We see cartons of juice and boxes of cereal trumpeting their vitamin and mineral content, but why are these microscopic nutrients so important? From helping the body turn food into fuel, to fortifying bones and eyesight, vitamins and minerals are health superstars for sure. While the average diet usually includes adequate amounts of the essential nutrients without issue, it doesn’t hurt to be a little more aware of the vitamins and minerals that keep us living and smiling. But first, let’s iron out some key terms.
Vitamins: Organic substances required for normal cell function, growth, and development. There are 13 essential vitamins. (More on that below)
Fat-Soluble Vitamins: Fat-soluble vitamins are those that bind to fat in the stomach and are then stored in the body for later use. We are less likely to become deficient in these vitamins (A, D, E, and K), but more likely to build up to toxic levels, usually due to extreme overconsumption or overzealous supplement use. (Or maybe just an unhealthy obsession with kale chips…)
Water-Soluble Vitamins: The rest of the vitamins are water-soluble, meaning they can be absorbed directly by cells. When in excess, these vitamins are flushed out of our system with each bathroom break. The water-soluble vitamins — biotin, vitamin C, niacin, folic acid, pantothenic acid, and the four B complex vitamins — need to be restored more frequently, but the body can tolerate higher doses.
Minerals: Minerals are inorganic substances (meaning they contain no carbon), and all hold on place on the good ol’ periodic table (flashback to 6th grade chemistry class!). They’re also necessary for normal body function and development. There are two groups of minerals: macrominerals (which the body needs in large doses) and trace minerals (only a pinch required).
Chromium: You may have chrome wheels, but do you have chromium-dense meals? Though this trace mineral is thought to enhance insulin activity and the breakdown of the sugars that we eat, it’s only needed in small amounts and is not considered “essential”. Though some chromium supplements tout muscle building and weight loss benefits, there is no solid research evidence that backs up the claims. In fact, overconsumption of chromium supplements could cause kidney damageTrusted Source. So shelf the supplement and try an absperiment instead for rock-hard abs.
What You Need: Men = 35 mcg; Women = 25 mcg How to Get It: There’s heavy metal (chromium metal, that is) in broccoli (22 mcg per cup), grape juice (7.5 mcg per cup), and whole-wheat products like whole-wheat frozen waffles (6.7 mcg per waffle) or whole-wheat English muffins (3.6 mcg per muffin). What’s Too Much: Not determined
Copper: Don’t be penny-pinching with this shiny mineral, which is an essential trace element and antioxidant. Frontline in the creation of red blood cells, copper is also important for proper energy metabolism, immunity, and nervous system function. Though few and far between, copper deficiencies may manifest as anemia, a low white blood cell count, and bone deteriorationTrusted Source. While copper toxicity from dietary intake is rare, cases of acute copper poisoning (which leads to some not-so-nice tummy troubles) have occurred due to contaminated water supplies or leaching from copper containers.
What You Need: 900 mcg How to Get It: Instead of gnawing on pennies, try cooked liver—yum! (4,049 mcg per ounce), oysters (670 mcg per medium oyster), crabmeat (634 per 3 ounces), nuts (cashews, for example, offer 629 mcg per ounce), raw mushrooms (344 mcg per cup), and semisweet chocolate (198 mcg per ounce). What’s Too Much: 10,000 mcg
Fluoride: This non-essential trace mineral helps keep those pearly whites cavity-free and bones less breakableTrusted Source. Before snacking on some toothpaste, know that most tap water in the U.S. is already fluorinated, taking care of those elemental needs.
What You Need: Men = 4 mg; Women = 3 mg How to Get It: Food sources include grape juice (0.05-0.64 mg per cup), canned sardines (0.2-0.4 mg per 3.5 ounces), and chicken (0.06-0.10 mg per 3.5 ounces). What’s Too Much: 10 mg
Folic Acid (a.k.a. folate or folacin): Folic acid is such a key part of our diet that the U.S. government decided to fortify most commercial flour with this water-soluble vitamin. So what’s all the hoopla over folic acid? Well, it’s vital for pregnant women to ensure the baby’s proper development, helping prevent birth defects in the brain and spineTrusted SourceTrusted Source. No baby on board? Folic acid also helps create most all cells in the body and may reduce the risk of heart disease and colon cancer.
