The 13 essential vitamins and how to make sure you get them all

essential vitamins

I recently finished Whole30 (see my results) and tried to do it again, but I have to admit that I failed this time. I’ll tell you more about what went wrong later. What has stuck with me though from Whole30 is the determination to eat healthy food. I’ve always been a bit confused about the vitamins so I decided to do some research and share that with you too:

Vitamins, all 13 of them, are essential to our health. We all know some basics about them but what do the vitamins “do”? And how can we be sure we get enough vitamins in our diet?

In this post I’ll tell you about these vitamins, where you find them and why they are so important to us. I’ll also write about supplements and find out if vitamins could actually help us in weight loss.

The 13 essential vitamins

There are 13 different vitamins that our body needs. These vitamins are:

  • Vitamin A
  • Vitamin B1: thiamine
  • Vitamin B2: riboflavin
  • Vitamin B3: niacin
  • Vitamin B5: pantothenic acid
  • Vitamin B6: pyridoxine
  • Vitamin B7: biotin
  • Vitamin B9: folic acid
  • Vitamin B12: cobalamin
  • Vitamin C
  • Vitamin D
  • Vitamin E
  • Vitamin K

If you are low in any of these vitamins – you don’t get them from your food or by taking supplements – you may get some health problems.

There are two types of vitamins:

  • Fat-soluble vitamins: A, D, E and K
  • Water-soluble vitamins: All the B vitamins and C

Our bodies store fat-soluble vitamins in the body’s fat tissue and the liver. These vitamins are absorbed through the intestinal tract, but they need dietary fat to be absorbed. Fat-soluble vitamins can be stored for days and weeks, in some cases even months.

Water-soluble vitamins are not stored for long, instead our bodies must use these vitamins right away and any leftover leaves the body through the urine. So we basically need to get these vitamins every day.

The recommended intake of vitamins varies around the world, so I’m going to write average guidelines on how much of each vitamin we should have a day. If you suffer from a vitamin deficiency your doctor might order you to have a lot more of the vitamin than what the suggested daily intake is. Always speak with your doctor about any symptoms and their treatment.

Vitamin A

Keyword: Vision

What does it do?

Vitamin A is important for vision development, it especially helps us see in the dark. It also keeps our skin, mucous membranes and other internal linings healthy and it has a role in immune functions and therefore helps us fight infections.

vitamin a chart

What is the maximum intake?

The maximum intake of vitamin A varies between 1500 – 3000 micrograms a day. It is quite easy to get an overdose of vitamin A, especially if you like to eat liver (a very good source of vitamin A) and/or you take supplements.

Problems if you get too much?

Loss of appetite, dry skin and in the long run changes in our bones and problems with liver. There’s a higher risk of fractures, especially as we get older, if we get too much vitamin A.

Good sources

  • Liver
  • Rose hip
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Butter
  • Carrots
  • Eggs

What do I need to eat in order to get the daily intake?

Just one medium sized sweet potato for dinner gives you 100 % of the daily intake of vitamin A.

Vitamin B1: thiamine

Keyword: Metabolism

What does it do?

Thiamine is important for our metabolic system: Thiamine is needed to form adenosine triphosphate, which every cell of the body uses for energy. Our bodies need thiamine to be able to use carbohydrates.

vitamin b1

What is the maximum intake?

The maximum intake of thiamine is not known. It is difficult to take an overdose, some sources suggest that you can have 500 mg a day without any symptoms.

Problems if you get too much?

Large amounts of thiamine could cause stomach upset.

Good sources

  • Pork and other meats
  • Yeast
  • Cereal grains (fortified)
  • Sunflower seeds
  • Nuts
  • Corn
  • Lentils

What do I need to eat in order to get the daily intake?

A pork filet steak for dinner gives you more than 100 % of the daily intake of vitamin B1.

Vitamin B2: riboflavin

Keyword: Energy

What does it do?

Riboflavin is important for our growth and red blood cell production. As all B vitamins, riboflavin helps our body work with carbohydrates: riboflavin helps our body convert carbohydrates into glucose. This way we are able to produce energy from carbohydrates. Riboflavin also helps us maintain healthy hair, skin and nails.

I personally find it interesting that riboflavin might have some connection with cervical cancer (I was diagnosed a year ago): By increasing riboflavin intake (along with other B vitamins) it might be possible to decrease the risk of developing precancerous cells on the cervix.

vitamin b2

What is the maximum intake?

