by Melissa Chichester
An essential nutrient is one that your body needs to live but can’t make on its own – or your body can’t make enough of that nutrient on its own. They must come from food and are needed to promote good health.
There are 13 essential vitamins — vitamins A, C, D, E, K, and the B vitamins (thiamine, riboflavin, niacin, pantothenic acid, biotin, B6, B12, and folate). These vitamins are classified as either water- or fat-soluble. Vitamins A, D, E, and K are fat-soluble, meaning they are absorbed with the assistance of lipids through the intestines. They are stored in your body’s tissues.
The B-complex group and Vitamin C are all water-soluble, meaning they dissolve easily in water. They exit your body through urine and must be replenished daily.
Each of these vitamins has a different job and can be found in a variety of foods. The best way to receive these nutrients is by eating a nutritious diet. However, they can also be found in many multivitamins.
So what do these 13 essential vitamins do? Learn more about each one below.
Vitamin A is best known for maintaining eye health.* It also contributes to immune system health and helps maintain healthy skin.* Food sources of Vitamin A include foods like carrots, pumpkin, sweet potatoes, and squash.
Food color clue: Orange
You’re probably already good friends with Vitamin C! This vitamin supports immune health and provides antioxidant support.* It is mostly found in citrus fruits such as lemons and oranges. However, it is also found in leafy greens and green vegetables such as broccoli. Your body cannot store Vitamin C, so it’s important to consume it daily through food and supplements.
Food color clues: Orange, yellow, and green
Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin that supports strong bones and teeth by helping them absorb calcium.* Vitamin D also helps maintain a healthy immune system.*
Vitamin D is received when your skin is exposed to sunlight. Unfortunately, it’s very difficult to get adequate amounts of Vitamin D from food. While it is present in some foods like eggs and mushrooms, it is important to receive exposure to sunlight to get enough Vitamin D.
Vitamin E is well-known as a potent antioxidant that helps fight free radicals in the body.* It also supports immune health.* Vitamin E is present in many foods such as nuts and seeds, so deficiency is rare.
Vitamin E also plays a prominent role in beauty. Its oil is used for its softening and moisturizing properties.* Plus, Vitamin E assists in stimulating the production of collagen, a structural component of skin.*
Food color clue: Brown – Vitamin E is abundant in foods such as sunflower seeds and almonds.
The last of the letter vitamins is Vitamin K, often known as the “forgotten” vitamin. Involved in bone health and necessary for the formation of prothrombin, which is required for normal blood clotting, Vitamin K comes in two forms: K1 and K2.*
Food sources of K1 include leafy greens, blueberries, and pine nuts. K2 is found in natto, cheese curds, and dark meat chicken.
Food color clue: Green – Leafy greens such as kale are high in Vitamin K.
The rest of the 13 essential vitamins can be found in the B-complex group.
Vitamin B-1 is also known as thiamine. Food sources of B-1 include pork, cantaloupe, and long-grain rice.
Vitamin B-1 is integral to maintaining nervous system health and supporting energy metabolism.*
Here’s a fun fact. Riboflavin, or Vitamin B-2, is fluorescent under UV light and used to detect industrial leaks.
Vitamin B-2 is found in dairy products, eggs, mushrooms, almonds, and whole grains. It is also known to aid in the metabolism of carbohydrates, fats, and protein to support cellular energy production in the body.*
Vitamin B-3, or niacin, is best known for its contribution to energy metabolism and the nervous system.* It also supports cellular growth and heart health.* Food sources of B-3 include eggs, tuna, and mushrooms.
Between 1906 and 1940, over 100,000 Americans died of pellagra (niacin deficiency). Niacin deficiency today is uncommon because of this discovery.
Vitamin B-5 is also known as pantothenic acid. It is found in small quantities in nearly every food with the highest amounts found in beef liver. The name comes from a Greek word meaning “everywhere.”
In the body, Vitamin B-5 supports nervous system health.*
Vitamin B-7 is better known as biotin. It is found in whole wheat bread, raspberries, egg yolks, liver, and peanuts. Biotin assists in energy metabolism in cells and plays a role in maintaining the health of hair, skin, and nails.*
Vitamin B-6 is also known as pyridoxine. Potatoes, turkey, tree nuts, and bananas are all sources of Vitamin B-6.
Vitamin B-6 plays a role in over 100 enzymatic reactions in the body. It is mostly involved in energy and protein metabolism.*
You’re probably familiar with this next B vitamin – Vitamin B-12. Vitamin B-12 supports energy metabolism by working with enzymes involved in the breakdown of nutrients such as amino acids.*
It is not found in vegetables in significant amounts, so many vegans and vegetarians supplement with Vitamin B-12. Food sources of Vitamin B-12 include salmon, beef, and crab. Since it isn’t as readily available after the age of 50, it is recommended that older adults consume fortified B-12 foods or take a supplement.
Folate is also known as folic acid or Vitamin B-9. Dietary sources include dark green leafy vegetables, fruits, nuts, beans, peas, dairy products, poultry, eggs, seafood, and grains.
Folic Acid is involved in DNA and RNA synthesis and plays a significant role in the formation of new cells.* Healthful diets with adequate folate may reduce a woman’s risk of having a child with a brain or spinal cord birth defect.
By eating a well-rounded diet, you can take in an abundance of these nutrients. Dark, leafy green vegetables are some of the best sources of vitamins and also contain antioxidants. You can also supplement these important vitamins with a multivitamin to fill in the gaps.