Overview

Vitamins and minerals are essential nutrients that your body needs in small amounts to work properly.

Most people should be able to get all the nutrients they need by eating a varied and balanced diet. If you choose to take vitamin and mineral supplements, seek advice where appropriate.

Fat-soluble vitamins

Fat soluble vitamins (vitamin A, D, E and K) are mainly found in: 

  • animal fats
  • vegetable oils
  • dairy foods
  • liver
  • oily fish

While your body needs these vitamins to work properly, you don't need to eat foods containing them every day.

Water-soluble vitamins

Water-soluble vitamins (vitamin C, the B vitamins and folic acid) are mainly found in:

  • fruit and vegetables
  • grains
  • milk and dairy foods

These vitamins aren't stored in the body, so you need to have them more frequently.

If you have more than you need, your body gets rid of the extra vitamins when you urinate.

More about vitamins

Minerals

Minerals include calcium and iron amongst many others and are found in:

  • meat
  • cereals
  • fish
  • milk and dairy foods
  • fruit and vegetables
  • nuts

Minerals are necessary for 3 main reasons:

  • building strong bones and teeth
  • controlling body fluids inside and outside cells
  • turning the food you eat into energy

Trace elements

Trace elements are also essential nutrients that your body needs to work properly, but in much smaller amounts than vitamins and minerals. They include iodine and fluorine. 

Trace elements are found in small amounts in a variety of foods such as meat, fish, cereals, milk and dairy foods, vegetables and nuts.

More about minerals and trace elements

Fats

Fat is essential to a healthy diet as it give us energy and helps our bodies absorb vitamins and nutrients from the foods we eat. However, fats contain more calories than carbohydrates and protein so it's important to limit how much you consume. Eating too much fat, too often can lead to weight gain and other health problems.

Unsaturated fats

Unsaturated fats can help to lower your blood cholesterol, reducing your risk of developing heart disease. They also provide your body with essential fatty acids, important for keeping your muscles, skin and other tissue healthy.

These types of fats are found in:

  • oily fish - such as mackerel and salmon
  • avocados
  • nuts and seeds
  • plant-based oils and spreads - such as olive and rapeseed

Saturated and trans fat

Saturated and trans fat raise the level of cholesterol in your blood, increasing your risk of developing heart disease. You'll benefit from reducing your intake of these type of fats.

Saturated fats are found in:

  • processed meat products - such as sausages and beef burgers
  • butter and lard
  • full fat cream, milk and ice-cream
  • hard cheese - such as parmesan and cheddar
  • biscuits, cakes and pastries

Daily intake

The government recommends that:

  • men should have 95g of fat (30g of saturates) in their diet each day
  • women should have 70g of fat (20g of saturates) in their diet each day

Sugar

Sugar is a carbohydrate that provides the body with energy.

Some foods naturally contain sugar - such as fruit, vegetables, wholegrains and dairy foods. Other foods have sugar added to them in the manufacturing process. These are called free or added sugars.

Free sugars

Free sugars are found in:

  • sweets and chocolate
  • sugary drinks
  • cakes and puddings
  • ice cream
  • breakfast cereals
  • flavoured yoghurts

They're also naturally present in:

  • syrups
  • honey
  • fruit juices

Most of us eat too many food products containing free sugars. Ideally, no more than 5% of the energy we consume should come from free sugars. Currently, children and adults across the UK are consuming 2 to 3 times this amount.

Daily intake

The government recommends that:

  • adults should have a maximum of 30g (roughly 7.5 teaspoons) of free sugar a day
  • children aged 7 to 10 years - 24g (roughly 6 teaspoons)
  • children aged 4 to 6 years - 19g (roughly 4.75 teaspoons)

Cutting down on free sugar

Foods that contain free sugars aren't required as part of a healthy balanced diet, so you should try to eat these less often and in smaller amounts.

To do this, use food labels to choose items that are lower in sugar and swap:

  • sugary breakfast cereals for plain cereals - such as plain porridge, wholewheat biscuit cereals, shredded wholewheat or no added sugar muesli
  • flavoured or corner-style yoghurts for low fat, lower sugar yoghurts, adding fresh fruit for variety
  • sugary drinks for water, lower fat milk, sugar-free drinks or tea and coffee

Sugary drinks account for a surprisingly large proportion of the daily sugar intake of both children and adults. Almost a third of the free sugars consumed by 11 to 18 year olds comes from soft drinks.

Cereal bars often contain high levels of free sugars too, so remember to check the label.

Weight gain

Sugar is easy to consume in large quantities as it's pleasant to taste. This means many people eat too much sugar and get more calories than they need.

