Vitamin D: Why is it so important?

What is it?

Vitamin D, often referred to as the sunshine vitamin, is needed by the body to support healthy teeth, muscles, and bones. It is a fat-soluble vitamin (along with vitamins A, E, and K) which means it can only be absorbed by the body in the presence of fat. Unlike all other vitamins, Vitamin D is unique in that it is the only vitamin that our body can make on its own and is not required from dietary sources. The process of the body creating it starts with the skins exposure to natural sunlight, followed by a cascade of events in the body which lead to the production of Vitamin D in its biologically active form, known as calcitriol. It is the calcitriol that is important for regulating calcium and phosphorous levels within the body which plays an essential role for healthy teeth, muscles, and bones (1).

How much do we need?

Despite our bodies ability to produce Vitamin D from UVB radiation from the sun, in the UK sunlight exposure becomes limited in the autumn and winter months. It is therefore recommended that we take a supplement during this time (October – March). The Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN) recommend a daily intake of 10 micrograms (mcg), or 400IU, throughout the year for individuals aged 4 and over in the UK (2 & 3). However, it is still possible to reach the recommended intake through sources within the diet (see below).

Sources of vitamin D (4)

Other than sunlight, there are also dietary sources which contain vitamin D, including:

  • Oily fish, such as salmon, sardines, mackerel, herring, trout
  • Egg yolks
  • Mushrooms that have been exposed to sunlight
  • Red meat and offal, such as liver and kidneys
  • Fortified foods, such as milk and plant-based alternatives, and breakfast cereals

Health benefits of vitamin D

Vitamin D has numerous health benefits, which emphasises its importance. Adequate intake can help to slow down the process of and improve bone mineral density loss in peri- and post-menopausal women and ageing populations, to prevent and/or manage adverse implications, such as osteoporosis. It is recommended that post-menopausal women consume between 500-800IU a day of Vitamin D (5), whilst older adults should consume the recommended 10mcg per day (2).

Vitamin D is an important nutrient needed during pregnancy to ensure good maternal and foetal health. Some studies have found an association between inadequate Vitamin D intake and an increased risk of preeclampsia (a potentially life-threatening disease in pregnancy which can be harmful to both mother and baby), whilst others show the importance of sufficient Vitamin D intake in the development of a healthy baby (6).

Sufficient intake of Vitamin D has also been associated with a protective relationship against the risk of cancer by inhibiting the proliferation (rapid increase) of cancerous cells (7), as well as helping the immune system to reduce susceptibility to disease and infection (8).

So, in conclusion…

Although we can make Vitamin D within our bodies, it is still an essential nutrient to include within our diets, in the form of foods such as oily fish, eggs yolks, meat and offal, and sunlight-exposed mushrooms, and a 10mcg supplementation during the winter months within the UK. The positive health outcomes discussed associated with adequate Vitamin D intake also highlight its importance.

References

Contribution by Associate Nutritionist, Ellie Morris

Can we Eat to Boost our Immunity?

With flu season and COVID-19 unfortunately on the rise again we need to find ways that we can support our immune system to help us fight off any nasty infections. We’ve all been in a situation where we feel a cold coming on and so we start to increase our fruit and veg intake, take some vitamin C tablets, or drink a big glass of orange juice. But, how much can our diets and nutrition actually impact the way our immune system functions?

The link between nutrition and immunity

Recent research has shown that the functioning of our immune system can be affected by the food we eat (1), with some studies even suggesting that diet and nutrition are some of the most important external factors that play a role in our immune response to disease (2). During times of infection or illness our body’s immune system works quickly and efficiently to help fight it and to make us feel better. Without certain nutrients, particularly those known as micronutrients (i.e. vitamins and minerals), the body would be unable to do this. Below are some important nutrients which help to support immune function and some examples of foods in which they are found (3).

