Which food contains which nutrient?
Our human body requires a large variety of nutrients to function properly on a daily basis. Specifically, there are around 90 essential nutrients the body needs to function overall as well as to rebuild cells.
Those essential nutrients are classified as: water, minerals, vitamins, amino acids carbohydrates and fatty acids.
The term ‘essential’ is used to identify substances (nutrients) that the body cannot produce but which are definitely necessary for health and therefore must be provided by our daily diet.
Our body produces absolutely no minerals and there are 13 essential vitamins (vitamin A, C, D, E, K, and the B vitamins – thiamine, riboflavin, niacin, pantothenic acid, biotin, B6, B12, and folate) which include two vitamins that the body can synthesize – Vitamin D via the skin after sun exposure and biotin by the gastrointestinal bacteria in our gut.
The essential minerals are the so-called ‘nuts & bolts’ that hold our body together, while vitamins are essential for normal cell function, their growth and development. Amino acids are the ‘building blocks’ of life in general and the essential fatty acids are the ‘building blocks’ for cell membranes and necessary for energy production. These nutrients are all essential as our body does not and cannot produce them.
Our nutrition should always be the first place we rely on to receive all those essential nutrients and supplementing should be kept to a minimum, but to cover all the body’s demand, it is important to eat a wide variety of plant foods that contain all these essential nutrients.
Eating all the colours of the rainbow has been a term used to describe a healthy diet and when eating lots of vegetables (mostly cooked but some raw), legumes, gluten free whole grains, seeds, nuts and fruits, we are consuming an abundance of healthy macro and micronutrients to maintain a healthy and optimal functioning body.
If you are not eating enough of the above-mentioned foods, there is always a possibility for healthier choices and to add as many of those as possible.
Let’s look at some of these essential vitamins and minerals and where we source them.
Vitamins are particles which normally work as pre-cursors to lots of enzymes. Some of them act like hormones and can be involved in many functions within the body. They are remarkable team players as they work together with the enzymes to support them doing their job. They protect us from the damage that free radicals can cause and transform nutrients from the food into energy our body can use. Vitamins are classified in two categories: Fat-soluble and water-soluble Fat-soluble vitamins like A, D, E and K require some small amounts of fat for our body to be able to absorb properly. All B vitamins and Vitamin C are water soluble. Except for Vitamin D (produced by your body when the skin is exposed to sunshine) and Vitamin B12 (which is produced by bacteria), plants contain all of these vitamins as well as being loaded with phytonutrients and other nutrients that support our health.
Vitamin A is actually a group of nutrients called retinols which come in two groups – preformed Vitamin A found in animal products, supplements and fortified foods, and the second group, provitamin A, which, like beta-carotene, is found naturally in plants. As our body can convert beta-carotene into Vitamin A we do not need to consume preformed Vitamin A from animal products or supplements. When consuming our Vitamin A from beta-carotene it comes with the bonus of extra types of carotenoids like lycopene, lutein and zeaxanthin. These are not converted into Vitamin A but are linked to the body’s disease fighting abilities. What foods contain these: Capsicum, carrots, sweet potatoes, butternut pumpkin, broccoli, kale, spinach, asian greens, silver beet, apricots and rockmelon. As these are fat-soluble it is most beneficial to eat them in combination with foods that contain healthy fats like flaxseed meal, legumes, gluten free grains or small amounts of nuts.
Vitamin B12 (also called cobalamin) is one of the vitamins we cannot get from plants. It is critical for the functioning of our nervous system, red blood cell development, cell metabolism and production of DNA and can be stored in our body for several years. Vitamin B12 deficiency can lead to gastrointestinal problems, anaemia and neurological disorders causing severe damage. It is produced by bacteria that does not require oxygen to live which is common in the digestive tract of animals. Besides water lentils aka duckweed or LENTEIN which are only eaten in asian countries, there are only two varieties of edible algae – dried green and purple seaweeds that contain active Vitamin B12. For this reason, taking a vitamin B12 supplement is something to consider.
B-Vitamins (all water-soluble)
Vitamin B1 (Thiamine) supports brain and cardiovascular health. Deficiency is very rare as it can be found in many foods like grains, legumes, seeds and nuts.
Vitamin B2 (Riboflavin)is known as a powerful antioxidant countering free radical damage and inflammation. What foods contain it?: All green leafy vegetables, soybeans, asparagus, seaweed, sweet potatoes and almonds.
Vitamin B3 (Niacin) supports cognitive and skin health and is essential for the circulation system and heart health. What foods contain it? Potatoes, legumes, corn, passion fruit, dates, avocado and quinoa .
Vitamin B5 (Pantothenic Acid) is crucial for immune function and hormone production. And the good news is that this vitamin is present in every plant cell so deficiency is unknown.
