Our bodies need a range of nutrients to not only maintain everyday energy levels, but to continue to grow and repair. Eating a range of fresh fruit and vegetables daily will guarantee that you get a good variety of these essential nutrients. Try to choose fruits and vegetables that are in season and local because they will be fresher and therefore higher in their beneficial nutrients. The longer produce has to travel, the more the nutrients in them deplete.
Vitamin A (retinol, pre-cursor beta-carotene)
Your body doesn’t make vitamin A on its own, but like other fat-soluble vitamins (D, E and K) excess is stored in the liver and used as necessary. The active form of vitamin A is found in animal sources like liver, eggs, milk, yoghurt, cheese and oily fish. Fruits and vegetables that are green, yellow, orange and red in colour often contain the pre-cursor to vitamin A, beta-carotene, (which actually gives these foods their colour) which is converted to active vitamin A in your body, think carrots, pumpkin, capsicum, apricots, leafy green vegetables and sweet potato.
Vitamin A assists with vision, particularly night vision, maybe rabbits have such good eyesight because they eat all those carrots. It also supports receptor pathways in your brain that are involved in sensory perception, language processing and attention. Something to think about when preparing school lunches, perhaps?
People with severe vitamin A deficiency may suffer with night blindness. And the build up of too much vitamin A can cause health problems too, but this is unusual through food intake and is usually associated with supplement over-use.
Vitamin C (ascorbic acid)
Your body does not make vitamin C on its own, nor can it store it. So it’s vital to consume it daily.
It is found in abundance in guava, black currents, kiwi fruit, strawberries, oranges, broccoli, brussel sprouts, red and green capsicum and kale. Heating reduces the amount of vitamin C in your fruits and vegetables, so for best results, eat them raw or lightly cooked.
A severe deficiency of vitamin C will result in scurvy. In the days before air travel, the British Navy used to traverse the oceans in ships, taking many months to get to their destinations. Generals noticed their crew getting debilitating signs and symptoms including constant and extreme fatigue and weakness, pain in limbs especially legs and with some of the severe cases, jaundice and fatal heart problems. British naval personnel were given the nickname ‘limeys’ because they were required to consume lime or lemon juice daily on their ships to avoid getting scurvy.
Even mild deficiencies of vitamin C can cause some unpleasant symptoms including swollen or bleeding gums, rough or dry skin and a weakened immune system. Vitamin C is an antioxidant that helps with the formation of blood cells and bone and teeth growth and is essential for healthy teeth and gums. It assists with wound healing and healthy skin. Vitamin C helps you to absorb iron more effectively.
Unlike most vitamins, our bodies can synthesise vitamin D with the help of UV rays. The best way to get your daily dose is by getting out into the sun and letting it shine on your arms, legs and face for about 10 minutes. Be careful not to overdo it! Other ways to get vitamin D through food is from egg yolk, beef liver, cheese and oily fish. Vitamin D improves absorption of the mineral calcium, which is important for bone strength. A severe deficiency of vitamin D and/or calcium in children can result in rickets, a condition that effects the development of children’s bones and presents in bowed or curved bones.
As with the other fat-soluble vitamins (A, D and K), unused vitamin E is stored in the liver. It is another anti-oxidant that protects cells from free radicals which damage cells and cause disease. It is particularly useful in keeping your skin and hair healthy and strong, and protecting your heart. Nuts and seeds are great sources of vitamin E, as well as mangoes, tomatoes, kiwi fruit, avocado, spinach, butternut pumpkin, corn, broccoli, eggs, salmon and beef. Wheat germ is an excellent source of vitamin E. Vitamin E deficiency is extremely rare.