Vitamin A: anti-inflammatory

  • Animal products – cheese, eggs, oily fish, liver, milk and yoghurt
  • Plant products – yellow, red and green veg (spinach, carrots, sweet potato, peppers) and yellow fruits (mango, apricots)

Vitamin C: encourages the production of white blood cells which are important in getting rid of infections

  • Citrus fruits such as oranges, peppers, strawberries, blackcurrants, broccoli, brussels sprouts

Vitamin D: decreases susceptibility to infections

  • Oily fish such as salmon and mackerel, red meat, liver, egg yolks, fortified foods
  • The body creates Vitamin D from sunlight and so in the winter (October to March), when sunlight exposure is reduced, it is advised to take a Vitamin D supplement (10 micrograms or 400 IU)

Copper: helps improve immune response to infections

  • Nuts, shellfish, offal

Folate: helps maintain white blood cell function

  • Broccoli, brussels sprouts, leafy green veg, peas, chickpeas and kidney beans, liver, fortified breakfast cereals

Iron: encourages the production of white blood cells

  • Animal products – liver, red meat
  • Plant sources – beans such as kidney beans, edamame beans and chickpeas, nuts, dried fruits, fortified breakfast cereals

Selenium: reduces susceptibility to infection and disease

  • Brazil nuts, fish, meat, eggs

Zinc: helps maintain white blood cell function

  • Meat, shellfish, dairy foods such as cheese, bread, cereal products

Immunity and gut health

Having a healthy gut microbiome is also super important when it comes to our immune function as almost 70% of our immune system can be found within our gut (4)!! Here are some top tips to keep your gut happy and healthy to help support your immune system:

  1. Aim for the recommended 30g of fibre per day
  • High fibre foods include, fruit and veg, wholegrains, nuts, and seeds
  1. Eat foods which are high in polyphenols such as fruits, veg, and dark chocolate
  2. Include probiotics or fermented foods such as yoghurt, kefir, sauerkraut, and kimchi

Although nutrition is important, here are some other ways that you can help to boost your immune system (5)

  • Exercise regularly – even just a walk or some gentle yoga
  • Get adequate sleep
  • Keep stress to a minimum
  • Maintain good personal hygiene
    • Frequently wash your hands
  • Drink alcohol in moderation
  • Keep up to date with all the current vaccines

So, in conclusion the food we eat can have an impact on our immunity. Like most things in nutrition, eating a balanced and varied diet will help to benefit our immune systems. Issues arise when important nutrients, like the ones mentioned above, are not consumed and this means that our immune systems cannot function adequately. This leads us to having an increased susceptibility to infections and disease.

It is important to note that we cannot actually ‘boost’ the activity and function of our immune systems, it is more that we can supporthealthy immune function by consuming the right foods, such as vitamins and minerals.

 

Contribution by Registered Associate Nutritionist, Ellie Morris

References

Vegan Ferrero Rochers

INGREDIENTS (Makes 12 truffles) 

  • 180g dark chocolate, chopped
  • 80ml vegan cream (Alpro or Oatly) 
  • 90g smooth almond butter 
  • 1 tbsp maple syrup 
  • ½ tsp vanilla
  • Pinch of sea salt 
  • 12 whole hazelnuts, plus 60g hazelnuts for the coating, chopped
  • 1 tsp coconut oil

METHOD 

  1. Melt 80g of the chocolate in a heatproof bowl over a pan of water (don’t let the bowl touch the water) on a low heat. 
  2. Add the vegan cream, almond butter, maple syrup, vanilla and pinch of salt and mix well until all combined into one smooth mixture. 
  3. Place this mixture in the freezer for a few hours until it hardens, or leave it in the fridge overnight. 
  4. Using a teaspoon, scoop out the hardened mixture and roll into a ball using your hands. 
  5. Place one whole hazelnut into the middle of the ball and roll in your hands again to make sure it’s completely covered. 
  6. Roll each truffle on a plate of finely chopped hazelnuts until it’s completely coated.
  7. Repeat until the mixture is finished and then place the truffles in the freezer for 15 minutes 
  8. Meanwhile, melt the other 100g of chocolate with the coconut oil (over a pan of water or in the microwave on a low heat), to use for the chocolate shell. 
  9. Remove the truffles from the freezer and use a toothpick or skewer to dip each ball into the melted chocolate. 
  10. Leave on a wire rack with a tray underneath to catch any chocolate drips until the chocolate has hardened. 
  11. Store in a sealed container in the fridge and enjoy!

