Welcome to Nutrishative’s vitamin guide! If you’re searching for a basic understanding of what vitamins are and what vitamins do in your body, you have come to the perfect place!
What are Vitamins?
Vitamins are naturally-occurring molecules found in food that have structural and hormonal functions in our body.
They are vital to your body’s health, but your body can’t make them itself. Rather, you have to consume them in the foods you eat each day.
Read More: Powerhouse Fruits and Vegetables
The known vitamins are: vitamins A, C, D, E, K, and the B vitamins (thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, pantothenic acid, biotin, vitamin B6, vitamin B12, and folate).
More vitamins may exist. We just don’t know about them yet.
What are the Two Classes of Vitamins?
The 13 known vitamins can be classified into two groups: water-soluble and fat-soluble.
Fat-soluble vitamins are only really absorbed from your food if they are in your intestine at the same time as some form of fat. They are transported in this fat from your food through your lymph to where your body needs them.
Fat-soluble vitamins are stored in your fat tissue. This means that vitamin poses a high risk of toxicity, especially when you are taking supplements. Your body can simply store them too well, allowing them to, potentially, build up to toxic levels.
Fat-soluble vitamins: vitamins A, D, E, and K
Water-soluble vitamins do not need fat to be absorbed by your body. Once absorbed, water-soluble vitamins travel via your bloodstream (often carried by specially made transport proteins) to where your body needs them.
Water-soluble vitamins are not stored. Your body either immediately uses them or excretes them. This makes overdosing with water-soluble vitamins essentially impossible.
Water-soluble vitamins: all the B vitamins and vitamin C
How Much of Each Vitamin Do I Need?
Depending on who you ask, nutrient requirements can vary. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA) provides nutrient-rich food and drink recommendations for Americans with the goal to promote overall health, prevent chronic disease, and help people maintain a healthy weight.
These guidelines are based on the average American so they do not perfectly align with each individual’s needs.
Additionally, nutrition throughout one’s lifespan changes based on age, sex, activity level, and disease states. So, it is important to note that nutrition is individualized.
Nevertheless, the government guidelines offer a useful starting point for gauging whether or not you are getting enough of a given vitamin. They are also useful for tracking which vitamins Americans, in general, struggle to get enough of.
For example, these guidelines allow researchers to create diagrams like Figure 1. This bar diagram shows the percent of the population that do not meet the Estimated Adequate Requirement (EAR) for each vitamin (and some essential minerals, which aren’t really important for us here).
Look at how many people fail to get enough vitamin D and vitamin E each day! Well over 90%!
Such statistics can tip you off to vitamins that you likely need to be paying attention to in your own diet.
Figure 1: The Percent of the Population Falling Below the EAR for Micronutrients
Source: What We Eat in America, NHANES 2007-2010
Pros and Cons of Vitamin Supplements
Ideally, you should get all the vitamins you need from whole, real foods.
Of course, that is not always entirely practical or possible. There are times when supplementation may be necessary, either long or short-term.
For example, some people are born with genetic disorders that prevent their body from absorbing fat properly. This, naturally, decreases their ability to absorb fat-soluble vitamins, putting them at high risk for deficiencies. and therefore, supplementation would be beneficial.
Short-term illnesses, such as GI infections, or periods of extreme vitamin requirements, such as pregnancy or nursing, can also sometimes require vitamin supplements to make sure an individual’s body is getting all the vitamins they need.
Unfortunately, supplementing with vitamins comes with a bit of risk. The FDA does not regulate supplements. This means that a supplement can claim it contains vitamins even if it doesn’t.
It is best to do research on sites from testing companies like Consumerlabs or LabDoor before buying a supplement. These independent companies test supplements and rank them by quality so that you can be sure you are buying the vitamin you are looking for.
Vitamin Guide Chart: Health Benefits and Deficiency Symptoms
Okay, so you need to get adequate amounts of 13 vitamins each day because they are important for your health!
What, exactly do they do for your health? And what, exactly, might you experience if you don’t get enough of a given vitamin?
I am so glad you asked!
Table 1 summarizes the role of each vitamin in your body and the symptoms you would experience if you were to develop a deficiency.