If you consume more calories than your body needs, your body stores the energy as glycogen or fat in your liver, muscles and fat cells to use at a later time. This can lead to weight gain.

To prevent weight gain, and an increased risk of health problems like type 2 diabetes, reduce the amount of sugar in your diet overall. You should get most of the energy you need from starchy foods (potatoes, pasta and cereals) without the need to eat free sugars.

Tooth decay

When you eat sugar, the bacteria in your mouth produces acid. This acid dissolves the enamel on your teeth, causing tooth decay and cavities to form.

To prevent tooth decay caused by sugar in your diet:

  • eat fewer sugary foods that stick to your teeth - such as sweets and dried fruits
  • eat fewer sugary snacks between meals
  • swap to sugar free drinks - such as water or mlik
  • consume foods and drinks containing sugar at mealtimes

Sugars found naturally in fruits, vegetables and dairy are less likely to cause tooth decay. However, fruit juices contain a lot of sugar so should only be consumed at meal times.

More about preventing tooth decay

Salt

The sodium found in salt is an essential nutrient used by your body to maintain blood pressure and regulate your nerves and muscles.

Sodium attracts and holds on to water in your blood. If you consume too much salt, the volume of water in your blood increase leading to high blood pressure. If left untreated, you could be at risk of developing heart disease or a stroke.

Foods with added salt

During food preperation, cooking and manufacturing, salt is used as a preservative and flavour enhancer.

Most of us already get 3/4 of our daily intake from everyday food products - such as bread, breakfast cereal and ready meals. You don't have to add much more to go over your daily limit.

Foods that are especially high in salt include:

  • salt cured meat- such as bacon, ham, salami and gammon
  • smoked meat and fish
  • gravy granules, stock cubes and yeast extract
  • savoury snacks
  • salted and roasted nuts
  • cheese
  • soy sauce
  • ready meals

Many people go over their daily intake just by eating these types of foods alone.

You should avoid eating too much of these too often. For a healthier option, choose lower salt versions or make your own.

Food labelling

Three quarters of the salt we eat is already in the food we buy, so checking the label and choosing foods that are lower in salt is one of the best ways to cut down.

On food labels, there should be a figure for salt per 100g.

  • High is more than 1.5g salt per 100g (or 0.6g sodium)
  • Low is 0.3g salt or less per 100g (or 0.1g sodium)

Daily intake

The government recommends that:

  • adults and children 11 years and older should have a maximum of 6g (1.5 teaspoons) of salt a day
  • children aged 7 to 10 years - 5g (1.25 teaspoons)
  • children aged 4 to 6 years - 3g (0.75 teaspoon)
  • children aged 1 to 3 years – 2g (0.5 teaspoon)
  • Babies under a year old - less than 1g (0.25 teaspoon)

Fibre

Fibre is an important part of a healthy balanced diet and is only found in foods that come from plants. Meat, fish and dairy products don't contain any fibre.

Foods that contain fibre make you feel fuller for longer and can help digestion. There's also evidence that eating the recommended amount of fibre can lower your risk of developing:

  • heart disease
  • stroke
  • type 2 diabetes
  • bowel cancer

There are 2 types of fibre, soluble and insoluble. Your diet should contain enough of each as they help your body in different ways.

Soluble fibre

Soluble fibre dissolves in the water in your digestive system and can help to reduce cholestrol and relieve constipation.

Good sources of soluble fibre include:

  • grains - such as oats, barley and rye
  • some fruit and root vegetables - such apples, bananas, carrots and parsnips
  • beans and pulses

Insoluble fibre

Insoluble fibre doesn't dissolve in water and passes through your digestive system without being broken down. It helps to move other foods through your gut, keeping your bowel healthy and preventing digestive problems.

Good sources of insoluble fibre include:

  • cereals and wholegrains
  • wholemeal bread and pasta
  • brown rice
  • potatoes with their skins on
  • some nuts and seeds

Daily intake

The government recommends that:

  • adults and children over the age of 16 should eat at least 30g of fibre a day
  • children aged 11 to 16 years - about 25g
  • children aged 5 to 11 years - about 20g
  • children aged 2 to 5 years - about 15g

If you need to eat more fibre, introduce it gradually and drink plenty of fluid. A sudden increase can lead to bloating and stomach cramps.

Vitamins

A healthy balanced diet containing a variety of foods should provide all the vitamins your body needs to work properly.

There are 2 types of vitamins, fat-soluble and water-soluble.

Fat-soluble vitamins

Fat-soluble vitamins are mainly found in foods that are high in natural fat - such as dairy, eggs and oily fish.

You don't need to eat these types of food every day to get enough of these vitamins. Every time you eat these foods your body stores them in your liver and body fat for future use.

