7 Key Nutrients To Look For In Your Foods & Supplements

Written by mindbodygreen

Standing in front of any shelf at any grocery store today can be absolutely bewildering. There are too many healthy products to choose from, and we receive so much varying information on proper diet and nutrition.

Most experts will agree that we should be getting most of our nutrients from whole foods, but although we may strive to follow a healthy diet, the foods we eat can vary greatly from day to day, season to season or geographic location. And sometimes it's hard to eat the way we know we should.

So if you're like the millions of other people suffering from vitamin and nutrient information overload (whether in your food or in your supplements), the team at SmartyPants has created a well-researched list of the seven key nutrients to look for in your foods and supplements ... just for you.

Vitamin A

We need vitamin A for our vision, bone and skin health, gene transportation, and strengthening of overall immune function. Known best as the “eye vitamin,” vitamin A helps the membranes of the retina and cornea to function at their best.

Vitamin A is also an antioxidant and a fat-soluble vitamin – so it’s best to be consumed in moderate amounts.

Best sources of vitamin A are: animal livers, sea greens, yellow fruits and vegetables, dark leafy greens, dairy products, and eggs.
 Animal sources of vitamin A are nearly 6 times as strong as those that are plant based. 

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Vitamin C

Vitamin C (ascorbic acid) is a strong antioxidant that works against free radical damage and is known to aid in at least 300 metabolic functions of the body.

When we think of vitamin C, most of us first think of citrus fruits or orange juice, but the best sources (with high concentrations) can be found in sweet red peppers, berries, and green vegetables. 

The recommended daily allowance of vitamin C of 60 mg is fairly easy to get from a standard American diet, but some experts argue that this recommendation is inadequate and instead suggest an intake of 200 mg to get the full health benefits of this powerful antioxidant.  

Our bodies can't manufacture vitamin C, so it must come from our diets and/or supplements.  Alcohol, smoking, and drug use can cause a great depletion of vitamin C in our bodies.

The B Vitamins

B1 (thiamine), B2 (riboflavin), B3 (niacin), B5 (pantothenic acid), B6 (pyridoxine), B12 (cobalamin), and biotin (or B7) are all part of the B-complex family that refers to nutrients with similar and overlapping functions.

The B vitamins act as co-enzymes, working with enzymes in our bodies for energy production. They work as a team; a deficiency in one usually means a deficiency in another.

Sources of thiamine include brewer’s yeast, pine nuts, brown rice and soybeans.

Sources of B12 are mostly animal-based products
, so vegans and vegetarians may be susceptible to deficiencies.  Challenges remain even for omnivores, as the B12 in meat is bound to certain proteins, requiring your stomach to produce acid to release and absorb it.  Though B12 may be plentiful in the foods you eat, your body may still struggle to absorb this nutrient via food.  

Biotin (B7 or vitamin H) helps us form antibodies, while assisting in metabolizing amino acids and essential fatty acids.  It aids in cell growth and helps to utilize the other B complex vitamins. 

Sources of biotin include poultry, fish, organ meats, eggs, legumes, and certain nuts. 

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Vitamin D

Vitamin D is naturally present in very few foods, and the foods that do contain it rarely have it in large amounts. The primary source then of vitamin D is the sun – though, in truth, this is a bit of a misconception. The sun does not provide vitamin D directly – instead, its UVB rays trigger a chemical reaction in our bodies. Once we are exposed to UVB, our bodies begin the process of converting a prohormone in the skin into vitamin D.  

The Vitamin D Council recommends that we supplement our diets with vitamin D3 if we are not getting adequate sunlight. 

There are two types of vitamin D: D2 and D3. D3 is manufactured in the body via sufficient sunlight exposure (and animal foods such fish) while D2 is plant-derived.  

Vitamin D3 can be found in cold water fish, including cod liver oil, herring, halibut, salmon, and also in tuna, eggs, and liver.  

Folate (Folic Acid)

Folic acid is actually a type of B vitamin. It is very important to be sure you have adequate amounts of folic acid during pregnancy to prevent birth defects.

Folic acid helps to form new tissues and proteins and assists in enzyme production and blood formation. Oral contraceptives and long-term antibiotic use can increase the need for folic acid.  Even though folic acid has been added to many of our foods, it is one of the most common vitamin deficiencies.

Good food sources of folic acid are broccoli, dark leafy greens, fruits, chicken, brown rice, whole grains, beets, and eggs.  

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Vitamin E

Vitamin E is a fat-soluble antioxidant that protects us from free radicals.

Even though vitamin E is one of the easier vitamins to obtain from our foods, those on low-fat diets are particularly susceptible to vitamin E insufficiencies.

If you do supplement your diet with vitamin E, it is important that you find it in its natural forms like d-alpha tocopherol or mixed tocopherols, rather than the synthetic form called dl-alpha tocopherol. The natural form is not only more potent, but it is also not excreted by the body as quickly, providing longer-lasting benefit.

Good sources for vitamin E are almonds, leafy vegetables, seafood, soy, wheat germ, and organic meats.

Omega-3: DHA and EPA

We’ll end our list of important nutrients with omega-3, one of the essential fatty acids (or EFAs).  

These healthy fats support brain function, atop a long list of other potential benefits. It's important to know that although these nutrients are essential to our health, our bodies cannot make them and must be obtained through diet or supplementation. 

EFAs help to convert our cells into messengers called prostaglandins, which aid in energy production and good metabolism. 

Omega 3s can be found from certain plant foods like flax and purslane, but the richest omega 3 oils come from the sea, particularly cold-water dark fish like salmon, tuna, mackerel, anchovies, and sardines.  These oilier fish have a higher omega 3 fat content.

It is important that we look to eco-friendly and sustainable fishing practices when seeking to satisfy our appetite for fish.  

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