The maximum intake is not known.

Problems if you get too much?

Riboflavin is a water-soluble vitamin which means that any leftover amounts leave the body through the urine.

Good sources

  • Liver
  • Kidney
  • Cereal grains (fortified)
  • Milk
  • Cheese
  • Leafy greens
  • Almonds

What do I need to eat in order to get the daily intake?

A large bowl of cereals with milk for breakfast will give you at least almost 100 % of the daily intake of vitamin B2.

Vitamin B3: niacin

Keyword: Cholesterol

What does it do?

Vitamin B3 is an antioxidant that protects our cells and nervous system. This vitamin also helps us lower the blood cholesterol levels.

vitamin b3

What is the maximum intake?

When it comes to maximum intake of niacin, the intake levels are sometimes different to nicotic acid and nicotinamide (both forms of niacin). For example in the US the tolerable upper level is 35 mg for both of these forms combined, but in EU the limit is 10 mg for nicotinic acid and 900 mg for nicotinamide per day.

Problems if you get too much?

Flushing is a common reaction for niacin overdose.

If you take more than 3000 mg of niacin you could get serious symptoms such as problems with liver, vision, blood sugar and heartbeat.

Good sources

  • Liver and kidney
  • Chicken and beef
  • Tuna and salmon
  • Peanut butter
  • Avocados
  • Legumes

What do I need to eat in order to get the daily intake?

A large portion of chicken for lunch will give you 100 % of your daily intake of vitamin B3.

Vitamin B5: pantothenic acid

Keyword: Stress

What does it do?

Pantothenic acid has a role in body metabolism and welfare of skin and mucous membrane. This vitamin also protects us from infections as it has a role in maintaining a healthy digestive tract and it boosts our immunity. It helps our body create red blood cells and it is believed that vitamin B5 can help people with asthma and allergy symptoms.

Pantothenic acid also helps us maintain healthy hair and skin. B5 vitamin is used to cure acne. There isn’t a lot of research on this but many people have felt that pantothenic acid has helped them with acne or other skin issues.

vitamin b5

What is the maximum intake?

The maximum intake of pantothenic acid is not known.

Problems if you get too much?

Diarrhea at most and we would have to take a huge amount of this vitamin.

Good sources

  • Meat, liver
  • Cheese
  • Eggs
  • Whole grains
  • Broccoli
  • Avocados

What do I need to eat in order to get the daily intake?

Pretty much everything contains small amounts of pantothenic acid. You are very likely to get enough of this vitamin from your food.

Vitamin B6: pyridoxine

Keyword: Mental health

What does it do?

Vitamin B6 has an important part in the process of making serotonin and norepinephrine. These two are chemicals that transmit signals in the brain. For this reason some people that have depression might have a vitamin B6 deficiency.

vitamin b6

What is the maximum intake?

The upper intake level of vitamin B6 varies a lot around the world, from 10 mg a day to 100 mg a day.

Problems if you get too much?

Damage to nervous system that causes numbness and pain. Usually people only get symptoms with very high amounts of pyridoxine, but there are a few reports of symptoms from smaller amounts so it is better to stick to recommended levels.

Good sources

  • Meat, chicken
  • Fish
  • Egg yolks
  • Onions
  • Bananas
  • Whole grains

What do I need to eat in order to get the daily intake?

A salmon steak will give you 100 % of your daily intake of vitamin B6.

Vitamin B7: biotin

Keyword: Bones

What does it do?

Biotin makes our skin, nails and hair stronger and might help prevent hair loss. Biotin also takes care of our bones and prevents osteomalacia and osteoporosis. Biotin may help our bodies decrease insulin resistance has an important role in body metabolism.

When you are pregnant it might be a good idea to have some biotin in addition to folic acid. This is because a lack of biotin might cause birth defects in the first third of pregnancy.

vitamin b7

What is the maximum intake?

The maximum intake of biotin is not known.

Problems if you get too much?

There are no reported adverse effects.

Good sources

  • Yeast
  • Liver
  • Kidney
  • Eggs
  • Nuts
  • Grains
  • Leafy greens (especially Swiss Chard)

What do I need to eat in order to get the daily intake?

A small handful of peanuts as a snack is enough to get 100 % of your daily intake of vitamin B7.

