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Why We Need B Vitamins


Article by Hayley Hyer

Photography by Stock Images

When we learn nutrition in school as kids, there's a big focus on the breakdown of fats, carbohydrates, and proteins. But unless you took nutrition classes later in life, you may not have learned about each individual vitamin and which foods to find them all in. Here, you'll learn all about B vitamins, why we need a variety of them, and how to get enough of each.

What are the B vitamins?

"There are eight B vitamins — collectively called B complex vitamins.

They are thiamine (B1), riboflavin (B2), niacin (B3), pantothenic acid (B5), pyridoxine (B6), biotin (B7), folate (B9) and cobalamin (B12).

Though each of these vitamins has unique functions, they generally help your body produce energy and make important molecules in your cells.

Aside from B12, your body cannot store these vitamins for long periods, so you have to replenish them regularly through food.

Many foods provide B vitamins, but to be considered high in a vitamin, a food must contain at least 20% of the Reference Daily Intake (RDI) per serving. Alternatively, a food that contains 10–19% of the RDI is considered a good source."


READ MORE: 15 Healthy Foods High in B Vitamins

What do we need each B vitamin?

Here's the breakdown of the specific jobs of each B vitamin. While some functions overlap, we still need a variety of all of the B vitamins to ensure our bodies are using them efficiently and staying healthy. The list of each function below was written by Jennifer Berry and reviewed by Alan Carter, PharmD from Medical News Today.

Thiamin (vitamin B-1)

  • breaking down sugar (carbohydrate) molecules from food
  • creating certain neurotransmitters (brain chemicals)
  • producing fatty acids
  • synthesizing certain hormones

Riboflavin (vitamin B-2)

  • energy production
  • helping the body break down fats, drugs, and steroid hormones
  • converting tryptophan into niacin (vitamin B-3)
  • converting vitamin B-6 into a coenzyme that the body needs

Niacin (vitamin B-3)

  • changing the energy in carbohydrates, fats, and proteins into a form the body can use
  • metabolic processes in the body’s cells
  • communication among cells
  • expression of DNA in cells

Pantothenic acid (vitamin B-5)

  • creating new coenzymes, proteins, and fats.

Vitamin B-6

  • amino acid metabolism
  • breaking down carbohydrates and fats
  • brain development
  • immune function

Biotin (vitamin B-7)

  • breaking down fats, carbohydrates, and protein
  • communication among cells in the body
  • regulation of DNA

Folate (vitamin B-9)

  • DNA replication
  • metabolism of vitamins
  • metabolism of amino acids
  • proper cell division

Vitamin B-12

  • creating new red blood cells
  • DNA synthesis
  • brain and neurological function
  • fat and protein metabolism

READ MORE: A Complete Guide to B Vitamins

How do we get B vitamins?

Most B vitamins are commonly found in dairy, eggs, meat and fish—specifically salmon, trout, oysters, clams, and mussels. If you're a vegan or vegetarian like me, you'll have to be more intentional about eating the vegetables and legumes that contain B vitamins. Here's a list of plant-based options for B vitamins.

  • Black beans
  • Chickpeas
  • Collard greens
  • Edamame
  • Green peas
  • Kidney beans
  • Lentils
  • Pinto beans
  • Roasted soy nuts
  • Romaine lettuce
  • Spinach
  • Sunflower seeds
  • Turnip greens

Eating a diet with a frequent variety of these foods will ensure you get plenty of B vitamins. One thing to watch out for is B-12. It is more rare, and while vegetarians can get it in yogurt and eggs, vegans will need to either take a daily supplement or incorporate nutritional yeast into your foods each day.

Always check with your doctor before taking any supplements, and if you have any concerns about a B-vitamin deficiency, you can ask your doctor for a lab order to check your levels.

Follow Hayley Hyer @hayhyer