What You Need: 400 mcg How to Get It: Look out for fortified grains and cereals (200-400 mcg per cup), asparagus (134 mcg per 6 spears), spinach (132 mcg per half cup), orange juice (83 mcg per cup), and lentils (179 per half cup). What’s Too Much: 1,000 mcg
Iodine: Definitely dine with iodine: This essential trace mineral is a crucial component of thyroid hormones, which maintain our basal metabolic rate (BMR). Iodine also helps to regulate body temperature, nerve and muscle function, and plays a role in the body’s growth and developmentTrusted Source. Too little iodine can lead to thyroid dysfunction, developmental abnormalities, and even goiters, a swelling of the thyroid gland (that ain’t pretty)Trusted Source. Iodine is found in most table salt (it does say “iodized” on the container, right?). Now and then, an excess of iodine can cause hyperthyroidism, goiters, and in severe cases, GI discomfort and burning of the mouth, throat, and stomach, though rare.
What You Need: 150 mcg How to Get It: Add some iodine with cod (99 mcg per 3 ounces), shrimp (35 mcg per 3 ounces), canned tuna (17 mcg per half can), milk (56 mcg per cup), baked potatoes (60 mcg per medium potato), and (small amounts of) seaweed (more than than 4,500 mcg per ¼ ounce!). What’s Too Much: 1,100 mcg
Iron: Pump some iron (…into your meals) to help hemoglobin, a component of red blood cells, and myoglobin (hemoglobin’s counterpart in muscles) bring oxygen to all the cells that need it. Iron is also important in the production of amino acids, collagen, neurotransmitters, and hormonesTrusted SourceTrusted Source. Since this mineral is more easily absorbed from red meat and poultry, vegetarians and vegans may want to consider iron supplements, or at least consume more iron-rich fruits and leafy green vegetablesTrusted Source. But don’t go too crazy for iron: Acute overdose of iron can be lethal, and general excess can cause GI irritation, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and constipation.
What You Need: Men = 8 mg; Women = 18 mg How to Get It: Consider beef (2.32 mg per 3 cooked ounces), oysters (5.04 mg per 6 medium oysters), raisins (0.81 mg per small box), prune juice (2.28 mg per 6 fluid ounces), potatoes (1.87 mg per medium potato), cooked lentils (3.30 mg per half cup), tofu (2.15 mg per ¼ block), and cashews (1.89 per ounce). What’s Too Much: 45 mg
Magnesium: Magnetically drawn to calcium, magnesium is a macromineral that partners with calcium to assist with proper muscle contraction, blood clotting, cell signaling, energy metabolism, blood pressure regulation, and building healthy bones and teethTrusted Source! Rest easy because magnesium deficiency is super rare and so are toxicities, unless popping magnesium supplements is your thing. If so, watch out for diarrhea, lethargy, heart rate disturbances, and muscle weakness.
What You Need: Men = 400 mg; Women = 310 mg How to Get It: Magnify magnesium intake with oat bran (96 mg per half cup), almonds (78 mg per ounce), brown rice (86 mg per cup), cooked spinach (78 mg per half cup), bananas (32 mg per banana), and molasses (48 mg per tablespoon). What’s Too Much: There is no upper limit for dietary magnesium, but supplemental magnesium should not exceed 350 mg/day.
Manganese: Hailing from the Greek word for magic, manganese can be a double-edged sword. Though an essential trace mineral and antioxidant, it is also potentially toxic in excessTrusted Source. Important for energy, bone development, and wound healing, overindulgence of this magic mineral — usually a result of water contamination — may cause a dip in intellectual function.
What You Need: Men = 2.3 mg; Women = 1.8 mg How to Get It: Get a limited portion of this potion with pineapples (0.77 mg per half cup), pecans (1.28 mg per ounce), oatmeal (0.99 mg per instant oatmeal packet), brown rice (1.07 mg per half cup), and green tea (0.41-1.58 mg per cup). What’s Too Much: 11 mg
Molybdenum: Though we can’t help with the pronunciation of this essential trace mineral, we can confirm that it’s a necessary factor of many enzymes, which speed up the body’s biochemical reactions that break down dietary and stored nutrients into energyTrusted Source. Molybdenum deficiency has never been documented in healthy people, and toxicity is similarly rare.
