Smorgasbord Health Column – Just Food For Health – Nutrients We Need – Vitamin A or Retinal and Beta Carotene.

health column final

It is two years since I posted the series on the nutrients we need in our daily diet to maintain our health.  Each week I will explore a different nutrient and and best sources to ensure that you receive sufficient amounts in your diet. I hope that even if you remember the series from two years ago that you will still find interesting.

I do take supplements but they should only be that… supplemental.. and not your main source of any particular nutrient.

The body has evolved over many thousands of years to process food precisely to extract the nutrients it contains. There is a delicate eco-system within our bodies that requires that precision when it comes to maintaining a healthy balance. The systems that process our food are unable to extract these essential nutrients from industrially produced foods, however many vitamins and minerals have been added during the production process.

When the body does not receive the nutrients in the right format, ill-health results including cancer, chronic auto-immune conditions such as arthritis, fertility issues and increased risk of infections.

As you will see from the article that I link to at the end of the post, a deficiency can lead to life altering conditions. In the case of too little Vitamin A this can be eye disease including blindness.

First a note about vitamins in general.


These include all the B vitamins, vitamin C as well as Folic Acid.  They are not easily stored in the body and are often lost in cooking or by being eliminated from the body.  This means that they must be consumed in constant daily amounts to prevent deficiencies.  In the case of Vitamin C this could lead to poor immune system function and if you are deficient in the B vitamins you will not be able to metabolise the fat, protein and carbohydrates that you eat.


These vitamins include A, D, E and K.  Because they are soluble in fat they tend to be stored in the body’s fat tissues, fat cells and liver.  This means that they should be supplemented with care if you are already taking in plenty on a daily basis in your diet.  In excess even supposedly beneficial nutrients can be toxic and this is why you always should adjust your diet first before taking in additional supplements.

Vitamin of the Week – Vitamin A or Retinal and Beta Carotene.

Vitamin A or Retinol was actually the first of the fat-soluble vitamins to be identified, in the States in 1913.  It is only found in animal sources but some plants contain compounds called carotenoids, which give fruit and vegetables their red, orange and yellow colours.  The body can convert some of these carotenoids including beta-carotene into Vitamin A.

What is Vitamin A essential for?

Vitamin A is essential for our healthy eyesight, especially at night, hence the name retinal from retina.  The retina contains rod cells and these contain pigments that can detect small amounts of light and therefore adapt the eye to low-light or night vision or are responsible for our day time vision. Vitamin A is particularly necessary for the synthesis of rhodopsin the photopigment involved in night vision.

Vitamin A also helps ensure that our cells reproduce normally.  It is necessary for the health of our skin, the mucus membranes in our respiratory system, digestive and urinary tracts.  Our bones and our soft tissues require Vitamin A as part of the complex nutrient cocktail that keeps them from disease.

For younger people, Vitamin A has a direct influence on their reproductive capabilities.  It has been shown to have an effect on the function and development of sperm, ovaries and the placenta.  The growth and normal development of the embryo and then the foetus depends on a good level of the vitamin in the diet.

Our immune system is our first line of defence and it requires a combination of anti-oxidants and nutrients to be robust enough to cope with the stress of modern life and disease. Vitamin A is vital for this protection system as it stimulates the function of white blood cells within the immune system, encourages the production of antibodies to fight infection as well as increase our anti viral abilities.

What are the best food sources of Vitamin A?

The most abundant source of the vitamin is found in liver, fish liver oils, butter, cheese, free range eggs and oily fish.

Beta carotene is the substance from plants that the body converts to Vitamin A and the best sources are carrots, sweet potatoes, green leafy vegetables, orange and red coloured vegetables, apricots, asparagus, broccoli, cantaloupe melon, cashews, nectarines, peaches, peppers and spinach.

Most of us are already including carrots and leafy green vegetables but recently I have been substituting sweet potato two or three times a week for my carrots. There is some interesting studies in the benefits of eating this slightly sweet vegetable, particularly to children.  I would also suspect that it would be beneficial for elderly people too especially those who are at risk of poor eye health.

