Editor's Note: Kristin Kirkpatrick, MS, RD, LD, who authored this post, is a registered dietitian who has been helping people reach their nutritional goals for more than 12 years.
When we think of sickness in America, scurvy isn’t exactly at the top of the list — because most of us get vitamin C in our diets.
Unlike our ancestors, we typically don’t have to worry about serious vitamin deficiency disorders. But that does not mean we get all the essential vitamins and minerals we need to protect against chronic health problems. Certain medical conditions, life stages and special diets can increase the risk for certain insufficiencies that compromise your health. If you’re missing the following five vitamins, learn how to add them to your diet.
Why you need it: Vitamin B12 helps keep your nerve and blood cells healthy, and it aids in your body’s energy production and DNA creation. Unfortunately, as you age, you have less acid in your stomach to break down down protein and release vitamin B12 from food. Also, conditions such as Crohn’s disease or medications such as proton pump inhibitors, H2 blockers and the diabetes drug metformin can interfere with absorption.
How to get it: People over age 50 or others at risk for too little vitamin B12 should ask a doctor about supplementation. But others can get B12 through foods such as fish, meat, poultry, eggs, milk and milk products. For vegetarians and vegans — also at risk for too little B12 — breakfast cereals can be a good source. Just avoid the sugary stuff.
“Certain medical conditions, life stages and special diets can increase the risk for certain insufficiencies that compromise your health.”
Why you need it: Folate (and the synthetic form, folic acid) is particularly important during the first three weeks of pregnancy to prevent birth defects.
How to get it: Increasing your daily consumption is easy and tasty. Leafy green vegetables, fruits and fruit juice, as well as legumes such as dried beans and peas are all natural sources of folate. And since 1998, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has required the addition of folic acid to enriched breads, cereals, flours, corn meals, pastas, rice and other grain products. But keep in mind that many Americans are still not getting enough fruits and vegetables — one of your best sources.
Why you need it: Vitamin D is crucial for bone health and calcium absorption. Vitamin D deficiency also has been linked to certain cancers and heart disease. But unlike other vitamins, our main source of vitamin D is not food — it’s the sun. So risk factors for low levels include living at high latitudes, high levels of air pollution or city smog, dense cloud covering, a high degree of clothing covering the skin, increased sunscreen use and darker skin pigmentation. Only some of these factors are under your control.
How to get it: Many foods today are fortified with vitamin D, including orange juice, milk and breakfast cereals. Natural sources of vitamin D include fatty fishes such as salmon, mackerel, tuna and sardines. If these sources are unavailable to you, talk to your doctor about a vitamin D supplement.
Why you need it: Vitamin B6 is part of nearly 200 biochemical reactions in the human body, but is best known for its role in regulating sleep, appetite and mood. It plays a key role in cognitive abilities and immune function and also helps you make red blood cells. Although deficiency is rare, many Americans, especially the elderly, do not meet the Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) for vitamin B6.
How to get it: A mix of meats, whole grains, vegetables and nuts can help. Foods rich in B6 include baked potatoes, bananas, chicken, garbanzo beans and fortified foods (check labels).
Why you need it: Like folate and folic acid, iron is especially important for women who are pregnant or planning to become pregnant. It also helps your body carry oxygen to cells.
How to get it: The best type of iron to get is “heme iron,” which is better absorbed in the body. Good sources of heme iron include lean meat, poultry and seafood. For vegetarians and vegans, non-heme iron sources such as white beans, lentils and spinach can be helpful — especially if you eat them with foods rich in vitamin C for better absorption. And if you are pregnant, your obstetrician or other health care professional may recommend an iron supplement.