Vitamins and minerals: the basics
- vitamins A, B, C, D, E, K and folate
- minerals like calcium, iodine, iron and zinc.
The best way for your child to get enough vitamins and minerals is by eating a wide variety of foods from the 5 healthy food groups:
- vegetables and legumes
- cereals and grain foods
- foods with protein, including meat and meat alternatives
- dairy or dairy alternatives.
Most vitamins, minerals and other nutrients are absorbed better when they come from food, rather than from vitamin and mineral supplements.
Vitamins and how to get them
Here’s a list of the vitamins you and your family need and how to get them.
You get vitamin A from:
- leafy green vegetables like spinach and kale
- orange fruit and vegetables like carrots, pumpkin, sweet potatoes and apricots
- liver, oily fish like salmon and tuna, and eggs
- butter, margarine and full-fat milk.
You need vitamin A for eyesight, healthy skin, growth, development and good immune function.
Vitamin B1 (thiamin)
You get vitamin B1 from:
- wholegrain foods like wholemeal bread and brown rice and fortified breakfast cereals
- fish and meat
- yeast extracts like Vegemite.
Vitamin B1 helps release energy from foods, so that the nervous system and muscles work properly.
Vitamin B2 (riboflavin)
You get vitamin B2 from:
- breakfast cereals fortified with B2 and wholemeal flour and bread
- meat and eggs
- milk, yoghurt, cheese and dairy alternatives fortified with B2
- yeast extracts like Vegemite.
Vitamin B2 helps release energy from food.
Vitamin B3 (niacin)
You get vitamin B3 from:
- lean meat, fish and chicken
- yeast extracts like Vegemite.
Vitamin B3 helps release energy from food.
Vitamin B6 (pyridoxine)
You get vitamin B6 from:
- vegetables and soybeans
- wholegrain foods and breakfast cereals fortified with B6
- lean meat and fish.
Vitamin B6 releases energy from protein and helps with red blood cell production and brain function.
Vitamin B12 (cobalamin)
You get vitamin B12 from:
- meat, fish and eggs
- breakfast cereals fortified with B12
- milk and dairy alternatives fortified with B12.
Vitamin B12 helps with red blood cell production and promotes growth.
Vitamin C (ascorbic acid)
You get vitamin C from:
- vegetables, especially capsicums, broccoli and potatoes
- fruits, especially citrus fruit, berries, mango and kiwi fruit.
Vitamin C builds collagen. It helps you fight infections and absorb iron from food. It also keeps teeth, bones and gums healthy. You can lose some vitamin C when you cook food.
Our bodies make most of the vitamin D we need when we get enough direct sunlight on our skin. There are also small amounts in:
- mushrooms grown outdoors or in UV light
- oily fish, fish liver oils and egg yolks
- butter and margarine.
Vitamin D helps you absorb calcium to keep bones strong and healthy.
You get vitamin E from:
- sunflower and canola oils
- seeds and nuts
- wheat germ
- margarines high in unsaturated fat.
Vitamin E boosts your immune system and helps with the development of healthy skin and eyes.
You get vitamin K from:
- green leafy vegetables like broccoli, kale, cabbage and spinach
- green beans
The healthy bacteria in your gut also make vitamin K.
Vitamin K is important for helping your blood to clot.
Folate (folic acid)
You get folate from:
- green leafy vegetables like bok choy, broccoli, spinach and brussel sprouts
- bread made from wheat flour (except organic bread), wholegrain foods and breakfast cereals fortified with folic acid.
Folate helps you absorb protein and form new blood cells and DNA. Getting enough folate before and during pregnancy can help prevent neural tube defects. Cooking and processing food – for example, as part of the canning process – reduces the amount of folate in food.
Minerals and how to get them
Here’s a list of the minerals you and your family need and how to get them.
You get calcium from:
- some green leafy vegetables, like kale and bok choy
- fish with edible bones like sardines
- dairy products like milk, cheese and yoghurt, and dairy alternatives fortified with calcium.
