Vitamins and minerals A-Z

Minerals and trace elements are required in small amounts but are essential for processes in the body. They are necessary for tissue structure, enzyme systems, fluid balance, cellular function and neurotransmission. Minerals required in milligram quantities are referred to as 'minerals', but those required in microgram (smaller) quantities are known as 'trace elements'.

Calcium

Calcium, the most abundant mineral in the body, is required to develop and maintain skeletal structures. 99% of calcium is deposited in bones and teeth, constantly being withdrawn and re-deposited at controlled rates. The remaining 1% is necessary for cell membranes, enzyme activity and influencing functions such as muscle contraction, blood clotting and nerve transmission.

Vitamin D is essential to the absorption of calcium and is especially important in childhood and adolscence when bone growth and density is increasing. If you follow a vegan diet it is especially important to maintain your vitamin D intake to ensure calcium absorption. Calcium absorption is enhanced by milk and milk products, low sodium (including salt) intake and high potassium intake. However, absorption is inhibited by phytates (cereal foods, tea and coffee), oxalates in spinach, chard and rhubarb and supplemental intakes of minerals such as zinc.

Calcium is present in milk and dairy products (cheese and yoghurt), leafy green vegetables (but not spinach), bread and foods containing white or brown flour, nuts, sesame seeds, tofu, pulses, fortified soya drinks and tap water in hard water areas.

Iron

Iron is required for the production of haemoglobin in the blood, the maintenance of the muscle protein 'myoglobin' and is required in many metabolic processes. The body is efficient at recycling iron because it renews blood cells, but children and women have enhanced needs for iron. 

Maintaining healthy iron levels is important in any diet but the iron intake of women in the general UK population is below the recommended level of 14.8mg per day. Calcium, proteins and phytates affect the absorption of iron, whereas vitamin C enhances iron absorption. Iron is present in pulses, nuts and seeds, cereals and bread made from fortified white flour, fortified breakfast cereals, soybean flour, green leafy vegetables, tofu, dried fruit and molasses. For more informaation see our iron factsheet

Magnesium

Magnesium plays an essential role in skeletal development, protein synthesis, muscle contraction and neurotransmission.

Magnesium is present in green leafy vegetables (magnesium is a component of chlorophyll), wholegrains, nuts, bread, breakfast cereals, milk, cheese, potatoes, beverages such as beer and coffee and tap water in hard water areas.

Phosphorus

Phosphorus is present in all cells in the body and is essential for bone health and, in conjunction with the B vitamins, the metabolism of fats, proteins and carbohydrates. Phosphorus is present in most foods such as milk and dairy products, eggs, bread, breakfast cereals, nuts, fruit, vegetables and soft drinks.

Potassium

Potassium plays an important role in acid-base regulation, fluid balance, muscle contraction and nerve conduction. Potassium is widely found in plant foods, such as fruit (bananas, apricots, citrus fruits and fruit juice), vegetables (potatoes, beetroot, mushrooms), pulses, chocolate, milk and dairy products, eggs, nuts, yeast extract, wholegrain cereals and beverages such as coffee, malted milk drinks, wine, beer and cider.

Sodium

Sodium regulates fluid balance, blood pressure and cell membrane transport. Chloride is also important in fluid balance. Sodium and chloride are maintained in the fluid around cells by a number of mechanisms. The kidneys keep sodium and chloride blood levels within a specific range but kidneys in older adults and infants cannot tolerate high sodium intakes.

Most of the sodium consumed in the diet is in the form of sodium chloride, or salt. 75% of salt intake comes from processed foods. High salt intake can have adverse effects on health. Sodium is present in cheese, butter, milk, salted foods (e.g. nuts), yeast extract, stock cubes, crisps, bread, biscuits, cereals, packaged soups and snacks and ready meals. A diet of predominantly wholegrains, vegetables, pulses, nuts and fruit is naturally low in sodium and chloride. Yeast extract, often recommended as part of vegetarian diet as a source of B vitamins and potassium, should be consumed in a low-salt form.

Zinc

Zinc has a variety of biological functions, including a role in enzyme and protein synthesis, cell division and growth.

Rich sources of zinc include milk, dairy products and eggs. Good sources but with lower bioavailability are bread (sourdough) and cereal products, green leafy vegetables, pulses and pumpkin seeds. Zinc absorption is inhibited by high intake of cereal foods which contain phytates. Vegetarians and vegans should be aware of their zinc intake.

Trace elements

Vegetarians and vegans should be especially aware of the need for iodine and selenium.

  • Copper has an important role in enzyme activity, iron metabolism, defence against infection and red blood cell formation. Found in wholegrain foods, cereal products, potatoes, green vegetables, wheatgerm, nuts and cocoa.
  • Chromium is necessary for maintenance of blood glucose levels and influences metabolism. Found in nuts, potatoes, cereal products, pulses and brewer's yeast.
  • Fluoride helps form strong bones and teeth. Found in tap water; fluoride is added to increase levels in some regions. Fluoride is not available as a supplement.
  • Iodine forms part of the thyroid hormones necessary for maintaining metabolic rate, thermoregualtion, protein synthesis and connective tissue integrity. The major source of iodine is milk but it also found in beer, lager, cereal and cereal products, sea salt and edible seaweeds such as nori and kombu. 
  • Manganese is required for enzyme activity and forms bone and cartilage.  Found in bread, breakfast cereals, green vegetables, potatoes, nuts, fruit, spices and tea.
  • Molybdenum is required for enzyme activity involved in DNA and sulphite metabolism. Found in above-ground plants such as nuts, legumes, leafy vegetables, peas and oats. 
  • Selenium plays a key role in antioxidant defense, immunity and thyorid hormone metabolism. Found in bread, milk, nuts and eggs. 

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The Vegetarian Society of the United Kingdom Limited, Parkdale, Dunham Road, Altrincham WA14 4QG
Registered Charity No. 259358, Registered Company No. 959115 (England and Wales)

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