Vitamin B Complex
There are 8 B vitamins that often work together to keep your body running efficiently. They all have a role in converting the food you eat into fuel, keeping your energy levels up and helping you get the most out of your body every day. Often foods containing one B vitamin will contain many others as they are synergistic. However each one has its own set of specific benefits, from preventing memory loss to giving your hair and skin a healthy glow. Here’s a run down of some of their individual benefits:
B1 is necessary for the digestion of fats and proteins in your diet as well as simple carbohydrates. It helps the body to make healthy new cells, improves energy, promotes brain and nerve function and supports eye health. You can get B1 from eating asparagus, spinach and kale, as well as beef, pork and lamb. Spirulina (pond scum, yes, pond scum, but the stuff you can buy will have been sourced from non-contaminated water sources), is a very high source of B1.
The husks of brown rice are high in thiamine and the removal of these husks and the polishing of rice to become more palatable years ago caused a deficiency in B1 in countries where rice was the main food consumed. A severe B1 deficiency is called beriberi which is a very serious condition. Luckily very few people in Australia will suffer with this because it is easy to include this vitamin in our daily diet.
You might have heard or seen riboflavin mentioned on cereal adverts or packets. This is because many processed foods are fortified (strengthened) with B vitamins to improve their nutrient profile. But there is no better way of getting the vitamins you need than through consuming fresh fruits and vegetables (and of course animal products in the case of B12). B2 is an antioxidant that protects cells from damaging free radicals, and is important in the production of red blood cells which carry oxygen throughout the blood stream. Good sources of B2 include asparagus, spinach, Brussel sprouts, broccoli and avocados.
B3 can increase the good cholesterol in your blood which helps protect you from heart disease by running around removing all the bad cholesterol. It’s also known to help treat acne. Foods high in B3 include beans and green vegetables as well as red meat.
B5 (Pantothenic Acid)
Foods that are good sources of B5 include beans, green vegetables, mushrooms, oranges, peas and sweet potatoes. B5 helps break down fats and carbs for energy. It is also involved in the production of hormones like testosterone and cortisole which can maintain healthy skin, muscles and nerves. If you are not getting enough vitamin B5 you might feel tired and lack energy, and your muscles might feel weak and cramp easily.
Working in conjunction with B9 and B12, B6 helps regulate the levels of the amino acid homocysteine, which is associated with heart disease. B6 helps the body produce sleep, mood and stress hormones serotonin, melatonin and norepinephrine which all help your general and emotional wellbeing. You can find B6 in avocados, bananas, carrots, legumes, oily fish and nuts and seeds.
B7 (Biotin – also known as vitamin H)
B7 or Biotin or Vitamin H is used by the body in cell growth and helps the body release the energy from the food you eat. It helps to manage your blood sugar levels and with the transfer of carbon dioxide. This vitamin is associated with healthy skin, hair and nails. It is also vital during pregnancy as It is found in cauliflower, potatoes, barley, bean sprouts as well as many animal products like butter, milk and chicken. Body builders and athletes who like to eat raw eggs should be careful not to become deficient in B7 since they contain a avidin, a protein that binds to biotin and prevents it from being absorbed by the body.
B9 (Folic Acid)
Working closely with B12, B9 is vital for red blood cell formation. It is essential for creating haem, the iron containing substance in haemoglobin, crucial for oxygen transport. It is mostly known through the results of deficiency however. Pregnant women are often advised to make sure their folic acid levels are adequate as a deficiency may increase the risk of a baby being born with a condition called spina bifida, a nervous system disorder. B9 is found in fresh leafy green vegetables Folic acid gets its name from the Latin word folium meaning ‘foliage’ because it is found in natures leafy green vegetables like spinach, kale, beet greens, broccoli and rocket as well as asparagus, beans and root vegetables.
B12 works with B9 to produce red blood cells and help iron do its job, which is to create hemoglobin which in turn carries oxygen through your blood stream. It is a vitamin that can only be found in animal products so it is important to have some kind of supplement if you choose a strict vegan diet. You can get your B12 in meat, milk, fish, cheese and eggs amongst other animal products.