My recommendation for a great source of Vitamin A.

The sweet potato only shares a name with the white variety that we normally eat as it is a root not a tuber. It is high in beta-carotene that is converted by the body into vitamin A and it also contains substantial amounts of Vitamin C, Folate, Vitamin B6, Calcium and Potassium.

Great for your eyes, skin, heart and low on the glycemic index helping to maintain healthy blood sugar levels.

The importance of sweet potatoes as a staple crop in countries where eye disease and blindness is far too common in children is seen in this article.

An estimated 43 million African children under the age of five are threatened by vitamin A deficiency, a condition causing blindness, disease and premature death. CIP scientists and extension workers promote the consumption of the orange-fleshed sweet potato (OFSP) varieties known to be high in beta carotene (a precursor to vitamin A) in a food based approach to combating vitamin A deficiency. The challenge is to breed OFSP varieties that meet consumer preferences and can compete with the traditional white- and yellow-fleshed varieties.

The rest of the article can be found here:

How I prepare sweet potato.

If I am going to mash the potato I do peel and then steam with a little water, seasoning and a knob of butter for 12 minutes and then mash with a little more butter. (beta carotene is absorbed better with a little fat.)

Alternatively I scrub the skins and prick the outside with the fork before baking in the oven for around 25 to 30 minutes.. Test with a fork.. Cut the potato in half and add a knob of butter and eat with a large salad for supper or with your main meal.

I enjoy fresh carrot and sweet potato soup.. Peel and chop into large chunks and steam with a little water. Blend with some butter, seasoning and half a cup of water.. When heated add a little milk to give a creamy consistency.

I suggest three servings a week added to your daily main meal or as a soup for a light lunch.

©Sally Cronin 2018

A bit about my nutritional background.

A little about me from a nutritional perspective. Although I write a lot of fiction, I actually wrote my first two books on health, the first one, Size Matters, a weight loss programme 20 years ago. I qualified as a nutritional therapist and practiced in Ireland and the UK as well as being a consultant for radio. My first centre was in Ireland, the Cronin Diet Advisory Centre and my second book, Just Food for Health was written as my client’s workbook. Here are my health books including a men’s health manual and my anti-aging book.

All available in Ebook from

And Amazon UK:

Comprehensive guide to the body, and the major organs and the nutrients needed to be healthy 360 pages, A4:

Thank you for dropping in and if you have any questions fire away.. If you would like to as a private question then my email is I am no longer in practice and only too pleased to help in any way I can. thanks Sally


15 thoughts on “Smorgasbord Health Column – Just Food For Health – Nutrients We Need – Vitamin A or Retinal and Beta Carotene.

  1. Pingback: Smorgasbord Health Column – Just Food For Health – Nutrients We Need – Vitamin A or Retinal and Beta Carotene. | Smorgasbord – Variety is the spice of life

  2. I love this column and appreciate your appreciation of sweet potatoes! I eat one three mornings each week along with some stuffed grape leaves for breakfast before I lead Music Together classes. I cook them using a microwave, however. Do you have opinions/research on the pros and cons of microwaving one’s food? I use glass or ceramic bowls with (supposedly) non-toxic glazes.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Will and glad you are a fan of sweet potatoes too. I use them as a mash, in soup and roast wedges.. fantastic things. I bought my first microwave back in 1976 for my catering business and it was one of the first in the UK.. I have been using one ever since and so 42 years. I only use ceramic or glass to reheat and cook my sweet potatoes that way. Beats watching a boiling pot.. I also use the water in the soups so nothing lost. thanks Sally


  3. Brilliant Sally -love sweet potatoes and now I know why! I use them a a topping on things like fish pie & cottage pie… 50% with potatoes and they make a brilliant soup with onion and butternut squash and flavoured with all spice( like a cross between cinnamon, ginger and nutmeg) P XX

    Liked by 1 person

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  5. Pingback: Smorgasbord Health Column – Just Food For Health – Nutrients we need – Vitamin A Deficiency and the Skin | Smorgasbord – Variety is the spice of life

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