What You Need: 45 mcg How to Get It: Grub rich in molybdenum includes legumes like black beans (130 mcg per cup) and split peas (148 mcg per cup), and nuts like almonds, chestnuts, and peanuts (all about 42 mcg per cup). What’s Too Much: 2,000 mcg
Niacin ( a.k.a. Vitamin B3 or Nicotinic Acid): On the lookout for beautiful skin, hair, and red blood cells? Niacin is here to help! Like other water-soluble B vitamins, niacin is essential for converting food into energy. It’s also central for the health of skin, hair, eyes, liver, and the nervous system, and is believed to lower risks of high cholesterol and heart diseaseTrusted SourceTrusted SourceTrusted Source. Extreme deficiencies in niacin may lead to pellagra, which is associated with the “the four D’s”: dermatitis (skin irritation), diarrhea, dementia, and death (yikes!)Trusted Source. But don’t overdo it either: Pellagra is exceptionally rare. High doses of niacin can be toxic, and may cause rosy tingling — the so-called “niacin flush” — if doses exceed 50 mg per day.
What You Need: Men = 16 mg; Women = 14 mg How to Get It: Nosh on peanuts (3.8 mg per ounce), chicken (7.3 mg per 3 ounces), salmon (8.5 mg per 3 ounces), fortified cereals (20-27 mg per cup), and coffee (0.5 mg per cup). What’s Too Much: 35 mg
Pantothenic Acid (a.k.a. Vitamin B5): This vitamin is important in food metabolism and helps synthesize neurotransmitters, steroid hormones, red blood cells, and more. Toxicity is virtually nonexistent, and while B5 deficiency is fairly rare (it tends to accompany severe malnutrition) neurologic symptoms such as burning feet may crop up.
What You Need: 5 mg (AI) How to Get It: Steer clear of tingling toes with foods like chicken (0.98 mg per 3 ounces), eggs (0.61 mg per large egg), whole grains (0.19 mg per slice of whole wheat bread), mushrooms (0.52 mg per half cup), sweet potato (0.88 mg per medium potato), avocados (1.99 mg per whole avocado), and yogurt (1.35 mg per cup). What’s Too Much: Not determined
Phosphorus: Keep bones and teeth prosperous with phosphorus, a macromineral that primarily builds and protects those choppers and your skeleton. Phosphorus is also a component of DNA and RNA, helps convert food into energy, and aids in shuttling nutrients to the organs that need themTrusted Source. While the kidneys dislike phosphorus in excess, acute poisoning with phosphorus is virtually nonexistent. On the flipside, rare cases of phosphorus deficiency can lead to anemia, muscle weakness, loss of appetite, rickets (in children), and numbness and tingling in the legs.
What You Need: 700 mg How to Get It: Foods abounding in phosphorus include all-things dairy, like milk (257 mg per cup), yogurt (385 mg per cup) and cheese (131 mg per ounce). Not a dairy lover? Consider salmon (252 mg per 3 ounces), eggs (104 mg per large egg), beer (173 mg per 3 ounces), chicken (155 mg per 3 ounces), and—get this—carbonated cola drinks (40 mg per 12 ounces). What’s Too Much: 4,000 mg
Potassium: Our hearts beat for potassium, a macromineral and electrolyte that’s essential for a steady heartbeat, the transmission of nervous system signals, and muscle functionTrusted Source. Alongside sodium, potassium is also an MVP in balancing fluids by helping the kidney save fluids when we are dehydrated or excrete fluids that are in excess. And wait, there’s more! Potassium is thought to lower blood pressure and benefit bones, tooTrusted Source. Short-term potassium deficiencies (often from prolonged vomiting or diarrhea) may cause fatigue, muscle weakness and cramps, bloating, abdominal pain, and constipation — thanks but no thanksTrusted Source! But don’t get too pumped up on potassium: consuming high doses (typically from supplements) can lead to muscle weakness, tingling in hands and feet, GI symptoms, and abnormal heart rhythms.
