance of tissue
  • Growth and maintenance of mucous membranes

Sources:

  • Liver
  • Fortified dairy products
  • Red/orange/yellow fruits & veggies

Vitamin B1 (Thiamin)

Vitamin B1 deficiency (known as beriberi) is pretty rare. However, it can be fatal and does occur with malnutrition and chronic alcohol abuse. Symptoms include muscle weakness and nerve degeneration.

Benefits:

  • Coenzyme in energy metabolism

Sources:

  • Meat (Pork/Liver)
  • Whole grains
  • Legumes

Vitamin B2 (Riboflavin)

Vitamin B2 helps regulate the levels of the other B vitamins. Deficiency is rare, except in the case of malnutrition. Symptoms of deficiency include a smooth, shiny tongue and fatigue.

Benefits:

  • Coenzyme in energy metabolism
  • Antioxidant

Sources:

  • Meat
  • Dairy and soy products
  • Fortified cereals and breads
  • Dark green veggies

Vitamin B3 (Niacin)

Our bodies can actually make some niacin from tryptophan, an amino acid found in poultry, dairy products and tuna. Vitamin B3 deficiency (known as pellagra) is common in regions with limited diets and those with chronic diseases, such as HIV or alcoholism. Symptoms include dermatitis, diarrhea and dementia.

Benefits:

  • Coenzyme in energy metabolism

Sources:

  • Meat and fish
  • Grains and cereals
  • Legumes
  • Nuts

Vitamin B5 (Pantothenic Acid)

The bacteria in our gut can produce small amounts of vitamin B5 and there are small amounts found in most foods, so deficiency is quite rare. When present, symptoms include stomach pains, respiratory infections and hypoglycemia.

Benefits:

  • Coenzyme for energy metabolism
  • Formation of red blood cells
  • Formation of sex and stress hormones

Sources:

  • Mushrooms
  • Corn
  • Meat and fish
  • Lentils

Vitaming B6 (Pyridoxine)

Vitamin B6 is a very important coenzyme, as it assists more than 100 other enzymes to perform various functions throughout the body. Deficiency occurs when the other B vitamins are also low. Symptoms include anemia, depression, lowered immunity and skin conditions.

Benefits:

  • Coenzyme for protein metabolism
  • Nervous and immune system function
  • Formation of neurotransmitters
  • Formation of steroid hormones

Sources:

  • Whole grains
  • Meat and fish
  • Legumes
  • Bananas and plantains

Vitamin B7 (Biotin)

Vitamin B7 can be made by healthy gut bacteria. It is important for the growth and maintenance of hair, nails and skin, as well as, fetal development. While rare, symptoms of deficiency include thinning hair, brittle nails and scaly skin rashes around the ears, nose and mouth.

Benefits:

  • Coenzyme for energy metabolism
  • Regulates cell signaling
  • Fetal development

Sources:

  • Meat and fish
  • Dairy products
  • Beans and legumes
  • Whole grains (Oats)

Vitamin B9 (Folate)

Folate deficiency is rare in Canada but can lead to anemia. It is especially important for pregnant women, as it helps prevent neural tube defects in the fetus and infants. It is also important to note that excess folate can mask a vitamin B12 deficiency.

Benefits:

  • Fetal development
  • Coenzyme in protein metabolism
  • Formation of red blood cells
  • Synthesis of DNA and RNA

Sources:

  • Liver
  • Citrus fruits
  • Green leafy veggies
  • Fortified cereals and grain products

Vitamin B12 (Cobalamin)

Vitamin B12 can only be found in animal products, so individuals who do not eat meat as part of their diet will need supplementation. We can store B12 in our liver for years though, so it takes some time to reach deficient levels which can then lead to nerve damage and anemia.

Benefits:

  • Formation and maintenance of nerve cells
  • Formation and maintenance of red blood cells
  • Synthesis of DNA and RNA

Sources:

  • nd fish
  • Dairy products
  • Fortified cereals and alternative milk products

Vitamin C

Vitamin C is necessary to make collagen which makes up 25% of the protein in our bodies. It also helps with iron absorption and acts as an antioxidant to prevent or slow down the damage of free radicals. Deficiency (known as scurvy) can be fatal and symptoms include painful, swollen gums, sore joints and bleeding under the skin.

Benefits:

  • Growth and repair of tissues
  • Antioxidant

Sources:

  • Citrus Fruits
  • Tomatoes & Tomato Juice
  • Broccoli & Cauliflower
  • Strawberries, Raspberries & Blueberries
  • Red & Green Peppers
  • Sweet & Regular Potatoes
  • Spinach, Cabbage & Brussels Sprouts

Vitamin D

Vitamin D is the most commonly lacking vitamin in the Canadian diet. It is also the only vitamin our bodies can make in sufficient quantities with sun exposure. Deficiency (known as rickets) involves weakened bones that cannot support a child’s weight as cartilage takes the place of mineralized bones. It can also develop in adulthood and is referred to as osteomalacia.

Benefits:

  • Reduces cancer risks
  • Reduces immune related disease
  • Builds bone mass (helps the body absorb calcium)

Sources:

  • 15-20 mins of sun exposure*
  • Fortified cereals & juices
  • Fatty fish (salmon, herring and sardines)
  • Liver
  • Eggs

*Supplementation may be needed in the Northern Hemisphere during the dark winter months.

Vitamin E

Vitamin E’s primary function is as an antioxidant. Deficiency is rare as it is said to take approximately 5-7 years to develop because of the slow turnover.

Benefits:

  • Antioxidant

Sources:

  • Vegetable Oils
  • Nuts (almonds)
  • Whole grains
  • Avocado

Vitamin K

Vitamin K deficiency is uncommon because our gut bacteria makes some of the vitamin K that our bodies need. However, it can occur with antibiotic use as it kills both the infectious bacteria, as well as, healthy bacteria. When we are born, our gut is sterile and a one time shot of vitamin K is necessary to prevent serious bleeding.

Benefits:

  • Helps blood clot formation
  • Mineralization of bone

Sources:

  • Green leafy veggies
  • Vegetable Oils
  • Fortified breakfast cereals

While this is all great information to know, it’s not something you’ll be thinking about during the preparation of every meal. It’s just not practical. Remember this, fill half your plate with colourful veggies, one quarter of your plate with whole grains and the remaining quarter with protein to cover all your bases.


To retain as much of the nutrients in your food as possible, i) buy, store and cook with care, ii) use soon after purchase or picking, iii) cook with minimal water, and iv) avoid high heat and overcooking.

Stay tuned for Nutrition 103 and 104, where I’ll go over minerals and fibre.

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