What is vitamin A and beta-carotene?
Learn all about vitamin A, how it helps to maintain healthy skin and eyes and support the immune system and which foods are good sources.
Vitamin A is a fat-soluble vitamin that is stored in the body (mainly the liver) until it is required by the body.
Vitamin A is an umbrella term for a family of substances called retinoids which include retinol, retinal and retinoic acid. These are known as preformed vitamin A as they are in a form that can be directly used by the body. Retinol is the form that can be used more easily and it can be converted to both retinal and retinoic acid.
Beta-carotene is a type of carotenoid that can be converted to vitamin A. Carotenoids are a class of plant chemicals, known as phytonutrients, which are pigments responsible for bright red, yellow and orange colours in many fruits and vegetables.
Why do we need vitamin A?
Vitamin A is vital for maintaining vision under conditioning of poor lighting and supports the daily replacement of skin cells. It is also required for supporting the immune system, for growth and development of cells and for reproduction.
How much vitamin A do we need?
The NHS recommends an intake of 0.7mg a day for men and 0.6mg a day for women.
What are the effects of consuming too much vitamin A?
High doses of vitamin A can harm an unborn baby, so if you're pregnant or planning for a baby, it is not advisable to take supplements containing vitamin A or eat foods which are extremely high in vitamin A (such as liver or liver pâté. Speak to your GP or midwife for advice.
Consuming too much vitamin A over many years may also impact on bone health.
Many multivitamins and common supplements, like cod liver oil, are high in vitamin A. Speak to your GP or healthcare provider if you're concerned about nutritional deficiencies or if you're considering taking supplements.
Which foods are good sources of vitamin A?
Preformed vitamin A is only found in animal sources including liver, dairy products and fish – these are rich sources. Plant sources contain carotenoids and beta-carotene is converted to retinol in the body. Carotenoids give food a vibrant yellow or orange colour and are found in foods such as carrots, yellow peppers, butternut squash, pumpkin and sweet potato. They are also found in dark green fruits and vegetables such as spinach, kale and lettuce.
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This article was published on 3 July 2019.
Emer Delaney BSc (Hons), RD has an honours degree in Human Nutrition and Dietetics from the University of Ulster. She has worked as a dietitian in some of London's top teaching hospitals and is currently based in Chelsea.
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