Vitamins and minerals are substances your body needs to grow and function properly.
You’ve probably heard of the 13 essential vitamins (A, C, D, E, K and 8 B vitamins) and essential minerals (like calcium and potassium). They’re good for you and keep your body running smoothly. But since we don’t make enough of these on our own, we need to get them through our diet, as Dr. Donald Hensrud, medical director of the Mayo Clinic Healthy Living Program, tells BuzzFeed Health.
Each vitamin and mineral has a recommended daily allowance (RDA) determined by the USDA. That’s because you only need so much of each vitamin and mineral; too much or too little can cause problems, registered dietitian Brian St. Pierre, director of performance nutrition at Precision Nutrition, tells BuzzFeed Health.
But loading up on extra vitamins won’t improve anything or give you superpowers.
Vitamins kind of work like gas in a car. “If your tank is empty, then you need to add more gas for your car to run properly — but if the tank is full, adding more gas isn’t going to make the car run any better,” Hensrud says. So, while a vitamin A deficiency can lead to vision problems, getting more vitamin A than recommended won’t make you wake up with perfect vision.
In fact, your body can only absorb as much as it needs of a certain vitamin, and any extra amount won’t be used. Excess amounts of water-soluble vitamins (like B-complex or C) will just come out in your urine, Hensrud says, and excess amounts of fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E, and K ) will get stored in your body’s tissues.
Instead of popping a multivitamin, most people should be getting the bulk of their vitamins and minerals from food, according to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
That’s because whole foods have thousands of other compounds and phytochemicals that interact with the vitamins and minerals to give us a more complex source of nutrients. If you just get your vitamins from a pill, you miss out on all the other good stuff, St. Pierre says.
“Mother nature is pretty smart, so the concentration and combination of nutrients in whole foods is way more optimal than a synthetic supplement,” Hensrud says. Population studies on people who consume mostly whole foods like veggies, fruits, nuts, and fish show a lower risk of overall mortality (death), cardiovascular disease, and cancer. But randomized controlled trials on people who take isolated supplements show little to no benefit, Hensrud says.
That said, there are exceptions where vitamin supplements are necessary — like in people with diagnosed vitamin deficiencies caused by another medical condition, or in pregnant women who need prenatal vitamins like folic acid to support embryonic development, says Hensrud.
So how can you make sure you’re eating enough vitamins and minerals? We’ll make it easy for you…
Here’s a list of some of the most common vitamins and minerals you might typically get from a multivitamin — but instead, we included a few options for getting them in food form. Eat up!
Why you need it: Vitamin A is important for good vision, the immune system, embryonic development, and bone growth.
How much you need: Adults need about 700–900 micrograms (µg) per day.
According to the experts, the healthiest way to get vitamin A is from carotenoids, which are found in fruits and vegetables and get converted to vitamin A in the body — as opposed to pre-formed vitamin A, which is found in animal and dairy products.
Why you need it: Vitamin B6 is important for protein metabolism, forming neurotransmitters, enzyme function, and the nerve system.
How much you need: Adults need about 1.3–1.5 milligrams per day.
Why you need it: Vitamin C is an antioxidant that’s important for protecting cells from damaging free radicals (like from smoke and pollution), synthesizing collagen for healthy skin, and absorbing iron.
How much you need: Adults need 75–90 milligrams per day.
Why you need it: Vitamin E is important for cell signaling, healthy skin, protecting cells from free radicals, and immune function.
How much you need: Adults need about 15 milligrams per day.
Vitamin E comes in many forms but the only one found naturally in food which meets human’s nutritional needs is alpha-tocopherol.
Why you need it: Vitamin K is important for blood clotting and coagulation, amino acid metabolism, and forming strong bones.
How much you need: Adults need 90–120 micrograms per day.*
*Daily intake will change if you are on blood-thinning medication.
Why you need it: Calcium is important for bone density, forming teeth, muscle contraction, and hormone secretion.
How much you need: Adults need about 1,000 milligrams per day.
Why you need it: Folate is important for red blood cell formation, protein synthesis, fetal health, and preventing neural tube defects in pregnant women.
How much you need: Adults need 400 micrograms per day.
Why you need it: Iron is important for hemoglobin production, forming red blood cells, cellular energy production, and metabolizing drugs in the body.
How much you need: Adults need an average of 13 milligrams per day.*
*Specifically, men need 8 milligrams per day and anyone who gets a period needs 18 milligrams per day to support iron loss during menstruation.
Why you need it: Magnesium is important for over 300 enzymes in the body, carbohydrate and fat metabolism, protein synthesis, and wound healing.
How much you need: Adults need 320–420 milligrams per day.
Why you need it: Potassium is important for fluid retention, electrolyte balance, heart function, and reactions in every cell of the body.
How much you need: Adults need 4.7 grams per day.
Why you need it: Zinc is important for neurological function, immune function, cell structure, and promoting chemical reactions in the body.
How much you need: Adults need 8–11 milligrams per day.