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The Best Vitamin B Foods For Vegans & Omnivores Alike

Whether you've recently gone vegan or are looking to optimize your nutrition as an omnivore, B vitamins are essential for overall health. As a cluster of eight vitamins, they're responsible for everything from muscle to cognitive function, says dietitian Elana Natker, M.S., R.D.

Here's the thing about B vitamins: Because they're water-soluble and not stored by the body, vitamin B complex supplements are often unfairly dubbed "expensive pee" because they tend to turn our urine fluorescent yellow when consumed in excess, according to Valerie Goldberg Libraty, RDN, owner of No Diet Dietitian. But they're so much more than that, she says, noting that they're essential in numerous metabolic reactions and red blood cell, DNA, and brain health. "I like to think of water-soluble vitamins [like vitamin B] like a pinball machine," says Goldberg Libraty. "They bounce around and do their thing before they're excreted."

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While vitamin B is most abundant in animal foods, most B vitamins can also be found in plant foods—although in smaller amounts—according to Natker. "I recommend vegans get plenty of grains in their diets from things like bread, [fortified] breakfast cereal, and pasta," she says. Vegetables like spinach, along with ingredients such as nutritional yeast (a vegan favorite) also contain many of the B vitamins. 

Fortunately, there are a number of foods for vegans and omnivores alike that will help support healthy levels of the eight distinct B vitamins.

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Types of vitamin B:

Vitamin B1

Vitamin B1, known as thiamin1, plays a crucial role in various cell functions, and only a small amount is stored in the liver, requiring daily adequate intake. Deficiencies are uncommon since B1 is found in common foods like fish, meats, and whole grains. But chronically low intake, poor absorption, increased loss (through urine or stools), or increased needs (such as during pregnancy) could potentially lead to inadequate thiamine levels. 

Recommended dietary allowance: 1.1–1.2 milligrams

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Vitamin B2

Vitamin B2 or riboflavin2 works as a crucial antioxidant, fighting free radicals that can contribute to inflammation. It's also important for converting vitamin B6 into a more bioavailable (aka usable) form, protecting eye health and relieving the severity of migraines3. While riboflavin tends to be abundant in a standard well-balanced diet (yes, even vegan diets), vegetarian athletes4 and pregnant or lactating women5 may be at a higher risk of inadequacy. 

Recommended dietary allowance: 1.3 milligrams

Vitamin B3

Also known as niacin, vitamin B3 is essential for maintaining heart and circulatory health, brain health, skin health, and cognitive health. All three forms of vitamin B3 (nicotinic acid, nicotinamide, and nicotinamide riboside) are precursors of NAD+6, which contributes to cell function and promotes healthy aging.

Recommended dietary allowance: 16 milligrams (niacin equivalents) 

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Vitamin B5

Known as pantothenic acid7, vitamin B5 is used to make coenzyme A, which helps enzymes metabolize fatty acids in the blood. A diet rich in B5 is thus linked to lower incidences of hyperlipidemia characterized by elevated levels of "bad" cholesterol or triglycerides. While more research is needed to conclude its efficacy as an antioxidant, it does demonstrate a positive effect on low-grade inflammation associated with heart disease.

Adequate intake: 5 milligrams

Vitamin B6

By supporting lymphocyte production (a type of white blood cell), vitamin B68 is crucial for maintaining a strong immune system. It's essential in over 100 enzyme reactions, most notably those involved in metabolizing proteins. While most people get enough pantothenic acid in the diet, those with impaired kidney function9, alcohol dependency, or autoimmune disease10 are at risk for a deficiency. 

Recommended dietary allowance: 1.3 milligrams

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Vitamin B7

Also known as the "beauty vitamin," B7 or biotin11 helps promote skin, hair, and nail health. And biotin deficiency can actually lead to hair thinning, brittle nails, and red scaly rashes on the skin. Increasing biotin-rich foods or taking a supplement can help resolve those side effects. 

However, biotin deficiency is relatively rare in our modern world, and reaching for it when you're getting enough won't lead to additional benefits. In fact, excess biotin may actually interfere with blood test lab results12

Biotin also helps metabolize fats, carbohydrates and proteins, and assists in gene regulation and cell signaling. 

Daily adequate intake: 25 micrograms 

Vitamin B9

Known as folate in its natural form or folic acid in supplement form, Natker says vitamin B9 "helps prevent neural tube defects13 in early pregnancy and is important for healthy red blood cells." In fact, Goldberg Libraty adds that research suggests both reproductive parties should consider supplementing with folic acid.

Recommended dietary allowance: 400 micrograms (dietary folate equivalents) 

Vitamin B12

Goldberg Libraty says vitamin B1214, or cobalamin, is essential for the formation and division of red blood cells as well as DNA and nerve health. It's only derived from animal proteins, which is why many vegans take a vitamin B12 supplement to help meet their daily needs. But ingredients such as nutritional yeast and tempeh can be fortified with vitamin B12. 