What You Need: 4,700 mg How to Get It: Kick up your K (potassium’s letter on the periodic table) with baked potatoes (926 mg per medium potato), artichokes (343 mg per medium artichoke), plums (637 mg per ½ cup), raisins (598 mg per ½ cup), and bananas (422 per medium banana). What’s Too Much: Not determined
Riboflavin (Vitamin B2): Flavorful riboflavin definitely has street cred. This water-soluble B vitamin helps convert food to fuel, encourages iron absorption in the intestines, and also enhances the health of hair, skin, muscles, eyes, and the brainTrusted Source. And some research suggests that riboflavin may be effective at combating migraines, tooTrusted Source. Riboflavin deficiency is uncommon, but is associated with a sore throat, cracks and sores around the lips, an inflamed “magenta tongue” (say what?!), and scaly skinTrusted Source. While enormous intake of riboflavin may turn your pee bright yellow (a phenomenon called flavinuria), this side effect is harmless.
What You Need: Men = 1.3mg; Women = 1.1mg How to Get It: Rev up riboflavin with milk (0.34 mg per cup), almonds (0.23 mg per ounce), cheddar cheese (0.11 mg per ounce), eggs (0.27 mg per large egg), and enriched grains and cereals (0.59-2.27 mg per cup). What’s Too Much: Not determined
Selenium: Selenium is a smooth-operator of thyroid hormone regulation, and also acts as an antioxidantTrusted Source. Antioxidants kick the “bad-guy” cells (free radicals) out of the body in order to prevent them from damaging the “good-guy” cells. Chronic excess of this trace mineral (usually from supplements) is known to cause nausea, GI discomfort, and hair and nail brittleness, so supplement selenium in moderationTrusted Source.
What You Need: 55 mcg How to Get It: Brazil nuts (544 mcg per six kernels) are sky-high in selenium, and shrimp (34 mcg per 10-12 shrimp), crabmeat (41 mcg per 3 ounces), salmon (40 mcg per 3 ounces), enriched noodles (38 mcg per cup), beef (16 mcg per 3 ounces), and pork (35 mcg per 3 ounces) have a decent slice of it too. What’s Too Much: 400 mcg
Sodium Chloride (a.k.a. salt): Chemistry buffs know this pair of minerals as NaCl. The rest of us call it table salt. Before shaking it up, know that sodium chloride is found in high quantities in most meals, snacks, and even drinks. While it is essential for fluid balance, nerve signal transmission, muscle contractions, digestion, and blood pressure, it is possible to have too much of this savory mineral setTrusted Source. Excess sodium intake can raise blood pressure above normal limits, increasing the risk for hypertension and cardiovascular disease down the roadTrusted Source. Since the average daily diet already includes salt waaaay in excess, consider low-salt alternatives like olive oil (instead of butter), unsalted nuts in favor of salted ones, and fresh fruit!
What You Need: 500 mg of sodium; 750 mg of chloride How to Get It: Sodium chloride can be soaked up from white bread (850 mg per two slices), pickles (800 mg per 1 spear), hot dogs (1,300 mg per one wiener—hot diggity dog!), and canned goods such as chicken noodle soup (a striking 3,400 mg of NaCl per cup). What’s Too Much: 2,300 mg of sodium (the equivalent of 5.8 g of salt per day)
Thiamin (a.k.a. Vitamin B1): Another member of the water-soluble B pack, thiamin helps with food metabolism and boosts the health of hair, skin, muscles, and the brainTrusted SourceTrusted Source. Toxicity has never been observed, and though thiamin deficiency (also known as beriberi) is rare in the U.S., it’s not nonexistent. Symptoms affect the cardiovascular, nervous, muscular, and gastrointestinal systems in a variety of ways.
What You Need: Men = 1.2 mg; Women = 1.1 mg How to Get It: Dodge beriberi with a fair share of milk (0.10 mg per cup), lentils (0.17 mg per ½ cup), cantaloupe (0.11 mg per ½ fruit), enriched long grain white rice (0.26 mg per cup), and pecans (0.19 mg per ounce). What’s Too Much: Not determined
Vitamin A (a.k.a. retinol, retinal, retinoic acid): So what’s up with this vitamin, doc? Though known as being good for vision, vitamin A has many other vital tasks: It encourages red and white blood cell production and activity, keeps the immune system fit and blood vessels healthy, helps rebuild bone, regulates cell growth and division, and may reduce the risk for some cancersTrusted SourceTrusted Source. Retinoids, variations of Vitamin A, are also used in medications to treat various skin diseases and acneTrusted Source. Though infrequent in the U.S., vitamin A deficiency is not unheard of in developing countries, and can cause night blindness and, in extreme instances, complete blindness. Vitamin A deficiency also plays a role in diarrhea and increased susceptibility to infectious diseases in developing countriesTrusted Source. So make like Bugs Bunny and crunch on some carrots for high doses of beta-carotene, which is readily converted to vitamin A once digestedTrusted Source.