Vitamin B9: folic acid

Keyword: Growth

What does it do?

Vitamin B9 is often called folic acid (synthetic form of vitamin, used in fortified foods and vitamin supplements) or folate (naturally in foods).

Vitamin B9 is important to our brains and it helps our body produce DNA. This vitamin is needed – together with vitamin B12 – to form red blood cells. Folic acid may lower the risk of heart disease, colon cancer, and breast cancer.

vitamin b9

What is the maximum intake?

The tolerable upper intake level for folic acid is 800 mcg – 1 mg per day. There’s no upper limit for intake of folate (from natural food sources).

Problems if you get too much?

Fatigue, confusion and nausea.

Good sources

  • Beans
  • Liver and kidney
  • Cereals (fortified)
  • Avocado and asparagus
  • Spinach and other leafy greens
  • Sunflower seeds

What do I need to eat in order to get the daily intake?

Half a cup (100 g) of beans will give you 100 % of your daily intake of vitamin B9.

Vitamin B12: Cobalamin

Keyword: DNA

What does it do?

Our cells need vitamin B12 in order to produce DNA and red blood cells. You might have heard about celebrities taking vitamin B12 injections to gain instant energy. Does it work? It might, if you’re deficient. Fatigue and weakness are symptoms of vitamin B12 deficiency.

vitamin b12 chart

What is the maximum intake?

The maximum intake of vitamin B12 is not known.

Problems if you get too much?

You are not very likely to get toxic levels of vitamin B12 as it’s a water-soluble vitamin. There have been some links between very high doses of B12 and cancers.

Good sources

  • Fish
  • Shellfish
  • Liver, meat and poultry
  • Eggs
  • Milk and other dairy products

If you’re on a vegetarian diet, you might need to take vitamin B-12 supplements.

What do I need to eat in order to get the daily intake?

A medium sized portion of fish will give you more than 100 % of your daily intake of vitamin B12.

Vitamin C

Keyword: Immune system

What does it do?

Vitamin C is known for its immune system boosting qualities and is often used to “cure” common cold. Vitamin C is a powerful antioxidant that will help our body absorb other nutrients such as the B vitamins. This vitamin is also known for its healing powers: vitamin C has an important role in building scar tissue an for healing wounds and repairing bones.

Vitamin C has an important role when our body forms collagen. Collagen is a protein that we have everywhere in our body: for example in our skin, teeth, bones and veins. So a deficiency in vitamin C can be felt all over our body.

vitamin c chart

What is the maximum intake?

2000 mg a day. Our body can use around 500 mg at one go so more than that will quite likely be removed from the body.

Problems if you get too much?

As vitamin C is a water-soluble vitamin it is unlikely that you should get an overdose. However, if you take huge amounts of vitamin C (the supplements do taste surprisingly good…) you could get symptoms such as headache, diarrhea or cramps.

Good sources

Oranges and other citrus fruit
Kiwi
Strawberries
Red bell pepper
Brussels sprouts
Rose hip

What do I need to eat in order to get the daily intake?

Lots of fruit have vitamin C so by having a fruit salad at breakfast or as a dessert will give you more than 100 % of your daily intake of vitamin C.

Vitamin D

Keyword: Calcium

What does it do?

Vitamin D has been in the news a lot during the past few years. Mostly because of the discussion on how much of vitamin D we really should have a day: Many health care professionals suggest that the official recommendations are too low.

It is considered that vitamin D can lower the risk of several different cancers, diabetes and many other (chronic) diseases, even depression. Vitamin D can control infections and reduce cancer cell growth and it’s vital for calcium intake: our body cannot absorb calcium without vitamin D. Vitamin D has a role in our immune system and research suggests there’s a connection between a low level of vitamin D in our blood and frequent common colds.

It’s very common that people have vitamin D deficiencies – it is suggested that one billion people around the world have inadequate levels of vitamin D in their blood. This is really no wonder as there are not a lot of foods that would have high vitamin D levels naturally (unless you love to eat fish!). That is the reason we have vitamin D fortified food at stores – for example a lot of the dairy products and cereals are vitamin D fortified.

Our body actually also produces vitamin D from cholesterol but we do need sunlight on our skin for this process.

vitamin d

What is the maximum intake?

100 – 250 mcg per day.

Problems if you get too much?

Too much vitamin D can cause hypercalcemia (=too much calcium in your blood). Symptoms include weakness, nausea and vomiting, insomnia and even kidney damage.