Savoury Breakfast Bowl

INGREDIENTS (Serves 1) 

  • 120g kale 
  • 1 small sweet potato, cut into wedges 
  • 1 egg
  • ½ avocado 
  • ½ tsp paprika 
  • ¼ tsp garlic powder 
  • ½ lime, juiced
  • 1 tsp olive oil
  • Salt and pepper
  • Optional: a few spoonfuls of homemade or tinned baked beans

 

METHOD 

  1. Toss the sweet potato wedges with oil, garlic powder, paprika and salt and pepper. Place in a preheated oven (200 C)  for about 30 minutes or until they’re nice and soft. 
  2. Meanwhile, steam the kale for a few minutes then mix with lime juice, salt and pepper. 
  3. For the soft boiled egg, bring a saucepan of water to the boil, add the egg and set a timer for 5 minutes. Remove the egg from the pan and peel off the shell. 
  4. Assemble the bowl with the kale, sweet potato wedges, soft boiled egg, sliced avocado and optional beans. Add another sprinkling of black pepper/salt to the egg and avocado. 

Vegan Mince Pies

INGREDIENTS (Makes 12) 

  • 225g plain flour 
  • ¼ tsp salt 
  • 65g dairy free butter 
  • 60g coconut oil 
  • 1 tbsp icing sugar, plus extra for dusting 
  • 1 tbsp maple syrup
  • 2 tbsp dairy free milk 
  • 1 jar of mincemeat (411g) 

METHOD 

  1. Mix together the flour and the salt in a medium bowl. Add in the dairy free butter and coconut oil in cubes/chunks and rub them in with your fingers until the mixture is crumbly. 
  2. Mix in 1 tbsp of icing sugar and 1 tbsp of the dairy free milk and bring the dough together. 
  3. Knead the dough briefly in the bowl then cover and chill in the fridge for 20-30 minutes. Meanwhile, preheat your oven to 200 degrees C.
  4. Lightly dust your surface with flour and roll out your dough until it’s only a few millimeters thick. Cut out 12 circles (using an 8cm cutter) and place them in a greased tin. 
  5. Spoon 1 heaped tsp of mincemeat into each pastry case. 
  6. Reroll the remaining dough and cut out 12 more (slightly smaller) shapes of your choosing for the pastry lids then place these on top. 
  7. Mix together 1 tbsp of maple syrup and the remaining 1 tbsp of dairy free milk and use this to glaze the pastry. 
  8. Bake in the oven for 20 minutes until the pastry is golden brown. Leave them to cool in the tin for 5-10 minutes before removing them and letting them cool completely on a wire rack.

White Chocolate Cranberry Bread

INGREDIENTS 

  • 280g plain flour 
  • 1 ½ tsp of baking powder 
  • 1 tsp bicarbonate of soda 
  • ¼ tsp salt 
  • 115 g thick yoghurt (or dairy free version) 
  • 2 tbsp oil 
  • 155g caster sugar 
  • 120 mL milk of choice 
  • 1 tsp vanilla 
  • 100g cranberries
  • 140g white chocolate, chopped

METHOD 

  1. Preheat the oven to 180 C and line a loaf tin. Soak the cranberries in enough boiling water to cover them. 
  2. In a medium bowl, mix the yoghurt, oil and sugar together until it’s fully combined before adding in the milk and vanilla. Mix this well. 
  3. Sift the flour, baking powder, bicarbonate of soda and salt into the same bowl and gently fold it into the wet ingredients using a spatula until just combined. The batter should be thick. 
  4. Finally, drain the cranberries and fold them into the batter along with almost all of the white chocolate (save some to sprinkle on top) 
  5. Pour the batter into a lined loaf tin, sprinkle with the remaining white chocolate and bake in the oven for 40 minutes. Cover the loaf with foil and bake for a further 5 minutes before removing from the oven. Make sure a toothpick comes out clean. 
  6. Leave to cool before slicing. 