Fat-soluble vitamins include:

  • vitamin A
  • vitamin D
  • vitamin E
  • vitamin K

Vitamin A

Vitamin A (also known as retinol) has several important functions, including:

  • helping your immune system to fight infections
  • helping your vision in dim light
  • keeping your skin healthy

Good sources of vitamin A include:

  • cheese
  • eggs
  • oily fish
  • fortified low-fat spreads
  • milk and yoghurt

Vitamin D

Vitamin D helps to regulate the amount of calcium and phosphate in the body, important for bone, teeth and muscle health.

Vitamin D is made by our skin from sunlight and is also found in small amounts in some foods.

Good sources of vitamin D include:

  • oily fish – such as salmon, herring and mackerel
  • red meat and offal - such as liver and kidney
  • egg yolks
  • fortified cereals, soya products and spreads

Since vitamin D is found in only a small number of foods, it can be difficult to get enough from foods alone. Therefore, everyone aged over one year - including pregnant and breastfeeding women - should consider taking a daily supplement containing 10 micrograms of vitamin D.

Between April and September, the majority of people aged 5 years and above will probably get enough vitamin D from sunlight when they are outdoors. They might choose not to take a vitamin D supplement during these months.

Some population groups (with very little or no sunshine exposure) will not obtain enough vitamin D from sunlight and are at greater risk of vitamin D deficiency. This includes:

  • people who are seldom outdoors such as frail or housebound individuals and those who are confined indoors e.g. in institutions such as care homes
  • people who habitually wear clothes that cover most of their skin while outdoors
  • people from minority ethnic groups with dark skin such as those of African, African-Caribbean and South Asian origin

These people should take a daily supplement containing 10 micrograms vitamin D throughout the year.

Given the uncertainty of consistent sunshine in Scotland and the risks of exposing infants 0-6 months to the sun it may be advisable for pregnant and lactating women to take a daily supplement throughout the year.

Staying safe in the sun

In Scotland, 10 to 15 minutes of unprotected sun exposure is safe for all. After sunscreen is correctly applied, vitamin D synthesis is blocked.

Staying in the sun for prolonged periods without the protection of sunscreen increases the risk of skin cancer.

Vitamin E

Vitamin E is a powerful antioxidant that helps to:

  • repair damaged cells and protect them from free-radicals
  • keep your skin and eyes healthy
  • strengthen your immune system

Good sources of vitamin E include:

  • plant-based oils - such as olive and rapeseed
  • nuts and seeds
  • cereals and cereal products

Vitamin K

Vitamin K is important for healthy bones and blood clotting, an essential part of healing.

Good sources of vitamin K include:

  • green leafy vegetables – such as broccoli and spinach
  • plant-based oils
  • nuts and seeds
  • meat
  • dairy products
  • soya beans

Water-soluble vitamins

Unlike fat-soluble vitamins, you need to consume water-soluble vitamins more often. Your body can't store these for future use and gets rid of any excess when you pass urine.

Water-soluble vitamins include:

  • vitamin C
  • B vitamins
  • folic acid

They're found in:

  • fruit and vegetables
  • grains
  • dairy foods

Being water soluble, these vitamins can be lost or destroyed through heating, dissolving or exposure to air. To keep as many of these as possible, choose to steam or grill these foods instead of boiling (unless you're making soups or stews with the liquid).

Vitamin C

Vitamin C (also known as ascorbic acid) helps to:

  • protect and keep cells healthy
  • maintain healthy connective tissue
  • heal wounds

Vitamin C is found in a wide variety of fruit and vegetables. Good sources include:

  • citrus fruit - including oranges and grapefruit
  • red and green peppers
  • potatoes
  • strawberries, blueberries and blackberries
  • green leafy vegetables - such as broccoli and brussels sprouts

Vitamin B1 (thiamin)

Thiamin is also known as vitamin B1. It helps the other B vitamins to break down and release energy from food and keep your nervous system healthy.

Thiamin is found in most types of food. Good sources include:

  • meat and fish - such as pork and trout
  • vegetables – such as peas, asparagus and squash
  • fresh and dried fruit
  • eggs
  • wholegrain breads
  • some fortified breakfast cereal

Vitamin B2 (riboflavin)

Riboflavin is also known as vitamin B2. It helps to keep your skin, eyes and nervous system healthy and release energy from the food you eat.

Good sources of riboflavin include:

  • milk
  • eggs
  • fortified breakfast cereals
  • rice

Vitamin B3 (niacin)

Niacin is also known as vitamin B3. It helps to release energy from the foods you eat and keep your skin and nervous system healthy.

