Just why are vitamins essential to good health?
Believe it or not, our bodies need 13 different types of vitamins daily in order to thrive and function properly. These vitamins work inside the body to help with cell development, growth, and overall function.
This is why doctors stress the importance of a healthy, well-balanced diet. It’s also another reason to keep up with your annual blood work; it can indicate where you’re severely lacking in necessary vitamins and minerals. As we go into the fall season, if you’re planning to see your doc for your flu shot, you might as well follow-up on your blood work needs, too.
If you need a refresher on the vitamins you need to stay well all year round, we’ve got you covered. Below, we dive into the 13 different vitamins your body needs, which food sources are the best to consume for each, and whether your daily multi-vitamin is necessary.
Why are Vitamins Essential to Good Health?
Vitamins are what keep your body on track for growing and functioning the way it should. Each vitamin plays a role in body functions. Some help prevent infections, others give you energy from food, or even help your blood properly clot.
That’s why a varied diet is important to good health. Nutrient needs do vary across life stages, which is why speaking to a physician — or better yet, a nutritionist — about appropriate vitamin and mineral intake can help individuals make the right food choices and increase specific vitamin-rich foods as needed.
Check out the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans here.
The 13 Essential Vitamins You Need to Stay Healthy
As noted above, everyone needs to eat a variety of foods — like dark leafy greens and whole grains — to maintain essential vitamins within the body and to keep the body functioning appropriately.
So, the question of the day is: Are you getting enough of the 13 essential vitamins a healthy body needs?
If you’re not sure, keep a detailed food diary for a week or two. See where you could improve your vitamin intake for improved health. Then, make the changes to incorporate more of the missing food groups with those vitamins.
Need proof to eat more produce?
Here’s what each vitamin does and the best foods to eat to make sure your body gets enough of each one:
Why you need it: Vitamin A’s superpower is helping your immune system fight illness. It also helps your kidneys, lungs, heart, and other organs work appropriately. How much you need depends on your sex and age.
Foods with vitamin A:
- Fortified breakfast cereals
Vitamin A deficiency is quite rare, but certain individuals may have a hard time absorbing it or getting enough. That includes pregnant women and those with cystic fibrosis. Researchers have found those who eat a lot of beta-carotene rich foods may have a lower risk of lung cancer and prostate cancer.
Why you need it: Want strong bones, teeth, and muscles? Vitamin D can help with all of that. Its job is to regulate phosphate and calcium in the body. Too little vitamin D can cause bone pain and other skeletal issues.
Foods with vitamin D:
- Fatty fish
- Egg yolks
- Cod liver oil
- Fortified foods (milk, juice, cereal, etc.)
Not only does vitamin D keep your teeth and bones healthy, but it also works to support your brain, immune, and nervous health system. Calcium needs vary by age, but adults between the ages of 19 and 50 need around 2,500 mg daily.
Why you need it: Another necessary vitamin for organ function, vitamin E is a fat-soluble nutrient found in a lot of foods. It’s also known to keep the skin and eyes healthy along with fighting infections. You need about 15 milligrams daily.
Foods with vitamin E:
- Sunflower seeds
- Fortified breakfast cereals
Vitamin E deficiencies aren’t common. Those who have trouble absorbing it usually have gastrointestinal issues. Deficiency may lead to muscle weakness, damaged eye retina, and loss of balance. Want to keep your body strong enough to fight off infections? Vitamin E can help, especially since it contains an antioxidant called alpha-Tocopherol.
Why you need it: This fat-soluble vitamin is responsible for regulating blood calcium levels, bone metabolism, and plays a role in blood clotting. Certain evidence has also pointed to the fact that this vitamin may also keep bones healthy.
Foods with vitamin K:
- Raw spinach
Women should aim for 90 micrograms (mcg) daily and men should have 120 mcg. Research shows a correlation between osteoporosis and low vitamin K intake. The vitamin is also thought to lower blood pressure by preventing mineralization in the arteries.
Why you need it: Perhaps the most well-known vitamin and for good reason — it is a must for repairing all of the body’s tissues. It also is responsible for iron absorption, wound healing, and the formation of collagen.
Foods with vitamin C:
- Acerola cherries
- Sweet yellow peppers
Most people won’t deal with a vitamin C deficiency, but those who don’t eat enough fruits and veggies are at risk for a condition known as scurvy. Bleeding gums, easy bruising, fatigue, and rash are symptoms of scurvy.
Vitamin B1 (Thiamine)
Why you need it: In order to keep your GI tract moving, you need thiamine. It also helps with proper nerve function. Women ages 19 and older need 1.1 mg daily while men require 1.2 mg daily.
Foods with vitamin B1:
- Fortified cereals
Low levels of thiamine cause obvious symptoms if your body absorbs too little or eliminates too much of it. You may experience heart issues, memory loss, confusion, weight loss, and muscle weakness. If you’re low in B1, it’s likely due to a diet too high in refined carbs like white flour and white sugar or excessive alcohol use.
Vitamin B2 (Riboflavin)
Why you need it: This vitamin is used immediately and not stored in the body, so it’s essential to get in your diet daily. It’s involved in energy production, cell growth, and the breakdown of medicines, fats, and steroids.
