According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), a healthy diet is one that emphasizes fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fat-free or low-fat milk and milk products, includes lean meats, poultry, fish, beans, eggs, nuts, and is low in saturated fats, trans fats, cholesterol, salt (sodium), and added sugars. Whew, that’s a mouthful! So if your diet includes all of these lean and healthy foods, what minerals and nutrients are you getting from them that are vital to your health and well-being? Here are the essential vitamins and minerals your body needs plus the best food sources where you can find them.
Vitamin A is needed for good eyesight and optimal functioning of your immune system. Cod liver oil, dairy products, sweet potatoes, and dark green leafy vegetables are all great natural food sources of vitamin A.
Vitamin B1, also known as thiamin, is imperative to the body’s ability to process carbohydrates. Whole grain breads, cereals, and pastas have high amounts of thiamin in them.
Riboflavin, or Vitamin B2, can be found in fortified cereals, almonds, asparagus, eggs, and meat. It is used in many body processes including converting food into energy and the production of red blood cells.
Niacin, also known as Vitamin B3, can be found in lean chicken, tuna, salmon, turkey, enriched flour, peanuts, and fortified cereals. It aids in digestion and also plays a key role in converting food into energy.
Vitamin B6 can be found in fortified cereals, fortified soy-based meat substitutes, baked potatoes with the skin left on, bananas, light-meat chicken and turkey, eggs, and spinach. It is vital for a healthy nervous system and helps break down proteins and stored sugars.
Vitamin B12 is needed for creating red blood cells, and can be found in beef, clams, mussels, crabs, salmon, poultry, and soybeans.
Citrus fruits, red berries, tomatoes, potatoes, broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, red and green bell peppers, cabbage, and spinach are all loaded with vitamin C. Vitamin C is vital to promoting a healthy immune system and making chemical messengers in the brain.
Vitamin D can be found in fortified milk, cheese, and cereals, egg yolks, and salmon. It can also be made by the body from sunlight exposure (always wear sunscreen when outdoors – sunny or cloudy). Vitamin D is needed to process calcium and maintain the health of your bones and teeth.
Vitamin E functions as an antioxidant and is essential to your skin’s good health. Eat plenty of leafy green vegetables, almonds, hazelnuts, and vegetable oils like sunflower, canola, and soybean to get this vital nutrient.
Folic acid can be found in fortified cereals and grain products, lima beans, lentils, and garbanzo beans, as well as dark leafy vegetables. It is vital for cell development, prevents birth defects, promotes heart health, and helps red blood cells form. Pregnant women in particular need to take special care to ensure they are getting enough folic acid for themselves and their developing baby (always consult with your doctor before increasing any vitamin intake or major dietary change, particularly if you are pregnant).
Dairy products, broccoli, dark leafy greens (like spinach), rhubarb, and fortified products (such as orange juice, soy milk, and tofu) are all loaded with calcium. Much like vitamin D, calcium is very important for helping your body to build and maintain strong bones and teeth.
Organ meats, oysters, clams, crabs, cashews, sunflower seeds, wheat bran cereals, whole-grain products, and cocoa products are all high in copper. Copper aids in metabolism of iron and assists with red blood cell formation. It also assists in the production of energy for all of your cells.
Iron can be found in leafy green vegetables, beans, shellfish, red meat, poultry, soy foods, and some fortified foods. It is needed to transport oxygen to all parts of the body via your red blood cells.
Potassium can be found in foods like broccoli, potatoes (with the skins on), prune juice, orange juice, leafy green vegetables, bananas, raisins, and tomatoes. It aids in nervous system and muscle function. It also helps maintain a healthy balance of water in the blood and body tissues.
Red meat, fortified cereals, oysters, almonds, peanuts, chickpeas, soy foods, and dairy products are great dietary sources of zinc. Zinc supports the body’s immune function, reproduction capabilities, and the nervous system.
Protein is the main component of all of your muscles, organs, and glands. Every living cell and all bodily fluids (except bile and urine) contain protein. The cells of your muscles, tendons, and ligaments are maintained with protein. Children and adolescents require large amounts of protein for proper growth and development, and adults need it to maintain their cell integrity. It can be found in foods like beans, dairy, and meats.
The primary function of carbohydrates is to provide energy for the body, particularly the brain and the nervous system. Complex carbohydrates are the best choice to maintain stable blood sugar levels. Whole grain breads and cereals, legumes, and starchy vegetables are all good sources of complex carbohydrates.
Essential fatty acids play a part in many metabolic processes, and there is evidence to suggest that low levels of essential fatty acids, or the wrong balance of types among the essential fatty acids, may be a factor in a number of illnesses. Good sources of essential fatty acids are fish and shellfish, flaxseed, canola oil, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, leafy vegetables, and walnuts.
Though this list is far from complete, it is a good start. Making sure that you get the proper amounts of each of these essential vitamins and minerals will help you maintain a healthy and well-balanced diet.
What are your favorite healthy snacks and foods?
Let us know in the comments!