The Complete Guide to Essential Vitamins

What we eat directly contributes to our health. We know this, yet many of us choose foods based on their convenience rather than their health benefits. The problem with these processed foods is that many lack or only contain small amounts of the vitamins that we need to maintain a healthy body.

Vitamins are micronutrients found in food and supplements that are essential for good health. They cannot be synthesized in your body, and a vitamin deficiency can lead to illness and even death. Luckily, given the availability of the wide range of food options most citizens of developed countries enjoy today, it's pretty easy to get all the vitamins you need from food. No one vitamin is more vital than another––you need adequate amounts of all 13 essential vitamins to feel your best.

It is best to get sufficient amounts of vitamins from your food. Dr. Katrina Gallagher, a nutritionist based at Balmoral Chiropractic in Singapore, notes, "While fortified foods are likely to contain synthetic forms of vitamins and minerals, it is best to obtain nutrients naturally from food, as the body can regulate conversion to other nutrients, enzymes, hormones, etc. The body can better absorb naturally-occurring nutrients...Eating [as opposed to ingesting a supplement] is always cheaper because it also keeps you satiated, compared to dropping dollars on popping pills. Therefore, grass-fed beef and dairy, wild-caught salmon, pastured eggs, organic leafy greens and berries, raw nuts and seeds give you a better bang for your buck."

That said, you may find it difficult to get your daily recommended allowance of certain vitamins, especially if you have special dietary needs (either by choice or due to a health issue) through food alone. If you do choose to use synthesized vitamins to supplement your diet, make sure you are aware of how much of each vitamin you're getting per day. Some vitamins (A, K, E, and D) are fat-soluble, meaning they will be stored in the liver and fatty tissue until the body needs them. You can get too much of a good thing with fat-soluble vitamins; ingesting more than what your body needs can cause health problems. Keep in mind it's extremely rare to get too much of any one vitamin solely through food, however. Supplements are where you can get into trouble. Dr. Gallagher warns that "vitamin A from food sources is converted from carotenoids to retinol in the gut, at a rate that is appropriate for the body; supplementation, however, bypasses the body's intelligent control and can lead to toxicity." Talk with your doctor before taking any supplements.

Here's what you need to know about the 13 essential vitamins :

Vitamin A is crucial for good bone health and vision. It promotes cell growth, contributing to healthy skin, hair, nails, and teeth, and also prevents nyctalopia, or "night blindness" (trouble seeing in dim light.)

Where to find it: Beef liver, salmon, carrots, sweet potato, kale, spinach, apricots, red peppers

Vitamin B6 (pyridoxine)

Vitamin B6 helps to create red blood cells and maintain peak cognitive function. It's also needed to metabolize carbohydrates and proteins for energy properly. It is water-soluble, meaning the body excretes any excess through urine.

Where to find it: Fish (tuna and salmon), beef liver, chicken, fortified breakfast cereals

Vitamin B12 (cobalamin)

Vitamin B12 plays a role similar to that of the other B vitamins. It enables the body to produce red blood cells and myelin for the nerve fibers comprising the central nervous system.

Where to find it:Any animal product, fortified foods like breakfast cereal, soy milk, and tofu

Vitamin C

Vitamin C is an antioxidant––meaning it prevents or delays cellular damage––that helps the body heal wounds, absorb iron, and maintain the immune system. This is why people get so psyched about drinking orange juice when they're sick. It's also crucial for maintaining healthy teeth and gums.

Where to find it: Guava, red peppers, kiwifruit, strawberries, oranges, papaya

Vitamin D

Vtiamin D helps the body absorb calcium, which is necessary for strong teeth and bones. While you can get it from food and supplements, the body produces it in the skin after 10-15 minutes of sun exposure. This means people in certain climates may need supplements during the winter months.

Where to find it: Fortified milk, fortified soy, fatty fish, cod liver oil

Vitamin E

Vitamin E is another antioxidant; it helps fight cellular decay, repairs damaged skin, and supports muscle mass.

Where to find it:Eggs, sunflower seeds, almonds, hazelnuts

Vitamin K

Vitamin K helps your blood coagulate; without it, your body would not be able to stop bleeding. It also helps with calcium absorption.

Where to find it: Leafy greens (kale, spinach, collards), brussel sprouts, broccoli

Vitamin B7 (biotin)

Vitamin B7 is used to metabolize carbohydrates and proteins and convert them into energy for the body. It also has a hand in creating hormones and cholesterol, and there is evidence to support the claim that it helps thicken hair and nails.

Where to find it: Eggs yolks, almonds, legumes, soybeans

Vitamin B3 (niacin)

Vitamin B3 assists with sustaining healthy skin and nerves, metabolizing food for energy, and can lower cholesterol in large doses.

Where to find it: Poultry, seafood (tuna, salmon, mackerel), lean meat, milk, eggs

B9 (folate/folic acid)

B9 is especially important for pregnant women because it aids the body in producing DNA and RNA, which form our genetic makeup. This is not to say it's only essential for pregnant women, as it also works in conjunction with the other B vitamins to create red blood cells, and a folate deficiency puts you at a higher risk for multiple cancers.

Where to find it: Liver, pulses (lentils, chickpeas, dry peas, and beans), spinach, broccoli

B5 (pantothenic acid)

B5 helps metabolize food, like all the B vitamins. It also synthesizes cholesterol, antibodies, hemoglobin, and hormones.

Where to find it: In virtually all foods, but liver, fish, shellfish, eggs, avocados are especially robust sources

B2 (riboflavin)

B2 assists the other eight B vitamins, primarily with metabolizing food for body growth and maintaining healthy skin.

Where to find it:Fortified cereals and grains, liver, cuttlefish (squid and octopus)

B1 (thiamine)

B1 is necessary for converting carbohydrates into energy, protecting the nervous system, and proper digestion.

Where to find it: Pork, fortified cereals, nuts and seeds, legumes

You'll notice that a few foods are excellent sources of multiple vitamins. These superfoods punch above their weight when it comes to nutrition, delivering a myriad of nutrients in one tasty package. Such superfoods include red peppers, kale, salmon, sweet potatoes, and eggs. Try to eat at least one of these foods every day. If you like eggs, sprinkle kale and red peppers into a breakfast frittata. Or try a vegetarian wrap made with sweet potatoes and red pepper hummus.

Eating healthy shouldn't be a secondary consideration when choosing how to fuel your body. Filling your plate with foods rich in vitamins and nutrients means you'll feel more energized and on point in your daily life.

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