If you want to keep your body healthy, strong, and feeling good, you can’t ignore B vitamins. These essential nutrients play a ton of important roles in keeping our bodies running smoothly—they help with digestion and metabolism; convert carbohydrates, fats, and protein into energy; maintain a healthy nervous system, and a much more. You’ve likely heard of vitamins B6 and B12, but there are actually eight B vitamins essential to human health.
Here’s a bit of information on why each B vitamin is important to a healthy diet:
B1 (Thiamin): Thiamin helps the body’s cells grow, function, and turn carbohydrates into energy. It’s also important for nerve, heart, and muscle function. The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for adult women is 1.1 mg/day (and 1.4 mg/day if pregnant or lactating), and the RDA for adult men is 1.2 mg/day.
B2 (Riboflavin): Riboflavin helps the body metabolize other B vitamins, convert food into energy, and produce red blood cells. Adult women need about 1.1 mg/day (1.4 mg/day when pregnant and 1.6 mg/day when lactating) and adult men need 1.3 mg/day.
B3 (Niacin): Niacin helps the body digest food, convert food to energy, and maintain a properly functioning nervous system. The RDA for women is 14 mg (17 mg if breastfeeding and 18 mg if pregnant), and 16 mg for men.
B5 (Pantothenic acid): Like many other B vitamins, pantothenic acid is important for converting food (particularly fats) into energy. Adult men and women need around 5 mg/day, whereas pregnant teens and adults need 6 mg/day and breastfeeding teens and adults require 7 mg/day.
B6 (Pyridoxine): Pyridoxine, commonly known as B6, helps the body with various aspects of metabolism, supports immune and nervous system function, helps the body fight infection, and is crucial to healthy development of a baby’s brain during pregnancy and infancy. The recommended daily intake for adult women is 1.3 mg for adults ages 19-50, 1.5 mg for women 51+, 1.7 mg for men 51+, 1.9 mg for pregnant teens and women, and 2.0 mg for breastfeeding teens and women.
B7 (Biotin): Biotin helps the body metabolize food and is also important in maintaining healthy nails, hair, and skin. The RDI for adults is 30 mcg (including during pregnancy), and a slightly higher 35 mcg for breastfeeding teens and women.
B9 (folate): Folate plays an important role in cell growth and metabolism, and is crucial in helping pregnant women produce DNA and other genetic material. The recommended daily intake is 400 mcg for adults, 500 mcg for breastfeeding women, and 600 mcg for pregnant women. “Folate is an especially important nutrient for women who are pregnant because folate is essential for the formation of the baby's neural tube,” explains Sarah Rueven, MS, RDN, CDN.
Meet the Expert
Sarah Rueven is a New York City-based registered dietitian and founder of Rooted Wellness.
B12 (cobalamin): Cobalamin, which you’ve likely heard referred to more simply as B12, is crucial to keeping your nervous system functioning properly and creating healthy red blood cells. It also helps the body create DNA and break down proteins. B12 is abundant in foods that come from animal sources, but hard to obtain from plant-based foods. For this reason, people who do not consume animal products will need to eat B12-enriched products or B12 supplements to maintain the recommended intake of B12. Adults need around 2.4 mcg/day, whereas pregnant women need 2.6 mcg/day and breastfeeding women need 2.8 mcg/day.
So what kind of foods should you be eating for your B vitamins? Animal-based foods such as red meats, poultry, seafood, shellfish, eggs and dairy are all great sources, Rueven says, as are plant-based foods like dark leafy greens, legumes, nuts and seeds.
You’ll want to consume foods containing B vitamins regularly, as these vitamins are water soluble. This means they dissolve in water and are absorbed directly into the body for use, with excess amounts excreted through urine rather than stored in the body. To get the most out of these foods, you’ll want to be mindful of how you cook them.
“Boiling vegetables high in B-vitamins will result in much of B-vitamin content escaping into the cooking water, rather than remaining in the food,” explains Anna Hartman, RDN. “To conserve vitamin content, you could steam, roast, bake, or grill the vegetables to cook them without immersing them in water.”
Meet the Expert
Anna Hartman is a Louisville-based registered dietitian and founder of Food Smarts, a full-service nutritional counseling and wellness-coaching program.
Now that you’re up to speed on many of the reasons why vitamin B foods are so important to your health, here are a few foods you can eat to reap the benefits:
If you’re looking for a food that contains a broad spectrum of B vitamins, grab some wild salmon filets at the supermarket. Just one serving contains about 80% of the daily recommended amount of B12, around 75% of the recommended amount of B6 and niacin, as well as thiamin, riboflavin, pantothenic acid, biotin, and folic acid.
Hard Boiled Eggs
Hard boiled eggs pack in all the B vitamins. One or two hard boiled eggs with breakfast or lunch will contain B12, B6, biotin, folate, thiamin, riboflavin, pantothenic acid, and niacin.
Looking to sip your B vitamins rather than chew? A cup of milk accounts for around 29% of the daily recommendation for riboflavin, nearly half the recommendation for vitamin B12, along with B6, biotin, niacin, thiamin, and pantothenic acid. (If you're lactose-intolerant, oat milk is a great vitamin B-rich alternative.)
If you’re looking for fruit with a decent amount of B vitamins, oranges are a good choice. This citrus contains folate, B6, thiamin, niacin, riboflavin, and pantothenic acid.
Beef is a great source for all your B vitamins: B12, B6, biotin, thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, folate, and pantothenic acid.
Hummus lovers will be pleased to hear that chickpeas are packed with B vitamins, including vitamin B6, folate, thiamin, niacin, pantothenic acid, and riboflavin.
Fortified Nutritional Yeast
A great option for non-meat eaters who are looking to up their B12 intake, fortified nutritional yeast contains up to 100% of the recommended daily intake of vitamin B12, though the actual amount will vary depending on the specific product. It also contains vitamin B6, biotin, thiamin, riboflavin, and niacin.
Containing thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, and folate, whole grains like brown rice and barley are some of the most commonly recommended sources of B vitamins. Many whole grains are also fortified with folate, which is important during pregnancy.
Sweet potatoes are a great vegetarian source of various B vitamins, including folate, thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, biotin, and vitamin B6.
Bananas are an easy, on-the-go source of B6, folate, thiamin, riboflavin, and niacin.
For tiny legumes, lentils contain a whole lot of B vitamins. Whipping up a pot for the week will help you maintain proper levels of thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, and folate.
Raw carrots contain thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, folate, and vitamin B6. Whether tossed in a salad or dipped in hummus, carrots are a pretty good way to consume some vitamin B, especially if you’re looking for something light.
If your go-to snack of choice is nuts (and you’re also after some vitamin B), grab a handful of almonds, which contain riboflavin, biotin, thiamin, niacin, folate, and vitamin B6.
Great news to everyone in the avocado toast fan club: Avocado is an excellent source of numerous B vitamins, including vitamin B6, thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, folate, biotin, and pantothenic acid.
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