Loaded Veggie Sandwich

INGREDIENTS 

  • 2 slices of bread 
  • 1 small carrot, grated or julienned 
  • 1 salad tomato, thinly sliced
  • ¼ cucumber, thinly sliced lengthways
  • ½ avocado, thinly sliced 
  • ¼ red onion, thinly sliced 
  • Feta (or vegan alternative) 
  • Handful of lettuce 
  • Handful of rocket  
  • 1 tsp mustard 
  • 1 tsp mayo (or vegan mayo) 
  • Salt and pepper

METHOD 

  1. Lightly toast the bread and spread mustard on one piece and mayo on the other 
  2. Load up the sandwich starting with the lettuce followed by the tomato, cucumber, avocado, carrots, red onion, feta and rocket. 
  3. Season with salt and pepper and close the sandwich. 
  4. Cut in half and enjoy!

Chocolate Hazelnut Brownies

These brownies are a slightly healthier alternative but still fudgy and delicious! They’re also vegan AND gluten free. 

INGREDIENTS (Makes 9) 

  • 100g chocolate (save 50g to fold in at the end) 
  • 35g smooth peanut butter 
  • 45g oats 
  • 15g cocoa powder 
  • 1 tsp baking powder 
  • ¼ tsp salt 
  • 1 tin black beans, drained and rinsed 
  • 2 tsp vanilla essence 
  • 170 ml maple syrup 
  • 40g hazelnuts, chopped 

METHOD 

  1. Preheat the oven to 180 degrees C and line a small baking tin with baking paper 
  2. Melt together 50g of the chocolate and all of the peanut butter together in a microwave 
  3. In a high speed blender or a food processor, blend together the oats, cocoa powder, baking powder and salt until the oats turn into a fine powder 
  4. Add in the beans, vanilla, maple syrup and the chocolate peanut butter mixture
  5. Once the mixture is smooth, chop the leftover 50g of chocolate into chunks and fold those in 
  6. Transfer the batter into the lined baking dish and bake in the oven for 18 minutes
  7. Leave to cool before slicing into squares

Chocolate Salted Caramel Cookies

The perfect indulgent chocolatey treat!

INGREDIENTS (Makes 14 cookies) 

For the salted caramel: 

  • 200mL single cream (or alpro non-dairy single cream) 
  • 150g light brown sugar
  • 20g butter (or non-dairy alternative) 
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract 
  • ½ tsp sea salt

For the cookies:

  • 200g butter (or non-dairy alternative) 
  • 180g light brown sugar 
  • 60g granulated sugar 
  • 1 egg (or 2 tbsp flax + 2 tbsp water)
  • 1 tsp vanilla 
  • 240g plain flour 
  • 50g cocoa powder
  • 1 tsp baking powder 
  • ½ tsp bicarbonate of soda
  • ½ tsp salt 
  • 100g dark chocolate chunks or chips

 

METHOD 

  1. To make the caramel: add the single cream and sugar to a saucepan, mix and bring to a boil. Turn the heat down a simmer for 15 minutes until the mixture thickens and reduces slightly. Switch the heat off and add the butter, vanilla and salt. Transfer to a bowl and leave to cool. Once cool, freeze the caramel into 14 discs on a tray (about 2 tsps each), or use an ice tray for 2-3 hours. 
  2. For the cookies: Beat together the butter and sugar for 3-5 minutes in a stand mixer until pale and fluffy. Add in the egg/flax egg and vanilla and beat for a further minute. 
  3. In a separate bowl, sift together the flour, cocoa powder, baking powder, bicarbonate of soda and salt. 
  4. With the mixer on a slow speed, slowly add in the dry ingredients until just combined. Don’t overmix! 
  5. Fold in the chocolate chunks (reserve a few for topping)
  6. Using an ice cream scoop, portion out 14 balls of cookie dough onto a lined baking tray. Remove the hardened caramel from the freezer. 
  7. Take a ball of cookie dough and make a well in the middle with your thumb for the caramel. Place the caramel inside and tuck the sides over so all the caramel is covered. Stud with a few extra chocolate chips. Repeat for the rest of the cookies. 
  8. Place the filled cookie dough balls into the fridge for 30 minutes and preheat your oven to 170 degrees C. 
  9. Bake the cookies for 13 minutes and then try and leave to cool completely before tucking in.