What You Need: Men = 900 mcg; Women = 700 mcg How to Get It: Consider kale (443 mcg per ½ cup), eggs (91 mcg per large egg) and cod liver oil — ymmmm (1,350 mcg per teaspoon). And think orange: consider carrots (538 mcg per ½ cup) baked sweet potatoes (961 mcg per ½ cup), canned pumpkin (953 mcg per ½ cup), cantaloupe (467 mcg per ½ a melon), mango (79 mcg per fruit), and butternut squash (572 mcg per ½ cup). What’s Too Much: 3,000 mcg
Vitamin B6 (a.k.a. pyridoxal, pyridoxine, pyridoxamine): Like a G6, this essential, water-soluble vitamin flies high above the others. Vitamin B6 helps out with the production of serotonin, a hormone that plays a hand in sleep, appetite, and moodTrusted Source. It also assists with manufacturing red blood cells and steroid hormones, influences cognitive and immune function, and is linked to reducing the risk of heart diseaseTrusted SourceTrusted Source. Diets lacking B6 are rare, but evidence of seizures and other neurologic systems are observed in extreme deficiency. Adverse effects from high doses are primarily seen in people taking supplements, and include pain and numbness in the limbs.
What You Need: 1.3 mg How to Get It: Foods soaring in vitamin B6 include salmon (0.48 mg per 3 ounces), chicken (0.51 mg per 3 ounces), bananas (0.43 mg per medium banana), baked russet potatoes with the skin (0.70 mg per medium potato), hazelnuts (0.18 mg per ounce), and cooked spinach (0.44 mg per cup). What’s Too Much: 100 mg
Vitamin B12: Another water-soluble B vitamin, vitamin B12 offers a helping hand in the metabolism of fatty acids and amino acids, cell creation, and the protection of nerve cells , and also may reduce the risk of Alzheimer’sTrusted SourceTrusted Source. Keep B12 close when it gets to those later, grey-haired years: deficiencies are common in the elderly and may cause memory loss, dementia, and anemiaTrusted Source. Toxicities are not observed, and vegetarians and vegans may even need supplements.
What You Need: 2.4 mcg How to Get It: Binge on bivalves like clams (84 mcg per 3 ounces) and mussels (20.4 mcg per 3 ounces). Not into bottom-dwellers? Beef (2.1 mcg per 3 ounces), salmon (2.4 mcg per 3 ounces), poached eggs (0.6 mcg per large egg), skim milk (0.9 mcg per cup), and brie cheese—fantastique! (0.5 mcg per ounce), are also buds of B12. What’s Too Much: Not determined
Vitamin C (a.k.a. asorbic acid): As we go on, we remember… that vitamin C is one of the best vitamins ever! Cartons of OJ are emblazoned with this famous vitamin’s name — and for a good reason. Vitamin C is thought to lower the risk for some cancers, including cancers of the mouth, esophagus, stomach, and breastTrusted Source. It also helps make collagen, an important tool in wound repair. And let’s not forget its antioxidant properties and immune-boosting effectsTrusted Source! But before chugging that daily glass of Emergen-C to ward off a cold, know that evidence linking “mega-doses” of Vitamin C to staving off sickness are conflicting. How so? A review of 30 research trials that included over 11,000 people showed that the incidence of the common cold is not decreased with high Vitamin C intakeTrusted Source. What’s more, the potential for vitamin C overdose is not ruled out, though uncertain. But don’t skimp on C: After all, scurvy — the severe vitamin C deficiency linked to bleeding, bruising, join pain, and hair and tooth loss — is for pirates, not millennials. Arrgh!
