Sometimes you get the impression from news reports and advertising that every vitamin and nutrient on the planet is “essential” to good health. But what’s the truth of the matter?
In actuality, the term “essential” has a slightly different meaning than many of us think. The body makes certain vitamins and minerals on its own, but others must be gathered via food and drink.
An essential vitamin or nutrient is one that cannot be manufactured by our body but is needed for normal physiological function. It must be obtained through a dietary source. Essential nutrients are used for metabolic processes of cells, proper organ and tissue functions, cognitive function, and similar needs.
Not all vitamins purchased over the counter are essential nutrients. For humans, the necessary nutrients include nine amino acids, thirteen vitamins, two fatty acids, and fifteen minerals:
There are about 500 amino acids in the body, but only nine need to be taken externally. These include:
- Phenylalanine: Essential for cognitive and bone function and known to help prevent depression, ADHD, chronic pain, and arthritis. Can be consumed in meat, fish, eggs, cheese, and milk.
- Valine: Essential for muscle metabolism, nitrogen balance, and tissue repair. Dietary sources include meats, dairy products, beans, and legumes.
- Threonine: Essential for nervous system health. Dietary sources include meat, soy, shellfish, cheese, nuts, seeds, beans, liver, and lentils.
- Tryptophan: Essential for the development and function of organs as well as the production of serotonin. Dietary sources include dark chocolate, oats, dried dates, dairy products, red meat, poultry, and nuts and seeds.
- Methionine: Essential for liver protection. Dietary sources include meats, nuts, soy, eggs, dairy, and beans.
- Leucine: Essential for muscle development and repair. Dietary sources include cheese, soybeans, meats, nuts and seeds, beans, and seafood.
- Isoleucine: Essential for energy production. Dietary sources include soy, meats, legumes, dairy products, and eggs.
- Lysine: Essential for proper growth and development as well as energy production. Dietary sources include lean meats, seafood, nuts and seeds, eggs, beans, and lentils.
- Histidine: Essential for the formation of proteins and multiple metabolic reactions in the body. Dietary sources include poultry, meat, fish, dairy, and some grain products like rice, wheat, and rye.
Vitamins keep you feeling great and your body functioning properly. There are 13 vitamins that the human body needs to consume:
- Vitamin A: Fat-soluble vitamin that acts as an antioxidant. Dietary sources include sweet potatoes, carrots, dark leafy greens, squashes, apricots, cantaloupe, bell peppers, fish, liver, and tropical fruits.
- Vitamin C: Essential for growth and repair of tissues throughout the body, including wounds, repairing bones and teeth, and fighting off illness. Dietary sources include oranges, red peppers, kale, brussels spouts, broccoli, strawberries, grapefruit, and guava.
- Vitamin D: Essential for absorbing calcium, promoting bone growth, and dopamine production. Dietary sources include fatty fish, reinforced dairy products, orange juice, beef liver, cheese, and egg yolks.
- Vitamin E: Fat-soluble nutrient that acts as an antioxidant against damage caused by free radicals. Dietary sources include almonds, spinach, sweet potato, avocado, wheat germ, sunflower seeds, and squash.
- Vitamin K: Essential for blood clotting. Dietary sources include green leafy vegetables, cabbage, broccoli, dairy, prunes, and brussels sprouts.
- B Vitamins: All eight B vitamins help convert carbs into fuel to produce energy. They also aid in metabolizing fats and proteins.
- B1 (Thiamine): Dietary sources include beef, liver, nuts, oats, oranges, pork, eggs, seeds, yeast, legumes, and peas.
- B2 (Riboflavin): Dietary sources include beef liver, mushrooms, spinach, sun-dried tomatoes, lamb, natural yogurt, spinach, and milk.
- B3 (Niacin): Dietary sources include turkey, chicken, peanuts, liver, green peas, peanuts, grass-fed beef, and tuna.
- B5 (Panthothenic Acid): Dietary sources include broccoli, avocados, meats, milk, legumes, mushrooms, and sweet potatoes.
- B6 (Pyridoxine): Dietary sources include starchy vegetables, fruit other than citrus, tree nuts, bananas, and meat.
