When the incredibly named Casimir Funk discovered vitamins in the early 1900s, he thought there were just a couple of them that explained deficiency diseases like scurvy and beriberi.
Now it’s well known that there are dozens of essential vitamins and minerals, and in most cases a well-balanced diet will get you enough of them -- you probably don’t know anyone who’s succumbed to scurvy. But there are some vitamins and minerals people in the US could use more of; here’s how to get them in your diet.
Sure, it’s kind of ridiculous that there are eight B vitamins, but they’re numbered one to 12. Complicating matters is the fact that there are a couple of them that tend to be difficult to get enough of in the diet, including B6.
Vitamin B6 is important because it helps make the “happiness neurotransmitter” serotonin, which means that B6 keeps you happy, to a certain extent. Having low levels can also lead to an increased risk for heart disease, and you don’t want that. The best sources are fish, poultry, and potatoes. Congratulations, you did yourself some good this Thanksgiving!
Vitamin B12 can be an issue for those who don’t know the happiness that is meat: vegetarians and vegans. Since B12 comes from seafood, meat, eggs, and dairy products, vegans need to get B12 in supplement form, since it helps your body produce red blood cells and DNA -- and you really, really need both of those. Luckily, the vitamin is added to many breakfast cereals, so check the nutrition facts when you’re buying them, or get it in pill form if you don’t eat meat.
Vitamin D is essential for your bones (your body needs it to absorb calcium), and it might play a role in muscular health, cardiovascular health, immunity, preventing diabetes, preventing cancer, and preventing the inescapable sadness of human existence. Only one of those is made up!
The problem is that almost 40% of healthy young adults are deficient in vitamin D, and it’s not that easy to get it from food, with mushrooms, fatty fish, and egg yolks being some of the only dietary sources of D. Fortunately, your body makes vitamin D when you’re exposed to ultraviolet rays (i.e. sunlight), but it can be difficult to get outside if it’s winter and you have a job (and/or access to a streaming video service).
Since people with different skin colors make different amounts, integrative physician and cardiologist Dr. Dennis Goodman recommends knowing your individual level. “Ask your doctor to check your 25-hydroxyvitamin D -- that’s a blood test, very easy to get.” This is definitely one where some people are advised to take supplements, since you can only have so much D-fortified milk and cereal. “I’d rather see someone getting it from a supplement than not getting it at all,” Dr. Goodman says.
Iron is central to the structure of hemoglobin, which is a molecule in your red blood cells that delivers oxygen from your lungs to every part of your body. So having enough iron is kind of important, and having too little is known as anemia.
Anemics typically feel really tired or weak -- duh, you’re not getting enough oxygen! It’s kind of ironic (get it?) that one of the primary sources of iron in the Western diet is breakfast cereal, because it doesn’t actually contain very much to begin with. It’s fortified, and there’s even a fun experiment you can do to actually see how much is in your cereal. The other good sources are oysters, beans, beef liver, spinach, and chocolate. Blend all of those up in a smoothie if you want a disgusting -- but iron-rich! -- breakfast.
Magnesium is a workhorse mineral that mingles with enzymes all over the body and plays a role in 300 different bodily processes. Since it’s so abundant in so many foods, you might think most people would be all set on magnesium. Unfortunately, the very best sources of magnesium are the health-nut kinds of foods that most people steer clear of: leafy greens, nuts, seeds, and the like.
The result is that magnesium deficiency is pretty common, and it’s also underestimated, according to Dr. Goodman, who happens to have written a whole book on the subject. “I have many patients who are magnesium deficient and don’t even know it,” he claims. “They’re coming with all sorts of nonspecific symptoms: muscle cramps, palpitations, insomnia.” And he says it’s not even as easy as sucking it up and putting some kale on your plate. “A lot of soil is low in magnesium, so people can be deficient because they’re not getting their vegetables from soil that is healthy soil,” Dr. Goodman explains. “If you can, go with organic or try your local farmers' market, where you’re most likely to get things grown in good soil.”
You might think of the banana as the perfect source of potassium, and it’s not bad, but even the banana people admit that you’d need to eat about seven or eight of them to get the recommended daily amount. No thanks. Fortunately a sweet potato -- or even a white potato! -- has about 50% more potassium than a banana. Yogurt, fish, and dried fruit are just a few of the other sources. Our bodies use potassium to build protein, break down carbs, and keep the electrical signals of the heart going. So yup, you’re going to want to make sure you have enough potassium.
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Marina Komarovsky is a freelance writer for Thrillist and she uses vitamin B12 as an excuse to eat unreasonable amounts of yogurt. For more on nutrition, follow her tweets: @MariKomarovsky.