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What Does Vitamin B Do for Me? Much More than You Think

Image of A colorful board of foods with vitamin B including grains, vegetables,, and meats. B vitamins are essential to brain function, cell metabolism, and energy level. To maximize your intake of B vitamins, add a variety of non-processed foods to your diet, such as whole grains, beans, nuts, fruits, vegetables, and lean proteins.

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Meet the vitamin B team. These vitamins are the key players that help convert your food and drink into energy to keep your brain and body going.

“All your B vitamins equal energy,” said U.S. Navy Lt. Michael Kantar, a dietitian who heads the Nutrition Management Department at Naval Hospital Camp Pendleton in California.

“It's not as if you take the vitamin and you have energy,” he added. “Rather, your B vitamins are the assistant to your metabolism to break down energy from the foods you eat.”

Your metabolism is the process of chemical changes to make energy cells needed to grow, reproduce, repair, and stay healthy. The metabolic process also helps get rid of toxins.

How essential are B vitamins? It’s the biggest reason ever.

“The most important benefit of the B vitamins is life—they are essential to all persons, and any deficiency can cause serious health problems,” said Patricia Deuster, who holds a doctorate in nutritional sciences and is acting executive director of the Uniformed Services University of Health Sciences’ Consortium for Health and Military Performance .

What are B Vitamins and How Can You Get Them?

Consisting of eight different essential nutrients, each B vitamin has specific functions as explained by the Office of Dietary Supplements at the National Institutes of Health:

Your body cannot produce B vitamins on its own to support proper metabolism, so it is important you eat a well-balanced diet.

No one food provides all of the B vitamins. To maximize your intake of B vitamins without taking dietary supplements, you should select a variety of non-processed foods.

Current nutrition science says you should aim for a varied diet that consists of whole grains, beans, nuts, fruits, vegetables, and lean proteins (beef, pork, poultry, and fish).

Eggs and dairy products are a good source of at least four B vitamins. Many types of cereals and baked goods are enriched so, although processed, they provide many of the B vitamins.

One super B vitamin food is perhaps something your parents may have tried to get you to eat as a child–with varying success.

“Believe it or not, one food high in many of the B vitamins is beef liver,” Deuster said.

For Meatless Eaters

If you’re a vegan or a vegetarian, you should be able to get your B vitamins easily in the food and drink you consume, provided you are choosing a variety of plant-based foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts, and seeds.

The exception is vitamin B-12, which is naturally found in animal foods.

For those strictly meatless eaters who are pregnant or breastfeeding, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has cautioned that their babies might not get enough vitamin B-12, and the mothers should be counseled about taking a B-12 supplement.

Vitamin B-12 a Key Player

Vitamin B-12 is needed to form red blood cells and DNA. It is also crucial in the function and development of brain and nerve cells.

To ensure you’re getting enough vitamin B-12—even if you eat meat or animal-based foods—try consuming fortified plant-based foods such as plant-based milks, including soy and almond milks, said USU assistant professor Jonathan Scott, a registered dietitian who holds a doctorate in health and rehabilitation sciences.

Other non-animal-based foods rich in vitamin B-12 include:

  • Nutritional yeast and yeast spreads
  • Tempeh, a fermented soy-bean cake
  • Tofu
  • Cremini mushrooms
  • Plant-based “meats”
  • Nori seaweed

Additionally, as you age, you are able to absorb less B-12 from your diet. You should consider adding a vitamin supplement, Deuster suggested.

Vitamin B-6 on Defense

Vitamin B-6 also serves many key roles in keeping your body healthy and would benefit from more research, Scott said.

“It is involved in over 160 biochemical reactions related to carbohydrate, fat, amino acid, and nucleic acid metabolism. The vitamin also serves as a signal for cells, acts as an antioxidant, participates in the functioning of the immune system, and more,” he explained.

Foods richest in vitamin B-6 include:

  • Organ meats, such as beef liver
  • Chickpeas
  • Tuna
  • Salmon
  • Poultry
  • Potatoes
  • Fortified cereals

Resources

Check how well you are feeding your brain and body:

  • The CHAMP Human Performance Resources’ Warfighter Nutrition Guide helps warfighters learn to fuel their daily performance nutrition needs.
  • U.S. Department of Agriculture’s My Plate program discusses how to build a healthy plate and a pattern of healthy eating.
  • The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and USDA’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020-2025 edition, provides nutrition information for all age groups.

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Last Updated: October 18, 2022
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