You can’t really get an overdose of vitamin D from food or sunlight.

Good sources

  • Sunshine
  • Fish
  • Eggs
  • Liver
  • Mushrooms
  • Dairy (fortified)

Read more: Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health has a great article on health benefits and new research on vitamin D.

What do I need to eat in order to get the daily intake?

A portion of fish gives you more than 100 % of your daily intake of vitamin D.

Vitamin E

Keyword: Skin

What does it do?

Vitamin E is sometimes called a beauty vitamin because it supports the well-being of our skin. This vitamin is also important for our eyes, brains and heart. Vitamin E is an antioxidant that helps protect the cells in the body and has an important part in our immune function.

vitamin e

What is the maximum intake?

800 – 1000 mg a day

Problems if you get too much?

Too much of vitamin E can lead to a deficiency of vitamin K in the long run. This can lead to problems with bleeding. Other symptoms of too much vitamin K include fatigue, headache, diarrhea and problems with vision.

Good sources

  • Oils
  • Almonds
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Eggs
  • Bell peppers
  • Leafy greens

What do I need to eat in order to get the daily intake?

A handful of nuts and almonds will give you 100 % of your daily intake of vitamin E.

Vitamin K

Keyword: Blood clotting

What does it do?

Without vitamin K our blood would not be able to clot and our wounds would not be able to heal. Vitamin K is also important to our bones and this vitamin works hand in hand with vitamin D.

vitamin k chart

What is the maximum intake?

The maximum intake is not known.

Problems if you get too much?

There are no known symptoms of overdose.

Good sources

  • Leafy green vegetables
  • Broccoli and Brussels sprouts
  • Cheese
  • Avocado
  • Kiwi fruit
  • Parsley

What do I need to eat in order to get the daily intake?

Have a salad with leafy greens for lunch and you will get 100 % of your daily intake of vitamin K.

Vitamins for weight loss?

When I first thought about vitamins I thought about overall health, not so much about weight loss. However, vitamins do have an important role when it comes to weight loss and in addition to that there are some other vitamin related aspects that should be considered while on a diet.

For example vitamin C has an important role when it comes to our body metabolism so it can help us lose weight: If you have a vitamin C deficiency, your body won’t be able to use fat deposits as a source of energy as efficiently as would be necessary – and you would probably like to.

Another thing is that even a small deficiency of vitamin B3 (niacin) slows down our metabolism and there are studies that try to find out if there’s a connection between deficiency and overweight.

There are also some vitamins that you should have more while on diet, for example vitamins B1, B2, B3 and B5. It might be a good idea to make sure that you also get more vitamin C than usual after a strenuous exercise session as it will help the body cope with the stress that a workout has on your immune system.

Also, if you’re on a diet that is high on protein, you should consider taking more vitamin B6 than is recommended.

Supplements

Supplements are usually taken to make sure that we get sufficient amounts of all these 13 vitamins. Vitamins can be used as medicine too – even when we are not lacking certain vitamins, doctors can make “prescriptions” to use larger amounts of certain vitamins to cure diseases.

There is so much disagreement among the professionals on whether we should or should not take supplements to make sure we get enough vitamins. Those against the supplements say that research hasn’t found a lot of adverse effects from consuming these vitamins in food. If you do overdose, it is more likely from taking too much supplements. There have been some studies that suggest that supplements might have other adverse effects as well. On the other hand, if you have vitamin deficiencies taking supplements is an easy and often quite a cheap way to fix the problem and gain health benefits.

If you are concerned that you might have vitamin deficiencies it is possible to get your vitamin levels checked by a simple blood test.

I personally don’t get enough vitamin D as I’m allergic to eggs and don’t eat fish (both important sources of vitamin D) and also live so up north that I don’t get much sun in the winter months. I take vitamin D 100 mcg a day, more than what is officially recommended but I had my vitamin D levels tested this summer and my level was right in the middle of the recommended area so it seems that I’m now getting enough of it with daily supplements. I also take B vitamin (B1, B6, B12) and a multivitamin.

Have you noticed that you lack certain vitamins or have you been treated for deficiency symptoms?

Please notice that I’m not a doctor or a dietitian. I only tell what works for me, so please consult your doctor before starting a new diet or workout program or following information on this site. I will not accept any responsibility for the actions taken by the reader.

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