From vitamin A to zinc, the list of vitamins and minerals may look like an alphabet soup. Why do we need each vitamin and mineral and which vegetables should we eat to get them?
The Fat-soluble Vitamins
Vitamin A (Retinol) is important for the health of bones, teeth, skin, and eyes; it also keeps the mucous membranes of the lungs and nose moist and is important for respiratory health. Many vegetables contain beta-carotene, also called pro-vitamin A, which is an antioxidant that the body converts into vitamin A. Vegetables which are good sources of vitamin A - many of which are orange or dark green - include broccoli, carrots, dark leafy greens, pumpkin, sweet potatoes, winter and summer squashes, beetroot and garlic.
Vitamin D is important for strong bones and teeth, blood clotting, and the absorption of calcium and magnesium. There are no vegetables that contain significant amounts of vitamin D. The best source of vitamin D is sunlight. The body manufactures its own vitamin D from exposure to sunlight: 10 to 15 minutes of sunlight a day provides all the vitamin D the body needs.
Vitamin E is an antioxidant that is beneficial to the immune system, cell membranes, and body tissues. The best sources of vitamin E are vegetable oils such as canola, corn, peanut, and soybean, as well as dark leafy greens, legumes, broccoli, and pumpkin.
Vitamin K helps blood to clot (the “K” comes from the German word koagulation) and is important in regulating calcium levels and promoting bone health. Vegetables that are good sources of vitamin K include leafy greens, such as spinach and lettuce, and cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, and cabbage.
The Water-soluble Vitamins
Vitamin C is an antioxidant important in preventing infection, healing wounds, and promoting healthy bones and teeth. Vegetables that are good sources of vitamin C include cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, and Brussels sprouts; leafy greens such as collards, spinach, kale, and Swiss chard; bell peppers; and tomatoes. Of the lettuces, romaine is the most nutritious: it has five times the vitamin C of iceberg lettuce.
The B-Complex Vitamins
The B vitamins (also called B-complex) help convert carbohydrates into sugar, thus providing energy to the body. They also help process fat and protein, tone muscles in the gastrointestinal tract, and aid the nervous system.
Vitamin B1 (Thiamin) is good for the heart, muscles, and nervous system. If you feel tired and run down, you may not be getting enough thiamin. Peas, corn, legumes, and leafy greens are good vegetable sources of thiamin.
Vitamin B2 (Riboflavin) helps the body to use oxygen and is an antioxidant. Legumes, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, spinach, asparagus, and leafy greens such as spinach and turnip greens are good sources of vitamin B2.
Vitamin B3 (Niacin) is needed for a healthy nervous system and gastrointestinal tract, as well as healthy skin. Protein-rich foods contain vitamin B3. Good vegetable sources are leafy greens, asparagus, legumes, potatoes, and peanuts.
Vitamin B5 (Pantothenic Acid) is necessary to produce steroids and cortisone in the adrenal gland. Often called the “anti-stress” vitamin, it strengthens the immune system and helps the body deal with stress. Pantothenic acid is found in a wide variety of foods - in fact it gets its name from the Greek pantos meaning “everywhere”. Good vegetable sources include corn, legumes, brassicas, tomatoes, and sweet potatoes.
Vitamin B6 (Pyridoxine) is needed to produce red blood cells. Vitamin B6 is found in many foods including tomatoes, potatoes, and soybeans.
Vitamin B9 (Folate or Folic Acid) is required for creating and maintaining healthy cells, cell division, and the formation of hemoglobin in red blood cells. Sometimes called the “brain vitamin”, it’s necessary for mental and emotional health. Good vegetable sources of folates are dark leafy greens, root vegetables, Brussels sprouts, soybeans, and other legumes.
Vitamin B12 is important for cell function, the formation of red blood cells, healthy bone marrow, and healthy nerve sheaths. Lack of vitamin B12 can cause anaemia. Vitamin B12 cannot be manufactured by either plants or animals, but can only be synthesized by bacteria, which are naturally present in the human small intestine as well an in meats, shellfish, and dairy products. There are no vegetable sources of vitamin B12. Vegetarians may get vitamin B12 from foods containing yeast, such as Marmite, or fermented foods such as tempeh. Lacto-ovo vegetarians may also obtain the B-complex vitamins through eating dairy products. Vegans are often advised to take a B-complex supplement.
Vitamin H (Biotin) is needed for healthy hair, skin, and nails. Good vegetable sources of biotin are legumes, such as soybeans and peanuts, and green vegetables. Studies have found that vegetarians actually absorb more biotin from the gastrointestinal tract than people who eat meat.
Calcium is the body’s most abundant mineral. It’s needed for strong teeth and bones, as well as muscle and nerve health. Good vegetable sources of calcium are broccoli, cabbage, dark leafy greens, and legumes.
Phosphorus is the body’s next most abundant mineral. It’s important for bones and teeth, as well as energy. Phosphorus is contained in many foods. Good vegetable sources of phosphorus include legumes, potatoes, and garlic.
Magnesium is important for all of the body’s organs, especially the heart and kidneys, as well as muscles, bones, and teeth. It also activates enzymes. Magnesium is found in whole foods. Many people do not get enough magnesium, since it’s hard to get enough of the mineral with a diet of processed food. Good vegetable sources of magnesium are dark leafy greens, legumes, tofu, peanuts, and unpeeled potatoes.
Potassium is needed for kidney function, as well as for the heart, digestive system, and muscles. Potassium is present in many vegetables, especially potatoes, broccoli, spinach, and chick peas.
Iron is essential to blood cells and helps in the delivery of oxygen to the body’s tissues. Lack of adequate iron can cause low energy and anemia. Good vegetable sources include dark leafy greens and legumes.
Zinc is important for the immune system and the reproductive system. It is also an antioxidant, and can help fight colds and environmental toxins. Zinc also acts to regulate the appetite, and contributes to the senses of taste and smell. Vegetable sources of zinc include legumes (particularly limas, pintos, soybeans, and peanuts), tofu, string beans, leafy greens, and pumpkin seeds.
The bottom line: the best way to get vitamins and minerals is to eat a healthy, well-balanced diet with plenty of vegetables!