We all know that we are supposed to eat our vegetables. The idea has been reinforced by well-meaning parents and physicians since we were old enough to hold a fork. And yet, like so many other "supposed-to's," we do not often do as we should.
I believe that when we understand why we should do something, we are more likely to comply. There is a big difference in our response to blindly following orders versus making a choice because we want the outcome. I hope that by learning how to recognize when our bodies need something they are missing, we will make different - better - choices for ourselves. (I am sorry to say that taking a multivitamin just isn't the same, because even when the vitamins are bioavailable/usable, our bodies can tell the difference between an isolated nutrient and real food. They prefer the latter.).
The beauty of food and nutrition is that beneath the seeming complexity are simple truths. While I will go into the micronutrients and daily requirements, you are welcome to ignore them. The takeaway message is this: taste the rainbow. Eating a wide variety of colorful fruits and vegetables ensures a diet that contains the diverse micronutrients it needs.
Scroll down below the science for inspiration and a simpler color-focused approach!
*Please note these lists are just information (gathered from many sources, including lectures), not medical advice. The RDAs are commonly accepted values but may not be right for everyone. Also, the source lists are not complete, just ideas and good places to start.
- Sodium: 1500mg/day; deficiency is rare except in cases of excessive sweating, vomiting, diarrhea, and diuretics; deficiency signs include headache, thirst, confusion, and coma (hypoatremia); excess intake is much more common (average in US is 3400mg/day) and can cause hyptertension
- Sources: salt and salted foods, soy sauce, etc.
- Potassium: 4700mg/day; deficiency is common and a concern with potassium-wasting diuretics (thiazides and furosemide), alcoholism, severe vomiting/diarrhea, overuse of laxatives, anorexia/bulemia, and magnesium deficiency; deficiency is called hypokalemia and its signs include fatigue, muscle weakness and cramps, increased blood pressure, kidney stones, arrhythmias, and cardiac arrest
- Sources: avocado, green leafy vegetables, nuts/seeds, cruciferous vegetables, banana, squash, potato (with skin), lentils, prunes, plums
- Magnesium: 320mg/day for women, 420mg/day for men; deficiency is very common in the US; deficiency signs include constipation, muscle cramps, restless leg syndrome, heart palpitations, fatigue, headache
- Sources: whole grains, green leafy vegetables, nuts and seeds, legumes, fish
- Calcium: 1000-2500mg/day; deficiency associated with Vitamin D deficiency (need Vitamin D to absorb calcium) and excess sodium intake; deficiency signs include tooth decay, Ricket's, stunted growth in children, bone depletion
- Sources: dairy (but not always very absorbable), green leafy vegetables, cruciferous vegetables, tofu (more than soybeans alone), fortified grains, legumes, seaweed; you do not need to eat dairy to have adequate calcium intake!
- Phosphorus: 700-4000mg/day; deficiency signs include muscle weakness and bone pain
- Sources: dairy, liver, beef, chicken, eggs, tofu, legumes, nuts/seeds
- Sulfur: >100mg/day; deficiency signs include joint pain and impaired liver function
- Sources: easily attainable from dietary proteins (methionine and cysteine); eggs, legumes, whole grains, garlic, onions, cruciferous vegetables
- Iron: 18mg/day for women, 8mg/day for men; deficiency is very common in the US; suspect deficiency with heavy menses, blood loss, vegetarians/vegans, and pregnancy; deficiency signs include sore mouth/tongue, fatigue, pallor, cold skin, spooning nails, muscle cramps, decreased thyroid function, tachycardia
- Sources: heme - meat, poultry, fish, oysters; nonheme - meat, nuts, seeds, legumes; cast iron cookware (fairly substantial!)