Vitamin B6 (Pyridoxine) is involved in the regulation of homocysteine (high levels are a risk factor for cardiovascular disease) which is important in maintaining a strong immune system, and promotes the absorption of protein, carbohydrates and fat. What foods contains it? Kale, spinach, bok choy, quinoa, corn, tomatoes, sesame and sunflower seeds, avocadoes, bananas and Queensland Blue Winter Squash also known as Jarrahdale Pumpkin.
Vitamin B7 (Biotin) supports gene regulation, the metabolism of proteins, carbs and fats and promotes skin, hair and nail health. It is found in many foods like B1.
Vitamin B9 (Folic Acid) aka folate is essential for the prevention of neural tube defects during pregnancy and for healthy blood cells. What foods contain it? Spinach, legumes, beetroots, soybeans and walnuts.
Vitamin C is an allrounder and is involved in so many functions in the body that it is hard to pick what it is not good for, so here just a few examples: it plays a major role in the repair and growth of our tissues, in wound healing, bone and teeth health, collagen production, skin health, iron absorption and is essential for our ligaments and blood vessels. It is one of the most powerful antioxidants when it comes to fighting free radicals and their damage. As a water-soluble Vitamin, it is in many foods but is decreased during cooking. What foods contain it? All leafy green vegetables, broccoli, potatoes, capsicum and many fruits like acai berries, guava, dragon fruit, paw-paws, melons and parsley.
Vitamin D aka the sunshine vitamin is actually a pro-hormone that is produced in our skin when it is exposed to sun rays. When we get adequate sun exposure, Vitamin D is activated in the kidneys and liver. It is not in a lot of plant foods besides fortified foods like orange juice, tofu and cereal.
Vitamin E is again part of the powerful antioxidant family that supports the immune system and is involved in the protection of blood clotting and free radical damage. What foods contain it? Red capsicum, mango, kiwi, turnip, broccoli, pumpkin, mustard greens, beetroot leaves, silver beet, kale, chickpeas, nuts, seeds, spinach and tomatoes.
Vitamin K comes in two forms: Vitamin K2 and K1. Whilst Vitamin K1 is found in plants Vitamin K2 is found in supplements. Vitamin K is essential for our cardiovascular health, to build, repair and maintain healthy bones and for our blood clotting ability. What foods contain it? Kiwi fruit, kale, spinach, lettuce, brussel sprouts, broccoli, silver beet, mustard leaves, green beans, beet root leaves, parsley, cabbage, prunes, black berries, blueberries, edamame and red kidney beans.
Zinc is essential for our immune & cognitive function, wound healing, protein synthesis and development and normal growth. What foods contain it? Legumes, gluten free unprocessed grains, tofu, chia seeds, flaxseed meal, pumpkin seeds, walnuts and quinoa.
Iodine is a trace element involved in supporting the thyroid gland, in brain development, the nervous system, our 5 senses, co-ordination and alertness and is crucial in pregnancy and for babies and young children. What foods contain it? Seaweed, strawberries, pineapple, cranberries, navy beans, green beans and pink himalayan salt.
Potassium supports our body to maintain normal fluid levels inside our cells, with muscle contraction ability, blood pressure regulation, heart function, kidney and bone health. What foods contain it? Cooked spinach/broccoli/sweet potatoes/pumpkin/potatoes/peas and other leafy greens as well as grapefruit, melons, oranges, bananas, cucumber and legumes.
Iron is a major component of haemoglobin, a protein in our red blood cells that is responsible for carrying oxygen from our lungs to the rest of our body. It is also present in myoglobin which carries oxygen to our muscles. There are two forms of iron we can consume: heme and non-heme iron. Heme-iron originates from haemoglobin and is found in meat and non-heme iron is found in plants. Even though heme-iron is easily absorbed by our digestive system, due to its link to side effects, chronic disease and cancer, the harder non-heme iron from plants is the healthier option according to science and research. When eating rich non-heme iron food, it is recommended to incorporate vitamin C rich food to enhance the iron absorption. What foods contain it? Legumes, flaxseed meal, chia seeds, quinoa, tofu, broccoli, kale, silver beet, spinach, brussel sprouts, potatoes, figs, nuts, cacao, fortified plant milk and cereal.
Calcium is the most abundant mineral in the human body with 99% stored in our bones and teeth. Because there is not just one mineral that supports bone health, and because it depends on many factors, it is important not to overload the body with calcium supplements but rather make sure we get all the nutrients involved in bone health with magnesium, potassium, phosphorus and Vitamin K being some of the major players. Also, there is a limit of approx. 500mg of Calcium that our body can absorb at a time. What foods contain it? Green leafy vegetables, tofu, legumes, beans, tahini, watercress, blackberries, strawberries, raspberries and sweet potatoes.
Once you look at the foods which provide all these essential nutrients, you will realise why eating a variety of plant foods such as lots of vegetables (mostly cooked but some raw), salad, legumes, gluten free whole grains, seeds, nuts and fruits is so important for your health.