Vitamins and minerals are micronutrients, and by definition, they make up a relatively small part of our diet. However, when it comes to vitamins and minerals, a little bit goes a long way. They have many essential jobs in our bodies.
For example, if you’ve taken a drink of water today, you can thank the minerals that serve as electrolytes, helping to balance fluids in the body. If you’ve taken a breath of air, you can thank the vitamins and minerals that act as antioxidants, protecting vital molecules from free radical damage. If you’ve taken a step, you can thank the vitamin D, calcium, and other minerals that make your bones strong. If you’ve moved a muscle, you can thank the many vitamins and minerals that serve as cofactors in metabolic reactions, which unlock the energy contained in nutrients so that your body can use it.
There are some 13 vitamins and 16 minerals important to human nutrition, and each serves multiple functions in the body. Entire books have been written about each one, and we could easily spend a whole term learning about all of these amazing nutrients. But as this is an introductory course, we’ll use the next chapters to introduce you to some of the most interesting vitamins and minerals, with a focus on those that are commonly limiting in the human diet.
We’ll begin this chapter with a general introduction to vitamins and minerals, and we’ll consider the role of dietary supplements in meeting our vitamin and mineral requirements. Then, we’ll spend the remainder of this chapter looking at summaries of major functions of vitamins and minerals, where we find them in food, and what happens if we consume too little or too much of each. Many of the vitamins and minerals will be covered in more detail during the next chapters, which explore the vitamins and minerals that are needed for the function of various systems and structures in the body.