What Do Vitamins Do and Which Do You Actually Need?
Our need for vitamins is real — but the need to supplement isn’t always. See which vitamin does what, and when you need to get more.
By Marge Perry
A is for Abundance
You can get plenty of vitamin A from foods: fatty fish, dairy, eggs, fruits, vegetables, and fortified breakfast cereals. In supplements, though, it comes in different forms. One of them, retinol, can be harmful if you get too much. That's why, if you need a supplement, choose multivitamins. They typically provide vitamin A in the form of beta-carotene, which our bodies safely convert to retinol.
There are eight B vitamins, which together are called the B complex. And "complex" is right! While Bs in general help convert food into energy, each one has its own role and function. You need different amounts of each, too. You can get B vitamins from meat, fish, eggs, dairy, vegetables, beans, and fortified cereals.
What do kiwifruit and red bell peppers have in common? Both are better sources of vitamin C than oranges.
Vitamin D is found in only a smattering of foods, and rarely in meaningful amounts. Fortified milk and breakfast cereals are among the best dietary sources, and salmon and mushrooms are decent natural sources. But it's called the "sunshine" vitamin for a reason: Most people get the elusive nutrient from sun exposure. It's best known for its essential role in bone health. Consider a supplement with vitamin D3 in the wintertime when sunshine is limited—especially if you live north of Oklahoma.
Most Americans don't get enough vitamin E. But it's easily found in seeds, nuts, and oils. Vitamin E keeps your immune system in tip-top shape, and it acts as an antioxidant that protects you from damaging pollutants and UV rays. Look for a multivitamin with less than 1,500 IU of natural or 1,100 IU of synthetic vitamin E.
K is for Clotting
When vitamin K was first discovered, Germans called it Koagulationsvitamin—which tells you exactly what it does best: enable blood clotting or coagulation. In fact, vitamin K is used medicinally in adults who have taken too much blood-thinning medication, such as warfarin, for heart disease. Vitamin K may also help strengthen bones in older women with osteoporosis.
How Much You Really Need
Just because a little is good for you doesn't mean a lot is better. If you're generally in good health, chances are you can easily get the vitamins you need through your diet. Here are the recommended daily amounts* and how to get them:
5,000 IU Vitamin A
B Vitamin Breakdown
1.1 mcg Riboflavin (B₂) A cup of milk or yogurt will meet one-third of your needs, while 3 ounces of beef delivers a quarter of the daily value.
14 mcg Niacin (B₃) A cup of canned tuna has 100 percent of the daily value; the same amount of cooked mushrooms provides one-third. One small chicken breast delivers more than half of your daily need.
5 mg Pantothenic Acid (B₅) Beef liver contains 5.6mg in just 3 ounces, but if you're not a fan, try ½ cup of mushrooms (2.6mg), half an avocado (1mg), or a cup of milk (0.9mg).
1.3 mg B₆ (a group of six compounds) A cup of canned chickpeas provides half of your B₆ needs. A 3-ounce portion of tuna gets you nearly half, and a similarly sized chicken breast provides a quarter.
30 mcg Biotin (B₇) One cooked egg has 10mcg; a 3-ounce pork chop or hamburger has about 4mcg.
2.4 mcg B₁2 (Cobalamin) A small helping of clams will provide more than 1,000 percent of your need for B₁2. And a small burger patty will get you just north of 2mcg. B₁2 is found naturally only in animal products, but vegetarians can get 100 percent of their daily value from fortified breakfast cereals.
600 IU Vitamin D A typical serving of salmon has about 400-600 IU. Milk is fortified with vitamin D to provide about 100 IU per cup.
15 mg Vitamin E A tablespoon of sunflower oil supplies 5.9mg. Snack on 2 tablespoons almonds to get nearly 5mg, or an avocado for about 2.7mg.
*Based on National Institutes of Health guidelines for adult nonpregnant women.
This article originally appeared in the December/January 2019 issue of Allrecipes Magazine.