- Chromium: 25mcg/day for women, 35mcg/day for men; deficiency signs include impaired glucose metabolism (blood sugar swings, pre-diabetes, metabolic syndrome)
- Sources: broccoli, green beans, , potatoes, whole grains, legumes, nuts, meat
- Zinc: 10-40mg/day; deficiency signs include dry/thin hair, motor and cognitive issues, poor night vision and photophobia (bc of connection to vitamin A), weak immune system, delayed wound healing, acne, periodontal disease, eczema, cracking skin, hang nails, white spots on nails, and hormonal imbalances
- Sources: meat, eggs, oysters, lobster, crab, legumes, nuts, dairy
- Copper: 10mg/day; deficiency may exacerbate iron deficiency anemia (if anemia doesn't improve with iron supplementation, suspect copper deficiency as well)
- Sources: seafood, oysters, lobster, liver, nuts, seeds, legumes, whole grains
- Iodine: 150-1,100mg/day (more with pregnancy and lactation); suspect deficiency with selenium deficiency; deficiency signs include goiter and decreased thyroid hormone production
- Sources: seafood, seaweed, iodized salt (1/2 tsp provides RDA), dairy, plants grown in iodine-rich soil
- Selenium: 55-400mcg/day; deficiency signs include dandruff, goiter, and immune dysfunction
- Sources: Brazil nuts, meat, seafood, eggs, whole grains, brown rice, mushrooms, plants grown in selenium-rich soil
Fat Soluble Vitamins:
These vitamins are absorbed by the body in fat, so they are a great reason to add some olive oil or butter to your vegetables that are naturally low in fat.
- Vitamin K - menaquinone: 90mcg/day for women, 120mcg/day for men; deficiency signs include reduced clotting time, bleeding gums, easy bruising, hemorrhagic disease and osteoporosis
- Sources: k1 produced by plants - green leafy vegetables (kale, swiss chard, collard greens, spinach) and cruciferous vegetables; k2 is in natto, butter, egg yolk, cheese, meat and is converted from k1 by bacteria in intestines
- Vitamin E - tocopherols: 15-1000mg/day; deficiency is rare but signs include peripheral neuropathy, dry/thin/sparse hair, follicular hyperkeratosis, dry skin, cracking skin, callous heels, easy bruising, muscle weakness, hyporeflexia, heart arrhthmias, and dementia
- Sources: leafy green vegetables, polyunsaturated plant oils, almonds, sunflower seeds, wheat germ, whole grains, egg yolks, avocados, tomatoes
- Vitamin A - retinol: 800-3000mcg/day; suspect deficiency with alcohol abuse; deficiency signs include dry eyes, night blindness, photophobia, dry/thin/sparse hair, acne, dry skin, calloused heels, poor wound healing, coughing, susceptibility to infection, and delayed growth
- Sources: retinol/retinyl esters - liver, butter, eggs, fortified dairy, sardines/herring/tuna, fortified cereals; alpha-carotene - pumpkin, carrot, winter squash, plantains, collards, tomatoes, tangerines, peas; beta-carotene - dandelion greens, pumpkin, spinach, sweet potato, carrot, collards, kale, turnip greens, winter squash, raw cantaloupe
- Vitamin D - cholecalciferol: 600-4,000IUs/day; deficiency is common; deficiency a concern with low UV light exposure (including always wearing sunscreen), Dilantin medication, kidney disease, obesity, and aging; deficiency signs include Rickets, osteomalacia (loss of calcium), depression, frequent infections, and autoimmune diseases
- Sources of D3: UV light (sunshine!); d2 is produced by fungi and algae and found in liver, egg yolk, fatty fish (salmon/sardines/herring); vitamin D is minimal in mushrooms and fortified foods (milk/butter/cereal)
- Essential Fatty acids - linoleic acid (omega 6) and alpha-linolenic acid (omega 3s, including EPA and DHA); typical American diet is high in omega-6 and low in omega-3, which can lead to inflammation
- Sources of omega 3: flaxseed, chia seeds, soybean oil, walnuts, some leafy dark greens, fatty fish (salmon, tuna, mackerel, fish oil)
- Sources of omega 6: seeds, nuts, grains, common vegetable oils, meat
Water Soluble Vitamins:
Deficiency is a concern for all of these water-soluble vitamins for people who have a history of alcohol abuse or digestive malabsorption.
