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Vitamins: Their Functions and Sources
The tables below list the vitamins, what they do in the body (their functions), and their sources in food.
Water-soluble vitamins travel freely through the body, and excess amounts usually are excreted by the kidneys. The body needs water-soluble vitamins in frequent, small doses. These vitamins are not as likely as fat-soluble vitamins to reach toxic levels. But niacin, vitamin B6, folate, choline, and vitamin C have upper consumption limits. Vitamin B6 at high levels over a long period of time has been shown to cause irreversible nerve damage.
A balanced diet usually provides enough of these vitamins. People older than 50 and some vegetarians may need to use supplements to get enough B12.
Thiamine (vitamin B1)
Part of an enzyme needed for energy metabolism; important to nerve function
Found in all nutritious foods in moderate amounts: pork, whole-grain or enriched breads and cereals, legumes, nuts and seeds
Riboflavin (vitamin B2)
Part of an enzyme needed for energy metabolism; important for normal vision and skin health
Milk and milk products; leafy green vegetables; whole-grain, enriched breads and cereals
Niacin (vitamin B3)
Part of an enzyme needed for energy metabolism; important for nervous system, digestive system, and skin health
Meat, poultry, fish, whole-grain or enriched breads and cereals, vegetables (especially mushrooms, asparagus, and leafy green vegetables), peanut butter
Part of an enzyme needed for energy metabolism
Widespread in foods
Part of an enzyme needed for energy metabolism
Widespread in foods; also produced in intestinal tract by bacteria
Pyridoxine (vitamin B6)
Part of an enzyme needed for protein metabolism; helps make red blood cells
Meat, fish, poultry, vegetables, fruits
Part of an enzyme needed for making DNA and new cells, especially red blood cells
Leafy green vegetables and legumes, seeds, orange juice, and liver; now added to most refined grains
Cobalamin (vitamin B12)
Part of an enzyme needed for making new cells; important to nerve function
Meat, poultry, fish, seafood, eggs, milk and milk products; not found in plant foods
Ascorbic acid (vitamin C)
Antioxidant ; part of an enzyme needed for protein metabolism; important for immune system health; aids in iron absorption
Found only in fruits and vegetables, especially citrus fruits, vegetables in the cabbage family, cantaloupe, strawberries, peppers, tomatoes, potatoes, lettuce, papayas, mangoes, kiwifruit
Fat-soluble vitamins are stored in the body's cells and are not excreted as easily as water-soluble vitamins. They do not need to be consumed as often as water-soluble vitamins, although adequate amounts are needed. If you take too much of a fat-soluble vitamin, it could become toxic. Your body is especially sensitive to too much vitamin A from animal sources (retinol) and too much vitamin D. A balanced diet usually provides enough fat-soluble vitamins.
Vitamin A (and its precursor*, beta-carotene)
*A precursor is converted by the body to the vitamin.
Needed for vision, healthy skin and mucous membranes, bone and tooth growth, immune system health
Vitamin A from animal sources (retinol): fortified milk, cheese, cream, butter, fortified margarine, eggs, liver
Beta-carotene (from plant sources): Leafy, dark green vegetables; dark orange fruits (apricots, cantaloupe) and vegetables (carrots, winter squash, sweet potatoes, pumpkin)
Needed for proper absorption of calcium; stored in bones
Egg yolks, liver, fatty fish, fortified milk, fortified margarine. When exposed to sunlight, the skin can make vitamin D.
Antioxidant; protects cell walls
Polyunsaturated plant oils (soybean, corn, cottonseed, safflower); leafy green vegetables; wheat germ; whole-grain products; liver; egg yolks; nuts and seeds
Needed for proper blood clotting
Leafy green vegetables such as kale, collard greens, and spinach; green vegetables such as broccoli, brussels sprouts, and asparagus; also produced in intestinal tract by bacteria
Current as of: September 8, 2021
Author: Healthwise Staff
Kathleen Romito MD - Family Medicine
E. Gregory Thompson MD - Internal Medicine
Rhonda O'Brien MS, RD, CDE - Certified Diabetes Educator
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