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Nutrition Basics


Vitamins are a group of organic compounds involved in the regulation of certain metabolic activities such as digestion, respiration, immunity etc. They are organic (carbon-containing) compounds but do not fit the classification of carbohydrate, fat or protein. They are essential for normal metabolism but the body cannot make sufficient quantities to satisfy its needs - hence the need to obtain the majority from the diet.

The name 'vitamin' is derived from 'vital amine'. As the name suggests they are amines essential for life. Despite the fact that some vitamins are not chemically related to amines, the general term vitamin is applied. A better definition would be an essential organic compound, which is either not made in the body or made in such small quantities that additional supply is needed. Vitamins or their precursors (i.e. the things from which they are made) must therefore be provided by the diet.

How many vitamins are there?

The 13 substances which are currently recognised as vitamins are the four fat soluble vitamins; (A, D, E and K) and the nine water soluble vitamins; vitamin C, folic acid (folate) and the vitamins commonly referred to as the B complex - thiamine (B1), riboflavin (B2), niacin (nicotinamide, nicotinic acid, B3), pyridoxine (B6), pantothenic acid (B5), vitamin B12 (cyanocobalamin), biotin (vitamin B7)).

Choline, inositol and para-aminobenzoic acid are also considered by some to be vitamins of the B complex group.

Water and fat soluble vitamins

Fat soluble vitamins A, D, E and K can be stored in the body whereas the water soluble vitamins; C, folic acid and B complex vitamins are water soluble and the body has limited or no stores. The sources of the various vitamins and their role in the body are shown in tables 1 and 2.

Water-soluble vitamins

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Table 1
C Ascorbic Acid Fresh fruits and vegetables Optimal activity of several enzymes
Essential for normal function of cells
Folic acid Folic acid Folate Vegetables, meat, fish Cell division. Synthesis of RNA and DNA.
B1 Thiamin Cereals, yeast Carbohydrate metabolism Nervous system
B2 Riboflavin Cereals, milk, liver, kidneys, yeast Enzyme processes
B3 Nicotinamide
Nicotinic acid
Yeast, nuts, meat, fish, milk Release of energy from carbohydrates, enzyme processes
B5 Pantothenic acid Yeast, egg, fresh vegetables, meat, fish Metabolism of fats and carbohydrates
B6 Pyridoxine Cereals, meat, fish, nuts, yeast Protein and carbohydrate metabolism, synthesis of neurotransmitters
B7 Biotin Liver, kidney, eggs, soya beans, peanuts Metabolism of a variety of compounds, enzyme function
B12 Cyanocobalamin Cereals, milk and diary products, fortified margarine, meat, marmite Cell replication, nerve cell myelination, recycling of folate

Fat-soluble vitamins

Click to open table
Table 2
A B-carotene / Retinol Fish, meat, liver, butter/spreads/ dairy foods, eggs Growth, night vision, maintenance of immune system
D Calciferols (Ergocalciferol and cholecalciferol) Formed in the skin on exposure to sunshine. Fish and fish oil, margarine, breakfast cereals, eggs, liver Needed for absorption of calcium and phosphorus from diet and for deposition of calcium into bones
E Tocopherol Fat spreads, cereals, sunflower seeds and oils, safflower oil, leaf vegetables, dairy foods, eggs, nuts, peanut butter Antioxidant - protects cell membranes and other critical cellular structures from damage by free radicals
K Phytomenadione (K1), Menaquinones (K2) Made by the bacteria in the gut (K2).
Green plants, e.g. spinach, peas, cabbage, meat, cheese, bread and cereals
Blood clotting.
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