Other factors leading to vitamin B12 deficiency15 include older age, autoimmune conditions, bowel disease, and the use of antacids. "I like to look at my clients' B12 status annually since supplementing is easy and may prevent [cognitive impairment]16," she says.

Recommended dietary allowance: 2.4 micrograms

Vegan vitamin B foods:

Nutritional Yeast

Per 1 tbsp:

  • Vitamin B1/thiamin: 9.92 mg
  • Vitamin B2/riboflavin: 10 mg
  • Vitamin B3/niacin: 56 mg
  • Vitamin B6: 12 mg
  • Vitamin B9/folic acid: 752 mcg
  • Vitamin B12: 24 mcg

Peanuts

Per 1 oz:

  • Vitamin B1/thiamin: 0.181 mg
  • Vitamin B2/riboflavin: 0.085 mg
  • Vitamin B3/niacin: 3.43 mg
  • Vitamin B5/pantothenic acid: 0.502 mg
  • Vitamin B6: 0.099 mg
  • Vitamin B9/folate: 68 mcg
  • Vitamin B12: 0 mcg

Spinach

Per 100g:

  • Vitamin B1/thiamin: 0.077 mg
  • Vitamin B2/riboflavin: 0.189 mg
  • Vitamin B3/niacin: 0.724 mg
  • Vitamin B6: 0.195 mg
  • Vitamin B7/biotin: 2 mcg
  • Vitamin B9/folate: 194 mcg
  • Vitamin B12: 0 mcg

Avocado

Per fruit (150 g):

  • Vitamin B1/thiamin: 0.102 mg
  • Vitamin B2/riboflavin: 0.194 mg
  • Vitamin B3/niacin: 2.6 mg
  • Vitamin B5/pantothenic acid: 1.99 mg
  • Vitamin B6: 0.39 mg
  • Vitamin B9/folate: 121 mcg
  • Vitamin B12: 0 mcg

Sweet Potato

Per medium sweet potato (114 g):

  • Vitamin B1/thiamin: 0.122 mg
  • Vitamin B2/riboflavin: 0.121 mg
  • Vitamin B3/niacin: 1.7 mg
  • Vitamin B5/pantothenic acid: 1.01 mg
  • Vitamin B6: 0.326 mg
  • Vitamin B9/folate: 6.84 mcg
  • Vitamin B12: 0 mcg

Vitamin B foods for omnivores

Beef liver

Per 3 oz:

  • Vitamin B1/thiamin: 0.165 mg
  • Vitamin B2/riboflavin: 2.91 mg
  • Vitamin B3/niacin: 14.9 mg
  • Vitamin B5/pantothenic acid: 6 mg
  • Vitamin B6: 0.8 mg
  • Vitamin B9/folate: 215 mcg
  • Vitamin B12: 60 mcg

Chicken breast

Per 3 oz:

  • Vitamin B1/thiamin: 0.69 mg
  • Vitamin B2/riboflavin: 0.111 mg
  • Vitamin B3/niacin: 8.19 mg
  • Vitamin B6: 0.267 mg
  • Vitamin B9/folate: 9.35 mcg
  • Vitamin B12: 0.23 mcg

Salmon

Per 3 oz:

  • Vitamin B1/thiamin: 0.037 mg
  • Vitamin B2/riboflavin: 0.131 mg
  • Vitamin B3/niacin: 8.5 mg
  • Vitamin B5/pantothenic acid: 0.735 mg
  • Vitamin B6: 0.393 mg
  • Vitamin B9/folate: 30 mcg
  • Vitamin B12: 2.44 mcg

Milk

Per 1 cup:

  • Vitamin B1/thiamin: 0.145 mg
  • Vitamin B2/riboflavin: 0.336 mg
  • Vitamin B3/niacin: 0.274 mg
  • Vitamin B5/pantothenic acid: 0.956 mg
  • Vitamin B6: 0.149 mg
  • Vitamin B9/folate: 4.9 mcg
  • Vitamin B12: 1.39 mcg

Eggs

Per large egg (50 g):

  • Vitamin B1/thiamin: 0.033 mg
  • Vitamin B2/riboflavin: 0.257 mg
  • Vitamin B3/niacin: 0.032 mg
  • Vitamin B6: 0.06 mg
  • Vitamin B9/folate: 22 mcg
  • Vitamin B12: 0.55 mcg

While it may seem daunting to think about getting adequate levels of all eight vitamins in the vitamin B-complex family, eating a well-balanced diet consisting of produce, whole grains, enriched foods, and select protein sources can help you stay in tiptop shape from your head to your heart and everything in between.