Vitamins and minerals are essential for the health of our bodies. This is especially so for both potential parents when planning to have a baby and for women during pregnancy and while breastfeeding. Taking specific vitamins or multivitamin supplements has become increasingly popular in recent years. However, we can generally obtain adequate amounts of all our required vitamins and minerals through a varied and well balanced diet. Therefore, supplementing is rarely required.
There are some circumstances in which supplementing may be recommended (for example, folic acid is recommended for at least one month before conception and the first 12 weeks of pregnancy) and supplementing may be beneficial for people who are deficient in certain vitamins and minerals. This can be the case if you smoke cigarettes, drink alcohol regularly, have eating disorders (such as anorexia or bulimia or have an inadequate or restrictive diet.
What is not as well known is that care must be taken when supplementing with high doses of vitamins and minerals because it is possible to ‘overdose’ on them. This can lead to health conditions and/or unwanted side affects, because the excess vitamins and minerals have become toxic to the body. essentialWomen who are pregnant or breastfeeding need to be especially careful.
Excess levels of certain vitamins (especially during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy) have been shown to cause birth defects. They may also pose health concerns for newborn babies while breastfeeding. Therefore it is important to be guided by your caregiver’s (or health practitioner’s) recommendations if considering supplementing with ANY minerals and vitamins during pregnancy and while breastfeeding.
Be aware that most components of low dose multivitamins are generally regarded as safe, but may contain one or more vitamins that provide too much (or in the case of folic acid, too little) than necessary. Always check the labels.
Vitamins can be classified as either ‘fat-soluble’ or ‘water-soluble’. This is explained as follows:
These are vitamins A, D, E and K. Foods with fat-soluble vitamins are regarded as being ‘stable’ because ordinary cooking does not usually damage their vitamin content.
Fat-soluble vitamins dissolve in body fat and can be stored in your liver and fat tissue. The vitamins are stored whenever there is extra in the body that is not immediately needed. This allows a person to draw on these body stores weeks or months later, at times when their diet does not include them. However, being able to store fat-soluble vitamins also means they can more readily accumulate to toxic levels in the body, particularly if supplements are taken. It is important to be careful about overdosing on fat-soluble vitamins, especially when pregnant.
These are vitamins C and the B group vitamins. Water-soluble vitamins do just as they say, ‘dissolve in water’. Therefore, foods containing them can be leached of their vitamin content by normal cooking and soaking in water.
Most water-soluble vitamins do not tend to accumulate in the body like fat-soluble vitamins. Any excess amounts of vitamins are usually excreted by the kidneys through the urine and we generally need to eat foods daily that contain water-soluble vitamins. However, there are some water-soluble vitamins that can be stored in the body and excessively high daily supplements of water-soluble vitamins can stay in the body long enough to be harmful and care should be taken when taking mega-doses, especially during pregnancy and while breastfeeding.
Vitamins are organic. Therefore many are unstable when heated, meaning their content in foods can be depleted when cooked in certain ways.
Major and trace minerals
Minerals can be classified as either ‘major’ or ‘trace’. Major minerals are not necessarily more important to the body than trace minerals, however they are needed by the body in much larger quantities. The major minerals include calcium, phosphorus, potassium, sodium and magnesium. Some trace minerals include iodine, iron, selenium and zinc.
Minerals are not organic. Therefore they are chemically stable and are not destroyed by heating (like vitamins are). However, minerals can be lost if foods are cooked in water and the minerals leach into the water that is then poured down the drain.