The first thing that usually comes to mind when people hear the word “vitamins” are the small and colorful pills that come in a container, to be taken with or after a meal. Why? Because grandma said so – and grandma is always right!

 In this video, we will learn about the main vitamins that are vital for our bodies and how they work. The video was produced by TED-Ed.

Let’s take a look at the scientific definition to better understand the actual meaning of  vitamins: Any organic material needed by our body, usually in small amounts, to enable it to function properly and typically cannot be created by the body itself. This means that we have to obtain our vitamins from external sources – such as the food we eat, or bacteria residing inside our body, which produce the vitamin.

 Unfortunately, even though vitamins are extremely important – they are not widely popular with the majority of the public. The reason is simple: These days, vitamin deficiencies are uncommon and only occur in extreme and rare cases of a scarcity of specific types of food.

The classic and best-known example involves sailors. In the past, when ships were the main long-distance mode of transport, sailors (and pirates, too) spent many months, sometimes even years, on the open sea. Their diet was based mostly on fish (also rum), and they had little opportunity to eat fresh fruit and vegetables. As a result, many sailors suffered from scurvy – a disease that results from a deficiency in Vitamin C, which the body usually obtains from fruit and vegetables.

Today, as our awareness of the need for healthy nutrition has developed, along with an increase in the prevalence of vegetarians and vegans in the population, vitamins get more attention. So let’s try to understand a little better which vitamins are there, what is their role, and how we can get them naturally rather than through pills.

 Consumption and absorption

Vitamins can be divided into two groups, according to how they enter our bodies: Water-soluble and fat-soluble. Water-soluble vitamins include Vitamin C and the entire Vitamin B group. Since they readily dissolve in liquid solutions, they are absorbed relatively easily directly into the bloodstream, especially when we eat fruits and vegetables.

But as the saying goes – easy come, easy go. Their relatively free movement in our blood system also means that they are flushed out quite easily by our kidneys, before our body has the opportunity to fully absorb them. That is why we need daily intake – and in relatively high quantities.

Fat-soluble vitamins include Vitamins A, K, and E, which come from fatty foods, like dairy products and oils. Since they do not dissolve easily in water, their journey around our bloodstream is more complex and requires help from special proteins. However, their fatty composition means that they are able to stay longer in our system, are absorbed and kept in special stores in our liver and fatty tissue, and therefore, do not need to be consumed in high quantities every day.

The key players

In order to better understand their contribution to our lives, let’s take a closer look at some of the better known and more important vitamins that our bodies simply cannot do without.

Vitamin A (Retinol): This is important for mucosal tissues, such as our connective tissues and skin, as well as bony tissues, such as the skeleton and teeth. In addition, it creates the pigments in the retina and is therefore important for eyesight. It can be found in all orange foods, such as mango, carrot, sweet potatoes, and others.

Vitamin B: There are eight Vitamin B types, each with a different role. Most help us to produce energy from the food we eat and make the best use of it in our body’s cells. Vitamins B1 and B2 (also known as riboflavin) are auxiliary molecules which help ensure proper functioning of many proteins in our body. They can be found in meat and dairy products, but also in whole rice, legumes, yeasts, wheat germ, nuts, peanuts, seeds, and grains.

Vitamin B3 (niacin) aids in digestion and nervous system function. It is mostly found in organ meats and other meat types, fish, eggs, dairy products, sesame, whole grains, nuts, legumes, and sprouts. B5 is found in royal jelly, sweet potatoes, potatoes, zucchini, carrots, and sunflower seeds. It helps the metabolism of the main food groups and in the production of amino acids – the building blocks of all the proteins that make up our body. Vitamin B12 (cobalamin) is vital for creating DNA and RNA – our genetic materials – and can only be obtained by eating meat. In addition, together with B9 (folic acid), B12 helps red blood cell production.   

Vitamin C (ascorbic acid) is a strong antioxidant that helps defend us from diseases and protects the body’s cells from accelerated aging caused by free-radical damages. It is also required by the body to build a molecule called collagen, which is the main component of the connecting tissue in tendons, cartilage, skin, and bones. Collagen deficiency hampers wound healing. Vitamin C is found in many of the foods that make up the daily menu for most of us, including red peppers, tomatoes, citrus fruits, green vegetables, and liver.

Vitamin D: Unlike other vitamins, our body can actually produce this vitamin, but only through direct exposure to the sun. It is vital for building bones and teeth, since it enables our body to absorb calcium and phosphate. It can also be obtained from fish and eggs.

Vitamin E: Like vitamin C, vitamin E is a strong antioxidant that helps fight off damage to our body. In addition, it also helps with proper functioning of the muscles, nerves, and the immune system. It can be found in a wide range of foods, including whole grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, plant oils, fruits, vegetables, liver, butter, and eggs.

Vitamin K: Needed for the synthesis of coagulation factors. Vitamin K deficiency can lead to problems with blood clotting. It can be found in vegetables and roots, but is also made in the body by intestinal bacteria.

Not just vitamins 

Now that we’ve got to know some of the vitamins our body needs for its proper function, we also have to consider minerals. While these are not organic compounds and thus not considered vitamins, they are just as vital.

Minerals are chemical compounds that occur naturally in pure form and are not part of compounds. Many of the minerals that are essential for our body are metals, such as iron, zinc, copper, and magnesium. But there are others, such as calcium, potassium, and sodium. Together with the vitamins, minerals are vital for our existence and it is very important to know how we can get them through our food.

For the vital vitamins and minerals, click here.

A balancing act

Hopefully, we now understand that vitamins and minerals are very important. So when our parents tell us to eat our greens, we will listen and eat that orange, apple, or carrot they pack in our lunch boxes.

Taking supplements that have all the vitamins we need may seem easier than making sure we’re getting a balanced diet. However, the truth is that our body absorbs the vitamins in these supplements much less efficiently and we can’t actually tell how much of each gets into our bodies. We also must be careful not to take an “overdose” of some vitamins, so it’s important to ensure we’re keeping them balanced and not consuming too much.

Additionally, the food supplement industry is far less regulated and supervised than the pharmaceutical industry. This means that some companies combine with the nutritional supplements other compounds that may not actually be good for us, and may even have side-effects. Think about it – isn’t it better to get what we need naturally, just like Mother Nature intended?

There are, of course, some exceptions, like people who suffer from a severe deficiency in vitamins or who have a problem with their metabolism, and therefore need supplements and preparations in addition to healthy eating. In any case – a diverse and balanced diet where you get the right amounts of everything is the key to a healthy lifestyle.

So let’s go! With broccoli in one hand and a carrot in the other, we can set off to conquer the world!