- B7 (Biotin): Dietary sources include raw egg, peanuts, leafy greens, liver, and raw egg yolk.
- B9 (Folic Acid): Dietary sources include pasta, bread, leafy vegetables, reinforced cereal, liver, and other organ meats.
- B12 (Cyanocobalmin): Dietary sources include poultry, eggs, milk and other dairy products, meat, and fish.
The bodies of both humans and animals can make most of its fat from other fats or raw materials. However, it cannot synthesize the following two fatty acids used for the formation of healthy cell membranes, hormone production, regulation of blood functions, and transport and breakdown of cholesterol.
- Alpha-linolenic acid (an omega-3 fatty acid): Reduces risk of heat disease, depression, dementia, and arthritis. Dietary sources include flaxseed, fish, canola, soy, perilla, and walnut oils.
- Linoleic acid (an omega-6 fatty acid): Increases metabolic rates, boosts the immune system, and helps with cholesterol. Dietary sources include eggs, whole milk, and animal fats like lamb and beef.
Minerals come from the earth and therefore cannot be synthesized by living organisms. Plants get minerals from soil, and humans get them from plants and animals that eat the plants. The 15 minerals essential for the body include:
- Carbon: Basic building block of most cells and makes up about 18 percent of the body. Dietary sources include turkey, chicken, beef, cheese, lamb, tuna, and salmon.
- Hydrogen: Also essential for cells as well as chemical reactions. Dietary sources include legumes, fish, dairy, poultry, lettuce, fruits, and vegetables.
- Oxygen: Aside from breathing, oxygen oxidizes food and creates energy in the body. Dietary sources include lemons, kiwis, alfalfa sprouts, apples, celery, carrots, bananas, and avocados.
- Nitrogen: Promotes growth and strength of hair, skin, muscles, and other vital tissues. Dietary sources include soy products, green peas, legumes, cauliflower, spinach, asparagus, and fruits.
- Sulfur: Promotes growth of skin, bones, and muscles. Dietary sources include fish, poultry, eggs, and other meats.
- Calcium: The most abundant mineral in the body. Promotes growth and repair of bones and teeth. Also aids the central nervous system in relaying messages to muscles. Dietary sources include leafy greens, white beans, soybeans, dairy, fish, and fortified foods.
- Phosphorus: Works with calcium to build strong bones and teeth. Dietary sources include dairy, meat, nuts, beans, whole grains, and fish.
- Potassium: Maintains a water balance between cells and body fluid, which aids in nerve conduction and muscle contraction. Dietary sources include bananas, sweet potato, potato, white beans, yogurt, and winter squash.
- Sodium: Maintains blood pressure. Natural dietary sources include salt, beets, milk, and canned foods.
- Chlorine: Essential for body secretions and excretions. Dietary sources include rye, tomatoes, olives, lettuce, celery, and seaweed.
- Magnesium: Regulates muscle and nerve function, blood sugar levels, and blood pressure. Dietary sources include dark leafy greens, yogurt, bananas, dark chocolate, dried fruit, beans, fish, avocados, nuts and seeds, and whole grains.
- Iron: Carries oxygen from lungs to your body through red blood cells. Dietary sources include pork, poultry, red meat, beans, peas, dark leafy greens, dried fruit, fortified cereals, and seafood.
- Zinc: Promotes immune system as well as makes proteins and DNA. Dietary sources include red meat, whole grains, fortified breakfast cereals, and poultry.
- Manganese: Forms connective tissues, bones, blood-clotting factors, and sex hormones. Dietary sources include leafy vegetables, whole grains, soy, beans, seeds, and nuts.
- Copper: Produces red blood cells and maintains nerve and immune system health. Dietary sources include liver, dark chocolate, asparagus, almonds, lentils, molasses, and sunflower seeds.
Vitamins and supplements are only useful when you don’t get enough of these essential nutrients in your diet. Your body can only absorb so much of each, so taking supplements beyond that isn’t helpful. Unless you have a deficiency, don’t buy into the hype to ingest extra vitamins.
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