Visualisation of vitamins

Vital vitamins

Don't turn to a pot of pills for a health boost – nutritionist Jo Lewin divulges what different vitamins do and how to get all you need naturally.

For most people, a balanced and varied diet should support all the vitamins that you need. Speak to your GP or healthcare provider if you are concerned about nutritional deficiencies or are considering taking supplements.


Vitamin A

Vitamin A is a fat-soluble vitamin and is also known as retinol. It’s essential for growth and cell development, vision and immune function as well as plump, youthful skin and hair and for the integrity of the gut lining. It protects against infections and is a powerful antioxidant, so helps prevent disease.

How can I get it?
We can get pre-formed vitamin A from meat, eggs and dairy while from fruit and vegetables we obtain beta-carotene, which our bodies can change into vitamin A. One 180g baked sweet potato would provide your Nutrient Reference Value (NRV). Other good sources include, animal products such as liver, oily fish, eggs, milk, cheese, butter as well as broccoli, dark green leafy vegetables, sweet red peppers, pumpkins, mangoes, cantaloupe melons and apricots. The average man requires 0.7mg a day and a woman requires 0.6mg. Any vitamin A your body doesn’t use is stored for future use – this means you don’t need it every day.

Vitamin D

Known as the sunshine vitamin, vitamin D is essential for healthy bones and is thought to possibly slow the progression of osteoporosis. It is also believed to support the immune system and help prevent some cancers. It helps muscle function and works with vitamins A and C in the immune system.

How can I get it?
Vitamin D is manufactured mainly by the skin when it’s exposed to sunlight. You should be able to get your recommended amounts by spending 15-30 minutes (depending on your age and ethnicity) outside in the sun each day from late March to early September. One can (155g) of sardines should also supply the NRV. Other good sources include herrings, salmon, tuna, dairy produce, mushrooms and eggs – make sure you include these regularly in your diet.

Although, during the summer months, most people should be able to get all the vitamin D they need from the action of sunlight on the skin, the Department of Health recommends certain individuals supplement, especially during the autumn and winter months. Check whether you need to supplement by referring to the guidelines.

Vitamin E

Vitamin E is an antioxidant needed for healthy skin, a well-functioning immune system and a healthy heart.

How can I get it?
Half a large avocado or a small handful of sunflower seeds would provide the NRV. It is found in all vegetable oils such as sunflower and pumpkin oils, tuna, salmon, broccoli, almonds, eggs, soya and wholegrains, which include oats, rye and brown rice. The amount of vitamin E you need is 4mg for men and 3mg for women – this should be possible from a varied diet.

Vitamin K

Vitamin K is great for building and maintaining healthy, strong bones and essential for helping blood to clot properly.

How can I get it?
Vitamin K can be found in yogurt, egg yolks, fish oils, dairy produce and green leafy vegetables. An 80g serving of cooked kale or Brussels sprouts should supply your NRV – serve with an olive oil dressing to improve uptake. An average adult needs approximately 1 mcg for each kilogram of body weight. You should be able to get all the vitamin K you need by eating a varied diet.

Vitamin B1

A selection of wholegrains on a wooden board

Also known as thiamine, vitamin B1 is needed for energy production, carbohydrate digestion, a healthy nervous system and heart function.

How can I get it?
It is found in wholegrain foods such as cereals and bread, oats, rye millet, quinoa, legumes, pork and liver. A 25g serving of yeast extract would supply your RDA, which is 0.8-1mg. You should be able to get all the thiamine you need from your daily diet.

Vitamin B2

Pouring a glass of milk

Also known as riboflavin, vitamin B2 helps keep the skin, eyes and nervous system healthy and helps you access the energy from the food you eat.

How can I get it?
Good sources include milk, eggs, fortified breakfast cereals and rice. Vitamin B2 is destroyed by UV light so keep these foods out of the sunlight. You should be able to get all your vitamin B2 from your diet; an average adult needs approximately 1.4 mg a day. Riboflavin can’t be stored in the body so this is one vitamin you need in your daily diet.

Vitamin B3

Also called niacin, vitamin B3 is good for hormone synthesis, such as insulin, the hormone that regulates blood sugar levels in the body, and also for thyroxine, serotonin and other mood and brain hormones. It is thought to be useful for conditions including depression, arthritis and circulatory disorders.

How can I get it?
Vitamin B3 is found in foods that are high in protein, such as chicken, beef, fish and nuts. Breads and cereals are often also enriched with niacin. A 50g serving of peanut butter with two slices of wholemeal bread will help you on your way to your RDA. The amount of B3 you need is about 16mg a day. You should be able to get all the niacin you need from your daily diet.

