You’ve probably heard people tell you — especially as a kid — that you need to take your vitamins to be healthy! But, did you know that vitamins are actually not the only type of micronutrient essential to our health? That’s right! There are 13 essential vitamins*, and even more essential minerals* that we all need for our optimal health (as well as other essential compounds our bodies require from outside sources).
So why do we need both vitamins and minerals? What’s the difference? Let’s get into it.
What Are Vitamins?
Vitamins* are naturally-occurring compounds that your body either produces on its own or gets from food.
Your body needs a wide array of different vitamins in small amounts for optimal health. Vitamins, along with minerals, are often called micronutrients*. In contrast to macronutrients* – carbohydrates, fat, and protein – which your body needs in larger amounts each day, you only need a few milligrams (mg) or micrograms (mcg) of most vitamins on a daily basis. In contrast, your body needs grams of almost all of each macronutrient – carbohydrates, fat, and protein – for optimal nutrition.
There are two categories of vitamins: fat-soluble and water-soluble.
Fat-soluble vitamins* are best absorbed by your body in the presence of fats, so if you take fat-soluble vitamins as supplements, you may want to do so with a snack or meal containing healthy fats. On the other hand, this doesn’t apply to water-soluble vitamins which are handled differently in the body.
Supplements like multivitamins often contain a combination of fat-soluble vitamins, water-soluble vitamins, and minerals.
There are two primary categories of water-soluble vitamins – B-complex vitamins and vitamin C*. Your body cannot produce water-soluble vitamins on its own, so you'll need to get the nutrients listed below from dietary sources and/or supplements.
- Vitamin B12*: This vitamin is essential for your optimal health. It supports cognitive function, your body's creation of DNA, and the formation of red blood cells. Vitamin B12 is mostly only found in animal-based foods, making it a nutrient that those who adhere to a plant-based diet may need to take as a supplement. (Both vitamin B12 and vitamin D are nutrients that are generally lacking in a plant-based diet.)
- Vitamin B6*: This B vitamin plays an important role in neural development, amino acid metabolism, and more. Unlike B12, B6 is present in multiple plant-based food sources.
- Biotin: Biotin is often referred to as vitamin H or vitamin B7, and limited research suggests that biotin supports healthy hair, skin, and nails* and may support the healthy development of a baby in its mother's womb. And, like vitamin B6, Biotin can be found in a variety of both plant-based and animal-based foods. Biotin also helps your body metabolize fatty acids, glucose, and amino acids.
- Folate*: Folate, also known as vitamin B9, is used by the body to help in the formation of DNA and RNA as well as in other important reactions. You can find vitamin B9 in plant-based foods, including leafy greens like spinach and kale.
- Niacin*: Niacin, or vitamin B3, helps you maintain a healthy metabolism. Plant-based sources of vitamin B3 include peanuts, lentils and fortified grains.
- Pantothenic Acid*: Vitamin B5, or pantothenic acid, also helps to keep your metabolism functioning optimally. One of the best plant-based sources of vitamin B5 is avocado.
- Riboflavin*: Vitamin B2, also known as riboflavin, is found in mushrooms, fortified cereals, and spinach. This B vitamin plays an important role in energy production. energy.
- Thiamine*: Vitamin B1, or thiamine, is another B vitamin that contributes to a healthy metabolism. It's also found in plant-based foods, including white rice, black beans, and sunflower seeds.
Vitamin C is another water-soluble vitamin that your body cannot produce on its own. This essential nutrient serves several important roles within your body, including:
- Helping your body produce collagen, one of the most important proteins for the health of your skin, bones, teeth, and more
- Helping your body’s natural healing process
- Supporting your immune system
- Promoting iron absorption
You can get vitamin C from plenty of plant-based dietary sources, including:
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These vitamins behave differently than their water-soluble counterparts. Fat-soluble vitamins can be stored up in your body for long periods of time, whereas water-soluble vitamins tend to be washed out of the body relatively quickly.
As stated earlier, your body best absorbs fat-soluble vitamins in the presence of fats, so if you take fat-soluble vitamins as supplements, you may want to do so with a snack or meal containing healthy fats.
Below are the four fat-soluble vitamins:
Vitamin A* is essential for eye health, and is involved with a number of other important functions. You can get vitamin A from a wide variety of plant-based foods, including carrots, broccoli, sweet potatoes, cantaloupe, pumpkin, apricots, spinach, and more.