Table 1: The Functions of Vitamins and Deficiency Symptoms
|Vitamin||Function in the Body||Deficiency Symptoms|
|Cell growth, cell and tissue differentiation, vision, development, overall function of the immune system, and survival.||Acne, anemia, acute promyelocytic leukemia (cancer of blood and bone marrow, treatment), sunburn, dry eyes and eye disorders|
Vitamin C (ascorbic acid)
|Growth and repair of tissues, collagen formation, helps absorb iron, and acts as an antioxidant.||Scurvy|
||Helps the body absorb and retain calcium and phosphorus, both of which are critical for building bone.||Kidney Disease, osteomalacia (bone softening in adults), rickets (bone weakening in children), thyroid complications|
||Antioxidant function, immune function, cell signaling, regulation of gene expression, and metabolism.||Vitamin E deficiency is rare|
|Helping protect bone strength and blood clotting.||Blood clotting issues and weakening bones|
|Many body functions, including nervous system and muscle function, the flow of electrolytes in and out of nerve and muscle cells, digestion, and carbohydrate metabolism.||Metabolic Diseases associated with genetic disorders|
|Functions as an antioxidant and helps deliver oxygen to cells.||Needed in small amounts; deficiencies are rare|
|Functions in sex and stress-related hormones in the adrenal glands and other parts of the body; helps improve circulation, and has been shown to suppress inflammation.||High Cholesterol, Pellagra|
|Aids the digestive tract, helps break down carbs.||Found in so many foods that deficiencies are rare.|
|Necessary for forming fatty acids and glucose, which are used as fuels by the body; also helps in the metabolism of amino acids and carbohydrates.||Found in so many foods that deficiencies are rare.|
||Helps make several neurotransmitters, needed for normal brain development and function, and helps the body make the hormones serotonin and norepinephrine, and melatonin.||Anemia|
|Maintains healthy nerve cells, and helps in the production of DNA and RNA, the body’s genetic material.||Megaloblastic anemia, nervous system dysfunction|
(Folate: naturally-occurring in foods, Folic acid: supplements)
|Aids production of DNA and RNA, the body’s genetic material, and is especially important when cells and tissues are growing rapidly, such as in infancy, childhood, and pregnancy; also works closely with vitamin B12 to help make red blood cells and help iron work properly in the body.||Anemia, heart disease, infertility|
Foods Rich in Vitamins
Here are the foods that offer the highest doses of each of the vitamins.
(Sources of Food comes from the University of Maryland, School of Medicine Medical Reference Guide Complementary and Alternative Medicine Guide)
Beef, calf, chicken liver, eggs, fish liver oils, dairy products including whole milk, whole milk yogurt, whole milk cottage cheese, and butter.
Oranges, green peppers, watermelon, papaya, grapefruit, cantaloupe, strawberries, kiwi, mango, broccoli, tomatoes, Brussel sprouts, cauliflower, cabbage, and citrus juices. Raw and cooked leafy greens (turnip greens, spinach), red and green peppers, canned and fresh tomatoes, potatoes, winter squash, raspberries, blueberries, and cranberries.
Brewer’s yeast, almonds, organ meats, whole grains, wheat germ, wild rice, mushrooms, soybeans, milk, yogurt, eggs, broccoli, Brussel sprouts, and spinach.
Cod liver, fatty fish including salmon, mackerel, tuna, sardines, herring, and eggs.
Beef liver, green tea, turnip greens, broccoli, kale, spinach, cabbage, asparagus, and dark green lettuce.
Beef, brewer’s yeast, legumes (beans, lentils), milk, nuts, oats, oranges, pork, rice, seeds, wheat, whole-grain cereals, and yeast.
Liver, eggs, nuts (almonds, hazelnuts, walnuts), sunflower seeds, dark green leafy vegetables (including spinach and kale), cereal grains, beets, collards, sweet potatoes, avocado, asparagus, and yams.
Brewer’s yeast, corn, cauliflower, kale, broccoli, tomatoes, avocado, legumes, lentils, egg yolks, beef organ meats, turkey, duck, chicken, milk, split peas, peanuts, soybeans, sweet potatoes, sunflower seeds, whole-grain breads and cereals, lobster, wheat germ, and salmon.
Beets, brewer’s yeast, beef liver, beef kidney, fish, salmon, swordfish, tuna, sunflower seeds, and peanuts.
Brewer’s yeast, cooked eggs (especially egg yolks), sardines, nuts (almonds, peanuts, pecans, walnuts) and nut butters, soybeans, other legumes (beans, blackeye peas), whole grains, cauliflower, bananas, and mushrooms.
Chicken, turkey, tuna, salmon, shrimp, beef liver, milk, cheese, lentils, beans, spinach, carrots, brown rice, bran, sunflower seeds, wheat germ, bananas, and whole grain flour.
Fish, shellfish, dairy products, organ meats (liver and kidney), eggs, beef, and pork.
Cereals, baked goods, leafy vegetables (spinach, broccoli, lettuce), okra, asparagus, fruits (bananas, melons, lemons), legumes, yeast, mushrooms, organ meat (beef liver, kidney), orange juice, and tomato juice.
Creating a Vitamin-Rich Diet
The best way to ensure you are getting enough vitamins in your diet is to eat a wide variety of nutrient-rich foods. Colorful foods, like fruits and vegetables, are chock-full of multiple vitamins.
For instance, one serving of spinach contains large doses 8 different vitamins, kale contains 9, and bananas have 3 out of the 13 vitamins.
Keep an eye on nutrition labels and opt for foods that have double-digit doses (% RDA) of vitamins. To understand more about reading a food label, the American Heart Association provides a straight-forward explanation.
Take Home Message
Vitamins are critical to manning overall health, fighting diseases, and maintaining a healthy weight.
It is best to consume a wide variety of real foods rather than relying on supplements alone to satisfy nutrient requirements. Nutrient-dense foods that have a high ratio of vitamins to energy density are your best sources.
Therefore, fruits and vegetables offer a variety of vitamins and overall health benefits to best fuel your body.
If you are unsure you are meeting your individual requirements, contact your doctor.