Foods with vitamin B2:
- Lean meat
- Fortified cereals
- Raw mushrooms
For men, the daily recommended dietary allowance is 1.3 mg and for women, it’s 1.1 mg daily. Thyroid disorders tend to increase the risk of deficiency. Symptoms include anemia, hair loss, sore throat, cracked lips, itchy red eyes, and sometimes cataracts. Pregnant women and vegans and vegetarians are also at a higher risk of deficiency.
Vitamin B3 (Niacin)
Why you need it: It helps the body convert nutrients into energy while also creating and repairing DNA and cholesterol and fats.
Foods with vitamin B3:
- Brown rice
- Fortified cereals and breads
The upper limit for vitamin B3 is 35 milligrams daily. Most people don’t have issues with deficiency due to the vitamin being widely available in many foods. A severe deficiency would include fatigue, hallucinations, headache, depression, and memory loss.
Why you need it: This vitamin makes coenzyme A, which helps enzymes build and breaks down fatty acids. It is also responsible for building fats.
Foods with vitamin B5:
- Organ meats
- Chicken breast
Luckily, this vitamin is found in living cells, so it’s in almost all plant and animal foods, making it easier to eat. Deficiency is rare, but it may include issues like nausea, vomiting, muscle cramps, disturbed sleep, irritability, and fatigue.
Why you need it: Naturally found in foods and supplements, this vitamin helps more than 100 enzymes with various bodily functions including supporting brain health and immune function. Adults 50 and younger need 1.3 milligrams. After age 50, the daily recommendation is 1.5 milligrams for women and 1.7 milligrams for men.
Foods with vitamin B6:
- Beef liver
Those with certain health conditions may have a difficult time absorbing vitamin B6. That includes those dealing with kidney disease, alcoholism, Crohn’s disease, and autoimmune inflammatory disorders as well. A deficiency usually occurs in tandem with other B vitamins being low and may not show any symptoms unless it’s a long-term deficiency. In that case, you may experience skin issues, confusion, depression, and lowered immunity, according to Harvard’s School of Public Health.
Vitamin B7 (Biotin)
Why you need it: This water-soluble vitamin helps enzymes break down fats, proteins, and carbs in food.
Foods with vitamin B7:
- Beef liver
Biotin deficiencies aren’t common, but alcoholism can reduce your ability to absorb this vitamin. Thinning hair, brittle nails, and a scaly skin rash around your nose, eyes, and mouth indicate deficiencies.
Vitamin B9 (Folic Acid)
Why you need it: Vitamin B9 is one of the eight essential B vitamins the body needs to convert food into glucose. It’s also essential for producing healthy red blood cells and is a must have during rapid growth periods like pregnancy.
Foods with vitamin B9:
- Sunflower seeds
- Dark leafy greens (asparagus, broccoli, spinach)
You can experience a folic acid deficiency if you’re pregnant, an alcoholic, or have digestive disorders like Celiac disease that cause malabsorption. Signs of missing too much B9 include mouth sores, pale skin, shortness of breath, irregular heartbeat, and megaloblastic anemia.
Why you need it: Your body uses it on a daily basis, so you’ll also need to consume it regularly as the body doesn’t store it. It helps create red blood cells and keeps nerve cells healthy.
Foods with vitamin B12:
- Dairy products
The body doesn’t automatically make B12, which is why eating the appropriate foods or taking a supplement is important. As we age, it can be harder for the body to absorb this vitamin. Additionally, if you’re a vegan, an alcoholic, suffer from certain immune disorders (like lupus), or take heartburn medications, your B12 absorption may be impacted. Be sure to talk to your doctor or nutritionist about the best ways to absorb this essential vitamin.
Is There Any Benefit to Buying Multivitamins?
If you consider the editorial by Annals of Internal Medicine and the three multivitamin studies examined by Johns Hopkins Medicine researchers, the answer is no.
Despite ongoing research that many supplements aren’t necessary, around half of Americans take a vitamin or mineral supplement daily, according to one Johns Hopkins article.
Most experts say if you eat a well-balanced enough diet with plenty of veggies, fruits, whole grains, and low-fat dairy products, you get all the vitamins and minerals you need.
Find Vitamins Through Food vs Supplements
When possible, getting your essential vitamins and minerals through food is the best option. Doing so allows you to enjoy a variety of food options and delight in the discovery of new recipes, food textures, and cultural cuisines.
Most medical professionals recommend getting your vitamins from food sources as much as possible, but sometimes chronic conditions and pregnancy may require additional supplementation.
You’ll also find food provides more fiber and antioxidant benefits than a regular supplement does. Plus, most foods taste better than any supplement you can find. It’s also easier on the body to absorb nutrients and vitamins from food rather than a capsule or pill.
Note: None of us are perfect, so giving yourself some grace is important when it comes to your diet. Sometimes, you may find that you can’t always meet nutrient needs through foods or beverages. Traveling extensively, for example, can sometimes challenge even the best eating habits. In those cases, using a nutrient-dense supplement or fortified foods can be helpful.
Still not sure how your diet should stack up? Ask for a referral to a nutritionist or dietician to get a customized diet plan that can help you better plan your meals for optimal nutrition.
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