Vitamin K is used in the body to control blood clotting by being involved in the production of the thrombin pre-cursor, prothrombin, a key blood clotting factor. It is also involved in the formation and repair of bones. Babies are given a vitamin K shot when they are born as they have very low levels at birth. Even if their mums have enough, the baby doesn’t get it until they are a little older and can make it in their own intestines. You can get your vitamin K dose by eating leafy vegetables like broccoli, cabbage, kale, lettuce and spinach, as well as asparagus, cheese, eggs, oats and pork.
Most of the calcium in our bodies is in our bones (98%) with 1% in our teeth and the rest in other tissues and the circularity system. It’s the calcium in your tissues and circulation that is needed for many vital bodily functions. If you aren’t getting enough calcium in your diet, your body will automatically take what it needs from your bones. If you are not able to replace it through your diet your bones can become weak and break easily. Osteoporosis can be caused by a deficiency of calcium. You can get your calcium requirements eating milk and milk products, but if you can’t have or don’t like dairy you can also get more than enough through green leafy vegetables like rocket, kale and spinach, plus broccoli, pak choi, okra, leeks, sweet potato, parsnips and spring onions. To absorb the calcium you eat, you require vitamin D, so make sure you get a little sunshine everyday.
Did you know that the iron in plants (non-haem) like spinach, is different from the iron in red meat (haem)? The iron in meat is attached to haem proteins and is absorbed at a slightly higher rate than that in plant food, but that’s not a bad thing. Plant sources of iron require a bit more of an effort for your body to use but that also means that you have less of a risk of having too much iron in your body, and if you are eating more vegetables you are getting more of the other vitamins and minerals that make your body function optimally. Vitamin C improves and increases the amount of iron you absorb. Other than meat, great sources of dietary iron include mushrooms, dried apricots, dark green leafy vegetables (spinach, kale, pak choi), olives, beans and peas, asparagus and berries.
Magnesium is involved in over 600 reactions in your body including energy creation (from the food you eat), protein formation from amino acids, the creation and repair of DNA and RNA, the relaxation of muscles and the regulation of neurotransmitters, which send messages throughout your brain and nervous system. It is only needed in small amounts but is vital. You can get your daily needs of magnesium eating the following: pumpkin seeds, spinach, dark chocolate, black beans, almonds and avocado.
A healthy immune system is really important to protect us from getting colds and sore throats as well as healing when we get cuts and scratches. Zinc is an essential mineral when it comes to supporting our immune system. It is also vital for the growth and maintenance of our muscles and collagen (which is great for wound healing and healthy skin). Boys and men especially need zinc as it plays a significant role in the production of testosterone. Vegans and vegetarians should make sure they are getting enough zinc.
Oysters contain the most zinc of all food sources, but if you’re looking for fresh fruits and vegetables that contain zinc then look no further than capsicum, ginger, sunflower and pumpkin seeds, spinach, nuts and cooked dried beans, peas and lentils.
Fibre is the body’s broom. It is basically the indigestible parts of the plant foods we eat, like fruits, vegetables, grains and legumes. It keeps our digestive system healthy.
Soluble fibre, found in vegetables and fruit, helps to keep us feeling fuller longer and helps balance your blood suger levels.
Insoluble fibre, found in wholegrains, nuts, seeds and in the skins of vegetables and fruit works to keep our bowels functioning well. It absorbs water and pushes undigested food through the digestive system.
Resistant starch, found in cooked and cooled potato and rice amongst other things, does its work in the large intestine by assisting in the production of good bacteria, which we know improves bowel health that is being shown to help other parts of the body and our general health and wellbeing.
Fibre is no good without water. We can survive for many days without food, but water is essential to life. Our bodies are actually made up of about 70% water which is involved in thousands of bodily functions, starting with the saliva you use to start the digestion process, to the movement of muscles and the healthy bowel movements we should be having every day. We can obviously drink water straight from the tap to get what we need, but eating a diet that is packed with fresh fruit and vegetables will also provide a significant amount of H2O for your body’s needs.