What You Need: Men = 90 mg; Women = 75mg (Smokers should add 35 mg) How to Get It: Choose citrus, like OJ (100+ mg per cup) and grapefruits (76 mg per medium fruit), or consider strawberries (85 mg per cup), tomatoes (16 mgg per medium tomato), red peppers (95 mg per ½ cup), and broccoli (51 mg per ½ cup). What’s Too Much: 2,000 mg
Vitamin D: Who loves the sun? This essential fat-soluble vitamin — which is vital for normal calcium metabolism, immunity, nervous system function, and bone density — sure doesTrusted SourceTrusted Source. But before vitamin D can live up to its expectations, it must be activated by a burst of UV rays. Before you throw on a bikini and soak up the sun (putting you at risk for skin cancer!) consider supplements or cereals, milk, and juices that are fortified with the active form, which is equally effectiveTrusted Source. Dips in vitamin D are no joke: chronic deficiency puts you at risk for osteoporosis later in life. Make sure your diet shines with vitamin D (especially in the winter) to keep your bones healthy and reduce risks of cancer.
What You Need: 15 mcg How to Get It: Dive into vitamin D with fortified cereals (1.0-1.3 mcg per cup), fortified milk (2.4 mcg per cup), canned salmon (13.3 mcg per 3 ounces), and egg yolks (0.53 mcg per large egg. What’s Too Much: 50 mcg
Vitamin E: E is for the Excellent Eight. A family of eight antioxidants, vitamin E protects essential lipids from damage, battles free radicals, and maintains the integrity of cell membranesTrusted Source. Drop some E (the vitamin!) to avoid impaired balance and coordination, muscle weakness, and pain and numbness in the limbs — all signs of extreme deficiencyTrusted Source. Think you’re in the clear? Turns out that more than 90 percent of Americans do not meet the recommendations for this vitamin’s daily intake.
What You Need: 15 mg How to Get It: Close the gap with vegetable oils like olive oil (1.9 mg per tablespoon), canola oil (2.4 mg per tablespoon), almonds (7.4 mg per ounce), avocados (2.7 mg per avocado), and hazelnuts (4.3 mg per ounce). What’s Too Much: 1,000 mg
Vitamin K: Not to be confused with its mineral chum potassium (which is also noted as a “K” on the periodic table), this essential fat-soluble vitamin is a must for normal wound healing and bone developmentTrusted Source. K is for “koagulation,” the German word for coagulation, or clotting. While blood clots sound menacing, consider the importance of scabs, which are simply patches of clotted blood to protect cuts and scrapesTrusted Source. Ladies taking birth control pills should be careful with overconsumption of vitamin K, as a combination of the birth control pill and excess Vitamin K could put you at risk for unwanted clotsTrusted Source. Deficiencies in vitamin K include easy bruisability, bleeding, nosebleeds, and heavy menstrual periods.
What You Need: Men = 120 mcg; Women = 90 mcg (AI) How to Get It: Attain the RDA with cooked broccoli (220 mcg per cup), kale (547 mcg per cup), parsley (246 mcg per ¼ cup), and Swiss chard (299 mcg per cup). What’s Too Much: Not determined
Zinc: Zippity doo dah for zinc, a trace element that is a building block for enzymes, proteins, and cells. It is also responsible for freeing Vitamin A from its holding tank, the liver, through its enzymatic activityTrusted Source. But that’s not all for the last on this list: zinc also plays a role in boosting the immune system, mediating senses such as taste and smell, and wound healingTrusted Source. Zinc toxicity is rare, but zinc deficiency (most commonly occurring in the developing world) may lead to delays in growth and development, rough skin, cognitive impairment, a weakened immune system (leading in increased susceptibility of infectious diseases, particularly in kids), and moreTrusted Source.
What You Need: Men = 11 mg; Women = 8 mg How to Get It: Zinc can be zeroed in on in oysters (76.3 mg per 6 oysters), beef (6 mg per 3 ounces), turkey (3.8 mg per 3 ounces), milk (1.8 mg per cup), and cashews (1.6 mg per ounce). Vegetarians and vegans take note: zinc is less easily absorbed from vegetables so consider supplements or munching on more zinc rich foods. What’s Too Much: 40 mg Last but not least, don’t forget your daily dose of Vitamin G!