Vitamin D* supports immune function and bone health. There are two forms, or subtypes, of vitamin D – D2 and D3. D3 is the form of vitamin D that’s made in the skin in response to sun exposure. Many people, especially vegans, choose to take D3 in supplement form, as it tends to be lacking in a vegan diet.
Vitamin E* is a well-known antioxidant that helps to protect your body from the harmful effects of free radicals, which are naturally formed through metabolism, but can be present in the body through other means. In addition, vitamin E is beneficial to the immune system. Vitamin E can be found in sunflower seeds, almonds, hazelnuts, spinach, broccoli, and more.
Vitamin K* helps to prevent excessive bleeding by promoting blood clotting. As a clotting agent, vitamin K can support the natural process of wound healing and keep you from bleeding too easily. You can get vitamin K from a variety of plant-based foods. Your body also produces this nutrient in small quantities.
What Are Minerals?
Minerals*, in contrast to vitamins, are inorganic*. There are two primary categories of minerals – major* and trace*. Your body needs higher amounts of major minerals than trace minerals. However, both categories of minerals are important for your overall health.
You can get minerals from plenty of dietary sources, but you can also take them in multivitamins or multiminerals, or as standalone supplements. If you become deficient in a specific mineral, you may start experiencing symptoms that can range from mild to severe.
Below are the minerals that your body needs in the highest amounts.
Calcium: Calcium is essential for healthy bones and teeth, not to mention the optimal functioning of some other processes within the body! Vegan sources of calcium include fortified tofu; greens such as broccoli and mustard greens; and legumes.
Chloride: Found in table salt, breads, vegetables, and large amounts in processed foods, chloride helps your body maintain optimal fluid balance.
Magnesium*: Magnesium is used by the body in so many ways! It’s used as a cofactor in over 300 different systems! This mineral supports healthy muscle and nerve function, supports DNA & RNA synthesis, and is required for energy production. You can find magnesium in pumpkin seeds, chia seeds, cashews, black beans, potatoes, bananas and more!
Phosphorus*: This mineral is found in every cell in your body, and it supports healthy bones and teeth. While animal-derived foods are some of the most abundant dietary sources of phosphorus, you can also get this important mineral from lentils, cashews, brown rice, sesame seeds and more.
Potassium: Potassium is important for fluid balance, muscle contraction, and for your nervous system. Potassium is found in a wide variety of plant-based foods, especially fruits and vegetables.
Sodium: Like potassium, your body needs sodium for fluid balance, to keep your muscles functioning properly, and for nerve function. You can get sodium from table salt and from breads and vegetables.
Sulfur: This mineral is found in protein. Plant-based eaters can get sulfur from high-protein foods like nuts and legumes.
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Minor (Trace) Minerals
These minerals are needed by the body in lesser amounts than those listed above.
Chromium helps to regulate your blood sugar levels. Chromium can be found in whole grains and nuts.
Copper helps your body metabolize iron. You can get copper from nuts, seeds, whole grains, and drinking water.
Fluoride is important for bones and teeth. You can get fluoride from drinking water and most teas.
Iodine, found in iodized salt and bread, helps to keep your thyroid functioning properly.
Iron: This mineral is found in your body's red blood cells, and it's necessary for energy metabolism. You can get iron from legumes; dark, leafy greens; and fortified cereals.
Manganese is found in a wide variety of plant-based foods. This mineral is part of many enzymes within your body.
Molybdenum, like manganese, is part of many enzymes in the body. You can get molybdenum from leafy greens, breads and grains, and legumes.
Selenium acts as an antioxidant for the body, and it can be found in grains.
Zinc: A mineral that serves a wide variety of purposes within your body, zinc is essential for immune function, wound healing, and DNA synthesis. You can get zinc from multiple plant-based foods including oatmeal, cashews, chickpeas, and pumpkin seeds.
Here at MaryRuth’s we believe that everyone should try to get their nutrients through the food we eat, water we drink, and natural sunlight on our skin, but we’re also aware that this can sometimes be difficult to do.
While you can get plenty of nutrients from healthy food, taking supplements can help you cover any of the gaps in your daily meals. And if you’re looking for supplements to support you, check out our full line of vitamins, minerals, and other supplements at maryruthorganics.com!
*References available upon request.