Vitamin B5

Vitamin B5, or pantothenic acid, is needed for conversion of fats and carbohydrates into energy and also for supporting the adrenal glands, which regulate the stress response in the body.

How can I get it?
The best sources of B5 are fish, poultry, wholegrains, rye, barley, millet, nuts, chicken, egg yolks, liver and green leafy vegetables. The amount of B5 you need is about 6mg a day.

Vitamin B6

Vitamin B6 is the ‘workhouse’ of nutrients, involved in more bodily processes than any other vitamin. It functions primarily as a coenzyme, forming red blood cells, helping cells to make proteins, manufacturing neurotransmitters in the brain and releasing energy. There is also evidence to suggest that it plays a role in preventing and treating many diseases.

How can I get it?
One serving of fortified breakfast cereal with a banana and one large salmon steak would provide the NRV. The main sources include poultry, lean red meat, egg yolks, chickpeas, oily fish, dairy produce, cabbage, leeks, bananas and wheat germ. The average amount needed is 1.4mg a day with amounts increasing during pregnancy and lactation.

Folic acid

Folic acid, or vitamin B9, is known for its role in helping to prevent neural defects during pregnancy but it is also good for the immune system, energy production and in preventing anaemia.

How can I get it?
Your RDA of folic acid is 200mcg (micrograms). A serving (80g) of Brussels sprouts or fortified breakfast cereal (30g) each supply approximately 88mcg and 110mcg respectively. A glass of fresh orange juice (150ml) provides 35mcg and a slice of wholemeal bread (toasted) provides 12mcg. Other good sources include dark green leafy vegetables such as kale, spinach, asparagus, broccoli, sprouts, egg yolks, carrots, apricots, oranges, pumpkins and squashes, melons, wholewheat and rye.

Vitamin B12

Vitamin B12 is needed for growth, the digestive and nervous system, as well as the production of energy and healthy blood cells. After the age of 50, the ability to absorb vitamin B12 from food declines.

How can I get it?
A large glass of milk, an egg or a serving of fortified breakfast cereal will supply the RDA. Animal products are the primary source of B12, these include red meat such as beef, liver and pork, shellfish and other fish, eggs and dairy produce. Vegetarians and vegans can also consider seaweed and spirulina. The RDA for vitamin B12 is about 1.5mcg which most people should be able to achieve from a well-balanced and varied diet.

Vitamin C

Vitamin C is required to support the immune system, a healthy heart, healthy skin and gums, and helping to prevent diseases like heart disease and cancer and helping wounds to heal properly.

How can I get it?
A large orange, half a red pepper or a 125g serving of watercress provides the RDA. Other good sources are berries, pomegranates, citrus fruits, potatoes, pumpkins, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower and spinach. We need approximately 40mg of vitamin C per day.

Biotin (vitamin B7)

Also known as vitamin H, biotin is needed for healthy hair, nails, skin and energy production.

How can I get it?
It’s found in brewer’s yeast, liver, soy products, brown rice, nuts, egg yolks and fruit. We need approximately 0.15mg per day.

How your body absorbs and stores vitamins:

Vitamins are absorbed and stored by your body in two different ways, and are either fat soluble or water soluble.

Fat soluble vitamins include vitamins A, D, E and K. These are absorbed with fat through the intestine and into the blood stream and are stored in the liver.

Water soluble vitamins include Vitamins C, B1, B2, B3, B5, B6, B12, biotin and folate. These vitamins only remain in the body for a short time before being excreted by the kidneys (apart from B12), so you need to keep up your intake.

A note on UK dietary recommendations

Dietary recommendations for any nutrient are based on the daily intake thought to be adequate to safely satisfy the needs of the majority of the population. Despite much research, values for optimum intakes are still being debated. The Reference Nutrient Intake (RNI) measure used in the UK is calculated from studies of the physiological requirements of healthy people, but because these studies are subject to wide interpretation, the RNI value for a nutrient can vary from country to country.

RDAs (Recommended Daily Allowance) is the old system which has now changed to NRVs. The values for RDA and NRV are the same.

NRVs are the levels of essential nutrients considered adequate for most healthy people, and are only rough guides. Nutritional requirements often vary slightly for specific groups of the population, for example during pregnancy and old age. If you’re concerned that you might be at risk of deficiencies, speak to your GP or healthcare provider.

For more information see the Department for Health website.

This article was last reviewed on 13 September 2019 by Kerry Torrens.

Kerry Torrens BSc. (Hons) PgCert MBANT is a Registered Nutritionist with a post graduate diploma in Personalised Nutrition & Nutritional Therapy. She is a member of the British Association for Nutrition and Lifestyle Medicine (BANT) and a member of the Guild of Food Writers. Over the last 15 years she has been a contributing author to a number of nutritional and cookery publications including BBC Good Food


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