You might think of food as something that just tastes good and fills you up. In fact, it's a complex delivery system for vitamins, minerals and other nutrients your body needs and, for the most part, can't make for itself.
These nutrients help your body carry out tasks that are crucial to optimal physical and mental health. When you're not getting enough of these vitamins and minerals, your body can't function properly. This leads to a host of consequences, both short and long-term.
Not getting enough vitamins and minerals can cause a wide range of physical and mental health problems.
Roles of Vitamins and Minerals
Although your body needs them in only small amounts, vitamins and minerals are responsible for carrying out hundreds of life-supporting physiological functions, from creating red blood cells and DNA, to sending nerve impulses and initiating enzymatic reactions. They create the energy you need to carry out your daily activities, prevent birth defects and support healthy skin, bones and hair.
The 13 vitamins you need to get from food are divided into two categories: water-soluble and fat-soluble. Water-soluble means your body doesn't store the vitamin; any excess amounts are excreted in bodily fluids, and you must replenish your sources each day. Fat-soluble means your body stores excess amounts in your fatty tissue; it's not necessary to eat these vitamins every day, as long as you get enough overall.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) reports that water-soluble vitamins and their main functions include:
- Vitamin C acts as an antioxidant, creates collagen and connective tissue, supports immune function and aids wound healing.
- Thiamin (B1) aids the conversion of food into energy and supports nervous system function.
- Riboflavin (B2) converts food to energy, supports growth and development and assists with red blood cell formation.
- Niacin (B3) converts food to energy and aids in the production of cholesterol, digestion and nervous system function.
- Vitamin B6 aids macronutrient metabolism and the creation of red blood cells and supports the immune and nervous systems.
- Folate (B9) prevents birth defects, aids metabolism and supports red blood cell formation.
- Vitamin B12 aids metabolism and the creation of red blood cells; supports nervous system function.
- Pantothenic acid (B5) aids fat metabolism and hormone production, and plays roles in nervous system function and red blood cell production.
- Biotin (B7) is involved in macronutrient metabolism and energy storage.
Read more: 12 Foods With Surprising Health Benefits
The fat-soluble vitamins include D, A, E and K:
- Vitamin D plays roles in blood pressure regulation, bone development, blood calcium balance, hormone production and immune and nervous system function.
- Vitamin A aids growth and development and the formation of red blood cells, skin and bone; promotes healthy vision, reproduction and immune function.
- Vitamin E acts as an antioxidant, forms blood vessels and supports immune function.
- Vitamin K is responsible for forming blood clots and building strong bones.
Many minerals exist in nature, but only 15 are important for human health. The two types of minerals are major minerals, which you need in larger amounts, and trace minerals, which you need in small amounts.
Major minerals are:
- Sodium is involved in pH balance, blood sugar regulation, fluid balance, muscle contraction and nervous system function.
- Potassium plays roles in the formation of proteins, muscle contraction, heart and nervous system function, fluid balance, growth and development, carbohydrate metabolism and blood pressure regulation.
- Chloride regulates pH, helps convert food to energy, and supports digestion, fluid balance and nervous system function.
- Calcium is responsible for forming strong bones and teeth and helping blood vessels constrict and relax. It's also important for muscle contraction, nervous system function, blood clotting and hormone secretion.
- Phosphorous supports pH balance and hormone activation, and supports bone formation and energy production and storage.
- Magnesium helps regulate blood sugar, blood pressure and heart rhythm; aids in energy production, bone and protein formation, muscle contraction and hormone secretion; supports nervous and immune system function.
Trace minerals include:
- Copper is an antioxidant mineral that aids the formation of bone, collagen and connective tissue. It also supports nervous system function, iron metabolism and energy production.
- Iron is involved in energy production, red blood cell formation, wound healing, reproduction and immune function.
- Zinc supports growth and development, immune and nervous system function, protein formation, wound healing and reproduction. It also enables taste and smell.
- Selenium acts as an antioxidant and supports immune function, reproduction and thyroid function.
- Iodine is important for growth and development, metabolism, reproduction and thyroid hormone production.
- Chromium aids insulin function and macronutrient metabolism.
- Fluoride aids bone mineralization and bone growth.
- Manganese is involved in macronutrient metabolism, cartilage and bone formation and wound healing.
- Molybdenum supports enzyme production.
Vitamin and Mineral Deficiency Symptoms
Although deficiencies in most vitamins and minerals are rare in the U.S., there are still nutrients of concern to most Americans, including vitamin D, calcium and potassium, according to the FDA. The symptoms you may experience when you don't get enough vitamins and minerals are directly related to each nutrient's function. For example,
- Potassium deficiency may cause irregular heartbeat and muscle cramps.
- Vitamin D deficiency can result in bone loss, osteoporosis and muscle weakness.
- Calcium deficiency increases the risk of weakened bones and osteoporosis.
- Iron deficiency results in anemia, in which the body can't produce enough red blood cells. Symptoms include fatigue, paleness and rapid heartbeat.
- Folate deficiency in pregnant women can lead to neural tube defects. According to the National Institutes of Health, folate deficiency may also contribute to cancer and depression.
The Linus Pauling Institute at Oregon State University reports that Americans may also fall short on vitamins A and C and magnesium, side effects of which include:
People can become deficient in many other nutrients for a number of reasons. In addition to poor diet, the Mayo Clinic notes that other causes of deficiencies include underlying medical conditions, medications, treatments for cancer and other conditions, malabsorption disorders, alcoholism, restrictive diets, smoking and pregnancy.
Read more: The 14 Best Foods for Your Heart
Preventing a Deficiency
People can usually get most or all of what they need to prevent vitamin and mineral deficiency if they eat a balanced diet. However, some people will benefit from supplementation. Many people are not meeting their daily needs for vitamin D, which is not found in many foods.
The skin can synthesize vitamin D when exposed to UV rays from the sun, but indoor desk jobs and the use of sunscreen limit the amount people can produce on their own. Therefore, doctors will sometimes recommend supplements.
Vegetarians and vegans are at a higher risk of a vitamin B12 deficiency because animal foods are the only reliable sources of the nutrient. Women who are pregnant or who are thinking about becoming pregnant may be advised to take a folate supplement to ensure adequate blood levels. If you have a nutrient deficiency or a health condition that puts you at risk of deficiency, your doctor may recommend supplementation of certain nutrients.
Otherwise, eating a calorie-sufficient diet including all the food groups is the best way to prevent vitamin and mineral deficiency. The FDA reports that animal foods, such as poultry, fish, eggs and dairy, are abundant sources of calcium, iron, biotin, riboflavin, niacin, vitamin B12, vitamin D and vitamin A. Whole grains are rich in the B vitamins, and fruits and vegetables provide vitamins C, E and K. Fortified breads, cereals, milk and orange juice are other ways to get all the nutrients you need.
- Harvard Health Publishing: "The Best Foods for Vitamins and Minerals"
- FDA: "FDA Vitamins and Minerals Chart"
- Medical LibreTexts: "Introduction to Major Minerals"
- Medical LibreTexts: "Prelude to Trace Minerals"
- NIH: "Vitamin D"
- NIH: "Folate"
- Linus Pauling Institute at Oregon State University: "Micronutrient Inadequacies in the US Population: An Overview"
- Mayo Clinic: "Vitamin A"
- NIH: "Vitamin C"
- MedlinePlus: "Magnesium in Diet"
- Mayo Clinic: "Vitamin Deficiency Anemia"