There are 2 forms of niacin – nicotinic acid and nicotinamide – both of which are found in food.

Good sources of niacin include:

  • meat
  • fish
  • wheat flour
  • eggs
  • milk

Pantothenic acid

Pantothenic acid helps to release energy from the food we eat. It's found naturally in most meats, vegetables and wholegrains, including:

  • chicken and beef
  • potatoes
  • tomatoes and broccoli
  • kidney
  • eggs
  • wholegrains – such as brown rice and wholemeal bread
  • porridge

Vitamin B6 (pyridoxine)

Pyridoxine is also known as vitamin B6. It helps the body to:

  • use and store energy from protein and carbohydrates in food
  • form the substance that carries oxygen around the body (haemoglobin) in your blood

Good sources of vitamin B6 include:

  • lean meat - such as chicken or turkey
  • fish
  • whole cereals – such as oatmeal, brown rice and wholegrain bread
  • eggs
  • vegetables
  • soya beans
  • peanuts
  • milk
  • potatoes

Vitamin B7 (Biotin)

Biotin is also known as vitamin B7 and is only needed in small amounts. It helps your body process (metabolise) fat.

As the bacteria in your bowel make biotin, you may not need any additional biotin from your diet. However, it's still important to eat a healthy and varied diet.

Vitamin B12

Vitamin B12 helps your body:

  • make red blood cells and keep the nervous system healthy
  • release energy from the food we eat
  • process folic acid

Good sources include:

  • meat
  • fish - such as salmon and cod
  • shellfish
  • dairy foods
  • eggs
  • some fortified breakfast cereals

Vitamin B12 is not found naturally in plants and grains. If you're vegan, you should consider taking a B vitamin supplement to reduce the risk of developing vitamin B12 deficiency anaemia.

Folic acid

Folic acid (also known as folate) works with vitamin B12 to form healthy red blood cells.

It can also help to reduce the risk of central nervous system defects - such as spina bifida - in unborn babies.

Good sources of folic acid include:

  • broccoli
  • brussels sprouts
  • liver
  • spinach
  • asparagus
  • peas
  • chickpeas
  • fortified breakfast cereals

If you don't have enough folic acid in your diet you're at risk of developing folate deficiency anaemia.

More about folic acid before and during pregnancy

Minerals

Your body needs certain minerals to build strong bones and teeth and turn the food you eat into energy.

As with vitamins, a healthy balanced diet should provide all the minerals your body needs to work properly.

Essential minerals include calcium, iron and potassium. However, there are many more minerals your body needs to function, including:

  • beta-carotene
  • magnesium
  • phosphorus
  • silicon
  • sodium
  • sulphur

Calcium

There's more calcium in your body than any other mineral.

Calcium helps to build strong bones and teeth and regulate your heartbeat. It also ensures your blood clots normally, important for healing.

Good sources of calcium include:

  • dairy foods - such as milk, cheese and butter
  • green leafy vegetables – such as broccoli and cabbage
  • fortified soya products
  • fortified cereals - including bread
  • fish where you eat the bones – such as anchovies and sardines

Iron

Iron helps your body make red blood cells to carry oxygen around your body.

If you don't have enough iron in your diet, you're at risk of developing iron deficiency anaemia.

Good sources of iron include:

  • meat  such as beef and liver
  • beans
  • nuts
  • dried fruit – such as dried apricots
  • wholegrains – such as brown rice
  • fortified breakfast cereals
  • most dark-green leafy vegetables – such as watercress and curly kale

Potassium

Potassium helps the body control the balance of fluids and keeps your heart healthy and functioning correctly.

Good sources of potassium include:

  • fruit – such as bananas
  • some vegetables – such as broccoli, parsnips and brussels sprouts
  • pulses
  • nuts and seeds
  • fish and shellfish
  • meat

Trace elements

Trace elements are also essential nutrients, however, you need them in smaller amounts than vitamins and minerals.

Essential trace elements include iodine and zinc. However, there are many more elements your body needs to function, including:

  • boron
  • chromium
  • cobalt
  • copper
  • molybdenum
  • manganese
  • nickel
  • selenium

Iodine

Iodine helps your body make the thyroid hormones that keep your cells and metabolic rate healthy.

As iodine is a trace element found mainly in seawater, rocks and some soils, good food sources include:

  • fish and shellfish
  • some vegetables and grains - although this depends on the type of soil where they're grown

Zinc

Zinc helps your body:

  • make new cells and enzymes
  • process carbohydrate, fat and protein in food
  • with the healing of wounds

Good food sources of zinc include:

  • meat
  • shellfish
  • dairy foods
  • cereal products – such as wheat germ and wholegrain bread