How to Get Vitamins in Your Diet: What to Eat and Why It Matters
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You probably remember your parents telling you to take your vitamins. But besides helping sailors avoid scurvy, what do vitamins do, anyways? And, as adults, do we still have to keep taking them?
Here’s the scoop: The body uses vitamins to convert energy from food into usable energy for the body. We also use them for tissue repair and cell development, So the short answer is that yes, they’re still important, even if you’re not a pirate. And because we don’t produce these vitamins naturally, getting the right balance is essential to keep us functioning at our full capacity.
WHAT VITAMINS DO I NEED?
There are 18 vitamins, 21 amino acids and 3 essential fatty acids that they body needs to ingest for healthy, normal functioning. Luckily, every nutrient we need is available in food. While these nutrients are available in multivitamins (shoutout to Flintstone gummies back in the day), your body can do the most with natural, unaltered versions rather than synthetics.
Here’s the short list of which ones are important to work into your diet; as a bonus, they’re included in many easy-to-find foods you may or may not already consume regularly. [Good news: this means you have permission to get creative and try some new things you wouldn’t normally make!]
Vitamin A plays a role in blood cell development, bone health and immunity. This nutrient helps to prevent blindness and promote vision health, and can act as a powerful antioxidant, making it a potentially potent cancer-fighter. Vitamin A also helps the body build soft tissue and maintain mucus membranes. We need between 700 and 900mcg daily. Find it in kale, eggs and orange-hued foods: carrots, squash, pumpkin, sweet potato, melon, mango, apricot and grapefruit.
VITAMINS B1, B2, B6 , B7 AND B12
B-vitamins are key for metabolic health – turning food energy into usable fuel – mood regulation, cell regeneration, immune system health, nerve health, hormone production and a plethora of other key functions in the body. These are most readily absorbed from food, in particular, eggs, seafood, chicken, fortified grain products, dairy, legumes and nuts.
Vitamin C is powerful antioxidant. It aids the body in the production of collagen, has been suggested to reduce risk for certain cancers and promote blood, skin, hair and joint health. While it has been implicated in improving immune health, Vitamin C will not cure or prevent a cold. It can help the body absorb nutrients but only if taken in small doses consistently throughout the day. Citrus, broccoli, kale, red peppers and Brussels sprouts are great food sources of this vitamin.
Vitamin D helps the body fight off infection, assists in nervous system function and promotes healthy bone growth. Vitamin D also helps the body use calcium, which can lower your risk for osteoporosis later in life.
We get the most out of Vitamin D in its natural form; that is, 20 minutes of exposure to sunshine a few times a week, which triggers the body to produce this nutrient. In addition, many grain and dairy products are fortified with this to ensure the majority of the population’s levels stay in a healthy range. Consider adding these foods, along with fortified soy products, mushrooms, eggs and fish into your diet.
Vitamin E protects fats in your body from damage, making it essentially a super-powered antioxidant. It contributes to muscle strength, nerve health and strong cellular walls (awesome). It’s found in fats and oils like olive oil, almonds, hazelnuts and avocado.
Often confused with potassium (a mineral, not a vitamin), Vitamin K is found in dark leafy greens and crucifers. Vitamin K is key for blood health: it promotes healthy clotting and wound healing, as well as healthy bone development. Surprisingly, butter from grass-fed, pasture-raised cows contains a significant amount of Vitamin K (put that on some broccoli for a double-whammy of K-goodness), but be aware that if you’re on blood thinners or birth control, too much Vitamin K could interrupt the work of your medications or cause clotting.
Sure, calcium supports strong bones and teeth but it’s also important for muscle function, blood and circulatory health, nervous system transmission and hormone production. You don’t have to drink milk to get this mineral; in addition to dairy products, calcium is also found in legumes, dark leafy greens and bone-in fish.
You’ve probably heard the most about folate in relation to pregnancy health and preventing neural tube defects in babies. Folic acid (also listed on labels as folate and folacin) is also an important player in cell growth throughout the body, pregnant or not. Many foods, including grain products, are fortified with this nutrient. It can also be found in orange juice, spinach, asparagus and legumes.
Often included in prenatal vitamins or sold as its own separate supplement, iron is a key ingredient in healthy red blood cells and an adequate amount in the body means cells receive the oxygen they need. Heme iron, from blood, is most easily absorbed by the body and can be ingested from meat, oysters and organ meats. Legumes, nuts, seeds, raisins and iron-rich dark green veggies are great non-meat options, which contain non-heme iron.
NOW YOU KNOW HOW TO GET VITAMINS IN YOUR DIET. BUT WHAT ABOUT SUPPLEMENTS?
If you consume a varied diet and pay moderate attention to your nutrient intake, you probably don’t need to supplement with additional vitamins–but the emphasis is on varied. Even if you’re getting your recommended doses of fruits and vegetables, just eating cauliflower and apples every day isn’t going to get all the good stuff in your diet.
To make the most of your food’s nutrients, seek out different shades of greens, purples, reds, yellows and oranges, in addition to more neutral-toned produce like mushrooms, onions and garlic to get the bulk of what your body needs each day.
Your individual needs might also vary, and the case for specific supplementation is something to discuss with your doctor. For instance, endurance athletes are at a greater risk for choline deficiency. It might be worth being tested if you’re worried your levels are out of balance.
Women who are pregnant or plan to become pregnant are advised to take a supplement with folic acid, iron, calcium and Vitamin D as an insurance policy: these nutrients can be easily depleted during pregnancy and are essential for mom and baby’s health.
Vegetarians and vegans who don’t eat a balanced diet complete with varied legumes, nuts, seeds and diverse produce should consider an iron supplement, especially if they exhibit symptoms of anemia.
If you have a digestive disorder that prevents you from properly absorbing nutrients from food, supplemental nutrition might also be a good idea. Check with your healthcare provider.
– Amy Height