In my last few posts, I mentioned vitamins as a positive attribute of various foods (see here and here). This post (and a future post on minerals) is meant to provide a bit of context around vitamins, why they are important, and common sources within our diets.
In addition to carbohydrates, protein, fat and fiber, vitamins are essential nutrients that our bodies need to sustain life. Vitamins are found in the foods we consume; our bodies cannot make them on their own. Therefore, eating a wide variety of "nutrient dense" foods is critical for ensuring we meet our physical and mental health needs. When we do not consume enough nutrient-dense foods, we run the risk of becoming “insufficient” or “deficient” in vitamins and minerals, which can cause negative internal and external side effects.
Our bodies use vitamins for a variety of biological processes, including growth, digestion and nerve function, which help us maintain optimal wellness and reduce the risk of developing chronic diseases like heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and cancer. There are 13 vitamins that our bodies absolutely require, which are discussed below.
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA) (review them here), provide detailed, science-based advice to promote health and reduce the risk of chronic disease. The DGA warns that there are numerous nutrients, including vitamins, for which low dietary intake may be cause for concern.
More isn't always better
Keep in mind that more is not necessarily better when it comes to vitamins and minerals. While some vitamins can be excreted (water-soluble vitamins: Vitamin C and B vitamins), others are stored in our bodies and can be toxic in large doses (Vitamin A, D, E, and K).
Depending on your age, stage of life, sex, and health (with or without medical conditions), you may need different amounts of each vitamin. The information below is intended for generally healthy adults. Consult your doctor for personalized recommendations based on micronutrient testing.
Upcoming Post: Multivitamins: Do I need one?
Why We Need It: Essential for optimal eye, skin, and immune health, as well as functioning of the heart, lungs, kidneys and other organs. Vitamin A helps promote normal bone development and tooth formation and promotes normal growth, development, and reproduction.
Where To Get It: Meat, (especially organ meats) poultry, fish (fish oil), eggs, and dairy, fruits and vegetables, especially those with bright/dark pigments (dark leafy greens, cantaloupe, carrots, winter squash, sweet potatoes, apricots, spinach)
Amount Needed Daily: 5,000 IU
aka: the B Complex
Why We Need It: B vitamins (there are 8!) play an essential role in cell metabolism and aid energy production. Their collective effects are critical to brain function, energy production, neurotransmitter production, and cell signalling.
Plays an important role in energy metabolism and absorption, particularly in the heart, muscles, and nervous system.
Where To Get It: Organ meats, legumes, whole grains, potatoes, asparagus, sunflower seeds, flaxseeds, brussel sprouts, green peas, spinach
Amount Needed Daily: 1.5 mg
Necessary for energy production, metabolism, and critical for production and growth of red blood cells.
Where To Get It: Milk and other dairy products, organ meats, leafy greens, eggs, enriched cereals
Amount Needed Daily: 1.7 mg
A critical vitamin in metabolism of carbohydrates, protein and fats. Niacin is essential for skin, hair and eye health, and plays an important role in proper nervous system functions. Necessary in digestion and cholesterol production.
Where To Get It: Fish, liver, poultry, whole grains, peanuts, milk, legumes, enriched grains
Amount Needed Daily: 20 mg
B5- Pantothenic Acid:
A precursor of coenzyme A - which is essential to many biochemical reactions. Required for energy production, and dietary fat metabolism.
Where To Get It: Eggs, salmon, mushrooms, avocado, sweet potatoes, lentils
Amount Needed Daily: 10 mg
Essential for ed blood cell production, and DNA formation. Also necessary for metabolism of carbohydrates, protein and fat, brain and nervous system processes, and liver health. B-6 also plays an important role in immune health.
Where To Get It: Meat (beef, liver), Poultry, Fish/Seafood, Eggs, Milk, Spinach, Cabbage, Bell Peppers, Cauliflower oatmeal, legumes
Amount Needed Daily: 2 mg
Plays an important role in blood sugar maintenance, and skin, nail, and hair health.
Where To Get It: Tomatoes, mushrooms, peanuts, egg yolk, sweet potato, onions, almonds, banana, grapefruit, tomato, watermelon, strawberries, milk
Amount Needed Daily: 300 mcg.
B9- Folate/Folic Acid:
Necessary for optimal brain and nervous system health, cardiovascular support, red blood cell production, reproductive health, and nervous system development during pregnancy.
Where To Get It: Green leafy vegetables, lentils, asparagus, broccoli, beets, beans, fish, lean beef, organ meats, eggs (supplementation is necessary during pregnancy to prevent neural tube defects)
Amount Needed Daily: 400 mcg.
Critical for energy metabolism, cardiovascular support, red blood cell production, DNA production, brain and nervous system health.
Where To Get It: Animal products: liver, beef, poultry, tuna, scallops, shrimp, dairy foods, eggs, milk, mushrooms fortified Nutritional Yeast (vegans and vegetarians should strongly consider supplementation; especially vegans)
Amount Needed Daily: 6 mcg
Why We Need It: Also known as Ascorbic Acid - a potent antioxidant that protects cells against free radical damage, promotes bone and teeth health, collagen and connective tissue production/maintenance, healthy gums, neurotransmitter production, wound healing, and immune function.
Where To Get It: Fruits and vegetables, especially papaya, broccoli, bell peppers, brussel sprouts, citrus, strawberries, pineapple, kiwi, cauliflower, leafy greens (such as kale, mustard greens, chard).
Did you know: bell peppers and broccoli have more vitamin C than strawberries or citrus!
Amount Needed Daily: 60 mg
Why We Need It: Known as the "sunshine" vitamin, vitamin D is essential for normal growth and development, blood sugar regulation, calcium balance, immunity, brain health, and is critical for formation and maintenance of bones and teeth.
Where To Get It: Egg (especially the yolk), salmon, tuna, sardines, cow's milk, mushrooms, sunlight, fortified cereals, dairy and juices
Amount Needed Daily: 400 IU
A Nutrient of Concern for most Americans
Why We Need It: A strong antioxidant, protects tissues and cells from free radical damage aiding in the prevention of heart disease, cancer, and cognitive decline. Important in the formation of blood vessels
Where To Get It: Vegetable oils (olive, canola, avocado), egg yolks, nuts and seeds, green leafy vegetables, avocado, asparagus, mustard greens, fortified cereals and juices
Amount Needed Daily: 30 IU
Why We Need It: Necessary for blood clotting, and important for optimal bone health. Vitamin K is also necessary as a catalyst for many metabolic processes.
Where To Get It: Natto, kale, collards spinach, mustard greens, broccoli, brussel sprouts, swiss chard, kiwi, blueberries, prunes, grapes, soybeans, miso
Amount Needed Daily: 80 mcg
Eating a balanced variety of nutrient-dense foods within all food groups: whole grains, fruits and vegetables (the rainbow!), lean meats and dairy will ensure micronutrient needs are met.
Work with your doctor as needed to test your micronutrient levels. Contact a Registered Dietitian for personalized nutrition advice regarding dietary intake and meeting your wellness goals.