Don’t Forget Your Vitamins!

A nutritionist walks us through seven essential vitamins and minerals, and the foods that have 'em

Did you know this guy's loaded with vitamin C?

I know you know you’re supposed to be getting certain vitamins and minerals to keep your body functioning correctly. But what are they? And what the heck do they do?

I asked Jessica O’Neill for help. A Temple Health dietician, O’Neill works mainly with patients facing chronic pulmonary diseases. She helps them come up with—and stick to—heart-healthy diet plans that can “help them feel their best and have the healthiest life possible,” she says.

Part of that equation is vitamins and minerals. Like many in her field, O’Neill recommends getting most nutrients from food sources, rather than supplements. For one, it’s usually cheaper—have you seen the prices on those vitamin bottles? Plus, by consuming the nutrients as food, you’re getting them in the proportions and context that nature intended.

“When you isolate a vitamin or mineral in a pill, you’re separating it from the other nutrients it may have reacted with in its naturally occurring state—in food,” says O’Neill. “So your body may not get all the benefits it would reap if you’d just eaten the food to begin with.”

The good news is, O’Neill says most Americans aren’t nutrient deficient—but she says we can do better.

What follows is an easy-to-use guide to seven essential vitamins and minerals, what they do, and the foods they come from. O’Neill advises working foods from each vitamin category into your diet at least once or twice each week.

B Vitamins
Good for: Skin, hair, eyes.
Get from: Eggs, tuna, avocado and fortified breakfast cereal. “Make sure the box says ‘fortified,'” says O’Neill. “They’re adding all kinds of good stuff to cereal these days.”

Vitamin A
Good for: Eyes—particularly how they adapt to the dark—and skin and mucosal cells, which both serve as the body’s barriers to infection.
Get from: Fortified cereal, eggs, sweet potatoes and raw carrots. “Cooking carrots destroys their vitamin A content,” says O’Neill.

Vitamin C
Good for: Making collagen, a structural component of blood vessels, ligaments, tendons, and bones. Also protects the skin from free-radical damage from UV exposure, and helps with the creation of neurotransmitters, which are critical to brain function and affects mood.
Get from: Sweet red pepper, strawberries, oranges and broccoli.

Vitamin D
Good for: Bone growth and density.
Get from: Herring, salmon, canned sardines and fortified milk.

Vitamin E
Also called alpha tocopherol
Good for: Protecting cells from damage from free radicals, which is important for cancer protection.
Get from: Hazelnuts, almonds, peanuts and sunflower oil. “When baking, you can substitute any oil for sunflower oil,” says O’Neill.

Good for: Bones and teeth.
Get from: Milk, yogurt, tofu and rhubarb.

Good for: Bone health and preventing damage to cells and chromosomes. Also important for nerves, muscle contraction and maintaing a normal heart rhythm.
Get from: Bran cereal, brown rice, almonds and lima beans.