Calcium builds strong bones and teeth.
You get iodine from:
- vegetables grown in iodine-rich soil
- iodised salt
- bread made with iodised salt.
Most bakery and supermarket bread is made with iodised salt, which will give most people enough iodine. Iodine is essential for healthy growth and tissue development, and it helps to control the ways your cells make energy and use oxygen. Pregnant women and breastfeeding birthing mothers need higher levels of iodine compared to other people.
You get iron from:
- dried legumes
- meat, liver, chicken, seafood and egg yolks
- iron-fortified breakfast cereal.
Iron is especially important for brain function and red blood cell production, and it helps carry oxygen around the body.
You get zinc from:
- wholegrain foods
- meat, chicken and seafood
- milk, yoghurt and some dairy alternatives like coconut milk or those fortified with zinc.
Zinc helps with growth, wound healing and immune system function.
Other essential minerals include chromium, copper, fluoride, magnesium, manganese, molybdenum, potassium, phosphorus, selenium and sodium.
Fruit and vegetables are vital sources of vitamins and minerals. You might like to read about encouraging your child to eat vegetables or see our illustrated guide to child-friendly fruit and vegetables.
If your child isn’t getting enough vitamins or minerals over a period of time, this is often called a ‘deficiency’.
These are the most common vitamin deficiencies in children in Australia.
Many children in Australia have low levels of vitamin D, especially children living in Adelaide, Hobart or Melbourne in winter.
These are the most common mineral deficiencies in children in Australia.
Children are at higher risk of iron deficiency than adults, mainly because children need more iron when they go through growth spurts. They might also be low in iron if they:
- eat a vegan or vegetarian diet
- eat a limited variety of foods
- have coeliac disease
- have gastrointestinal blood loss
- have frequent, prolonged or very heavy periods in adolescence.
Iron deficiency can cause tiredness, lack of concentration and paler skin than usual.
A severe iron deficiency is called iron deficiency anaemia. A small number of toddlers have iron deficiency anaemia, which can have long-term effects on brain development.
Toddlers who have a limited diet for a long time, as well as those who eat a vegan or vegetarian diet, are most likely to not get enough zinc. A zinc deficiency can slow down your child’s growth.
Diverse diets and how they might affect vitamin and mineral intake
If your child has a restricted diet, you might need to be careful about making sure your child gets enough vitamins and minerals.
For example, vegetarian diets and vegan diets can make it difficult to get enough iron. Food allergies and food intolerances can make it harder for your child to get enough nutrients like calcium. With careful planning and professional advice, you can get enough of these nutrients into your child’s diet.
For children with a chronic condition that affects how they absorb food – like coeliac disease or cystic fibrosis – the vitamins and minerals in a standard healthy diet might not be enough. Your GP or a dietitian can help you work out what you need to do.
Children who eat a lot of ‘sometimes’ foods, like sweet drinks, chips and cakes, might fill up on those and not have enough room for the foods that give them essential vitamins and minerals. You could try limiting sometimes foods to special occasions.
Always talk to your GP, a dietitian or another health professional if you’re concerned about your own diet, especially if you think you might be low on key nutrients for breastfeeding. A health professional can help you work out what you need, especially if you have a restricted diet.
Vitamin and mineral supplements
Our bodies need only tiny amounts of vitamins and minerals. Large amounts of some vitamins or minerals can be dangerous. For example, vitamin A builds up in the body if it’s taken in excessive amounts.
If you think your child is low on some vitamins or minerals and can’t eat more food containing these vitamins and minerals, see your GP or a dietitian for advice. They might suggest that your child takes an appropriate supplement.
Unless your GP prescribes a specific nutrient, it’s generally best to take a supplement that includes a range of nutrients and is suitable for your child’s age.
Vitamin and mineral supplements can interact with medicines. If your child takes a vitamin or mineral supplement and your GP is prescribing medicine for your child, it’s important to let the GP know about the supplement.