To keep itself running smoothly your body requires an array of essential nutrients, ranging from disease-fighting antioxidants to bone-building heavy metals. Although you can get many of these nutrients in a daily supplement, nearly all of them can also be found in the foods you eat—or should be eating—every day.
Want to get your vitamins and minerals the natural way? Our guide breaks down the best foods for the most important nutrients (and the accompanying recipes offer healthy and tasty ways to enjoy them).
Why you need it: The vitamin A family plays a key role in immunity, reproductive behaviors, and especially vision. The A vitamins, which include beta-carotene, help the retina, cornea, and membranes of the eye to function properly.
Where to get it: The highest concentration of vitamin A is found in sweet potatoes; just one medium-sized baked sweet potato contains more than 28,000 international units (IU) of vitamin A, or 561% of your recommended daily value (DV). Beef liver, spinach, fish, milk, eggs, and carrots also are good sources.
Why you need it: Vitamin B6 is an umbrella term for six different compounds that have similar effects on the body. These compounds metabolize foods, help form hemoglobin (part of your red blood cells), stabilize blood sugar, and make antibodies that fight disease.
Where to get it: Fish, beef liver, and poultry are all good sources of B6, but the food richest in this vitamin—good news for vegetarians—is the chickpea, or garbanzo bean. One cup of canned chickpeas contains 1.1 milligrams (mg) of vitamin B6, or 55% of your DV.
Why you need it: Vitamin B12 is vital for healthy nervous-system function and for the formation of DNA and red blood cells. It helps guard against anemia, a blood condition that causes fatigue and weakness.
Where to get it: Animal products are your best bet for B12. Cooked clams have the highest concentration of any food, with 84 micro grams —a whopping 1,402% of your DV—in just 3 ounces. (One milligram equals 1,000 micro grams.) Vitamin B12 also occurs naturally in beef liver, trout, salmon, and tuna, and is added to many breakfast cereals.
Why you need it: Vitamin C is an important antioxidant, and it's also a necessary ingredient in several key bodily processes, such as protein metabolism and the synthesis of neurotransmitters.
Where to get it: Most people think citrus when they think of vitamin C, but sweet red peppers actually contain more of the vitamin than any other food: 95 gram per serving (well ahead of oranges and just edging out orange juice, at 93 mg per serving). Other good sources include kiwi fruit, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, and cantaloupe.
Why you need it: Calcium is the most abundant mineral in the body. More than 99% is stored in—and helps fortify—teeth and bones, while the remainder goes toward blood vessel and muscle function, cell communication, and hormone secretion.
Where to get it: Dairy products contain the highest amounts of naturally occurring calcium; plain low-fat yogurt leads the pack with 415 mg (42% DV) per serving. Dark, leafy greens (such as kale and Chinese cabbage) are another natural source of calcium, which can also be found in fortified fruit juices and cereals.
Why you need it: Vitamin D, which our body generates on its own when our skin is exposed to sunlight, helps spur calcium absorption and bone growth. It's also important for cell growth, immunity, and the reduction of inflammation.
Where to get it: Fatty fishes—including swordfish, salmon, and mackerel—are among the few naturally occurring dietary sources of vitamin D. (Cod liver oil is tops, with 1,360 IU per tablespoon, while swordfish is second with 566 IU, or 142% DV.) Most people tend to consume vitamin D via fortified foods such as milk, breakfast cereals, yogurt, and orange juice.
Why you need it: Vitamin E is a powerful antioxidant that protects cells from the harmful molecules known as free radicals. It's important for immunity, and for healthy blood vessel function and clotting (such as occurs when you cut yourself).
Where to get it: While wheat germ oil packs more vitamin E than any other food source (20.3 mg per serving, or 100% DV), most people will find it easier to get their vitamin E from sunflower seeds (7.4 mg per ounce, 37% DV) or almonds (6.8 mg per ounce, 34% DV).
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