B vitamins were first grouped together because they were found in some of the same foods. While they have similar names, scientists have realized over time that the vitamins are very different from each other and play a role in many different systems in the body. Here’s what you need to know about B vitamins.
Why does my body need B vitamins?
The B vitamins are known by several different names and each plays a slightly different role.
- B1 (thiamine): Thiamine is important for brain and nerve function as well as energy use throughout the body.
- B2 (riboflavin): Riboflavin is used to help make and transport energy in the body. It also helps with brain function and helps make chemicals that protect the body from free radical damage.
- B3 (niacin): Niacin is an essential part of both using energy and storing energy in the body.
- B5 (pantothenic acid): B5 is often used by the body to break down and build proteins, carbohydrates and fats.
- B6 (pyridoxamine): Vitamin B6 is used to make some of the building blocks of proteins and also helps to break down carbohydrates and fats.
- B7 (biotin): Biotin is important in making the building blocks of proteins and also helps the body store energy.
- B9 (folic acid): Folic acid plays a key role in copying and repairing DNA, which makes it especially important in growth.
- B12 (cobalamine): B12 is important in copying DNA, but also plays a role in breaking down fats and proteins. It’s heavily used in the brain and nervous system.
What foods contain B vitamins?
Because the B vitamins play such an essential role in our health, many foods are now fortified with several of the B vitamins. But all of them are present in a wide variety of other foods as well.
- B1 (thiamine): Whole grains, asparagus, kale, cauliflower, potatoes and oranges.
- B2 (riboflavin): Milk, cheese, leafy vegetables, beans, mushrooms and almonds.
- B3 (niacin): Present in many foods, including chicken, fish, tomatoes, leafy vegetables, broccoli, carrots, nuts, beans, mushrooms, tofu and peanut butter.
- B5 (pantothenic acid): Found in meats, whole grains, avocados, broccoli and mushrooms.
- B6 (pyridoxamine): Found in most meats, whole grains, vegetables and nuts.
- B7 (biotin): Found in many foods including peanuts, leafy green vegetables and corn.
- B9 (folic acid): Found in most vegetables, fruits, nuts, beans, peas, dairy products, whole grains and meats.
- B12 (cobalamine): Found mostly in animal products.
Which B vitamins should I be concerned about?
For the most part, deficiency in all of these vitamins has become uncommon because they are present in many of the foods we eat and have even been put into processed foods that normally contain low levels of vitamins. Those who are deficient tend to have an illness that makes them more at risk for deficiency, like Celiac disease or an inflammatory bowel disease, or have a diet that lacks many other vitamins.
Folic acid is an essential vitamin in pregnant women because the fetus needs large amounts for brain and nervous system development. Older adults tend to be at higher risk for B12 deficiency because their body is less able to absorb it than the body of a younger person. A lack of both in adults can cause fatigue and some neurologic problems. Finally, anyone who eats a diet low in fruits, vegetables and whole grains is at risk for deficiency in B vitamins.