- B1 - thiamin: 1-1.5mg/day; deficiency signs include dandruff, headache, muscle weakness, constipation, appetite suppression, nausea, heart arrhythmias, peripheral neuropathy, dementia
- Sources: yeast, liver, pork, fish, legumes, whole grains
- B2 - riboflavin: 1.2-1.7mg/day; deficiency signs include dandruff, headache, glossitis, angular stomatitis, photophobia
- Sources: dairy, liver, meat, poultry, fish, almonds, broccoli, asparagus, spinach
- B3 - niacin: 13-19mg/day; deficiency signs include dandruff, sore mouth/tongue, glossitis, cold skin, pellagra, tachycardia, dementia, depression
- Sources: liver, meat, peanuts, nuts, whole grains, fish, mushrooms, lentils, potato, mango
- B5 - panthothenic acid: no RDA; deficiency signs include dandruff, painful burning feet, dizziness, muscle cramps
- Sources: liver, meat, legumes, whole grains, mushrooms, sweet potato
- B6 - pyridoxine: 1.4-2mg/day; deficiency a concern when taking penicillamine; deficiency signs include dandruff, sore mouth/tongue, glossitis, insomnia, nervousness, angular stomatitis, eczema, hair loss, water retention, wheezing, peripheral neuropathy, carpal tunnel syndrome, seizure, dementia; B6 is necessary to make serotonin (neurotransmitter)
- Sources: liver, meat, fish, legumes, whole grains, avocado
- B7 - biotin: 30mcg/day; deficiency a concern with type II diabetes; otherwise deficiency is rare
- Sources: liver, cooked eggs, avocado, salmon, peanuts, almonds, legumes, swiss chard, tomatoes, romaine lettuce, carrots
- B9 - folate: 400mcg/day; deficiency a concern with carbamazepine and birth control pills, pregnancy, cancer, and cigarette smoking; deficiency signs include dandruff, periodontal disease, sore mouth/tongue, glossitis, pallor, neural tube defects (embryo), production of large immature RBCs (megaloblastic anemia), increased homocysteine levels, dementia, peripheral neuropathy; important for neurotransmitter function
- Sources: green leafy vegetables, mushrooms, cruciferous vegetables, citrus, nuts/seeds, legumes
- B12 - cobalamin: 2.4mcg/day; deficiency a concern with pernicious anemia, low meat/dairy/egg intake, GI surgery, low stomach acid, damaged ileum, H. Pylori, and certain medications (proton pump inhibitors, H2 blockers, cholestyramine, metformin); signs include fatigue, dandruff, sore mouth/tongue, glossitis, angular stomatitis, pallor, wheezing, peripheral neuropathy, dementia, megaloblastic anemia, pernicious anemia, elevated homocysteine; important for neurological function
- Sources: clams, mussels, mackerel, crab, beef, salmon, nutritional yeast, purple laver seaweed (nori sheets), shitake mushrooms, spirulina
- Vitamin C - ascorbic acid: F - 75mg/d; M - 90mg/d; deficiency a concern with cigarette smoking (cigarette smokers require 35mg more per day) and elderly; deficiency signs include bleeding gums, periodontal disease, sore mouth/tongue, follicular hyperkeratosis, poor wound healing, easy bruising, mitral valve prolapse, coughing, scurvy; intake greater than 2g/day can cause nausea and diarrhea
- Sources: citrus (white part of oranges), bell peppers (white part is richest), berries, cruciferous vegetables, tomatoes, potatoes
Click on the images to find out more about the specific vitamins and minerals the foods provide!
Want to look up the nutrient content of other foods you love? This website gives a full micronutrient, macronutrient, and mineral breakdown of both whole and processed foods.