If you’re looking to optimize your health and feel energized in daily life (aren’t we all?), it’s important to make sure you’re getting enough vitamin B-rich foods. There are eight different B vitamins, and they’re found most abundantly in animal products like meat, eggs, and dairy, but you can also find them in nuts, legumes, and certain vegetables.
Why we need to eat foods high in vitamin B
“One of the main roles of B vitamins is energy metabolism,” says Kris Romeo, a health coach at Parsley Health. Specifically, B vitamins are essential for the process our bodies use to turn food we consume into a form of energy that our cells can use. “Without sufficient B vitamins, we can’t really produce energy that well, so fatigue is a common symptom of B deficiency,” Romeo says.
But B vitamins do a lot of other things, too. They are involved in nerve function, brain function, red blood cell formation, and the production of certain hormones, says Romeo. So, yeah, they’re kind of a big deal. Deficiencies in B vitamins can cause a handful of symptoms, most commonly lethargy, brain fog and confusion, and irritability. You may also develop anemia, a condition where you don’t produce enough red blood cells to transport oxygen throughout the blood properly, which can make you feel tired and weak.
Needless to say, making sure you have enough vitamin B rich foods in your diet is so important to your overall health. But what foods are high in vitamin B? It depends on the type you’re looking for.
What each B vitamin does—and where to find it
While the eight different B vitamins all play overlapping roles, each one does have some specialized tasks—for example, they all are involved in converting food to usable energy, but the specific ways they do it differs—which means it’s important that we consume enough of all of them. If you don’t eat animal products, there’s a greater chance you may be deficient in certain B vitamins, so it’s important to let your doctor know if you’re feeling any symptoms of deficiency so they can check your levels and recommend a supplement or fortified foods as necessary.
Here’s an overview of each B vitamin, its main job in the body, and the foods you can find it in.
“Essentially it helps to convert carbs to fat for storage,” says Romeo. “It also promotes nerve function by forming parts of the myelin sheath, the outer coating that gives each nerve insulation so that it can communicate.”
Good sources of thiamin include whole grains, pork, beef, trout, bluefin tuna, eggs, legumes, and peas, and nuts and seeds. Many cereals and breads are also fortified with thiamin in the U.S., though whole food sources are best.
Riboflavin is an important vitamin for supporting healthy vision, and it also supports glutathione in the body, an antioxidant that protects our cells from free radicals, Romeo says.
You can find a good amount of riboflavin in milk, eggs, organ meats (kidneys and liver), green vegetables (like asparagus, broccoli, and spinach), and fortified cereals and grain products.
This B vitamin plays an important role in healthy functioning of the digestive system, skin, and nerves. It’s also used in DNA production and insulin metabolism, which is key for regulating our blood sugar, says Romeo. “It also helps synthesize sex hormones and stomach acid, and helps with lowering triglycerides.”
Foods that are rich in niacin include poultry, beef, and fish. Tryptophan, an amino acid found in high amounts in turkey, can also be converted to niacin in the body.
Pantothenic acid (B5)
“Pantothenic acid is necessary for red blood cell production, antibody production, hormone metabolism, and is used in neural pathways,” Romeo says. “It’s known as the anti-stress vitamin because it plays a role in regulating neurotransmitters.”
Both plant- and animal-based foods contain pantothenic acid in various amounts, but some of the best sources are organ meats (kidneys and liver), eggs, mushrooms, avocados, broccoli, kale, beef, poultry, sweet potatoes, legumes, lentils, and whole-grain cereals.
Vitamin B6 (Pyridoxine)
B6 helps with the production of chemical messengers that communicate information about inflammation and immune function in the body, says Romeo. We also need it to convert tryptophan into serotonin (an important chemical in the brain for memory, cognition, and mood) and for proper electrical function of the nerves, heart function, and muscle function.
Foods high in this B vitamin include fish, organ meats, potatoes and other starchy vegetables, and some fruits, like bananas, prunes, and avocados.
While biotin is known as the healthy-hair vitamin, Romeo says that the research isn’t very convincing. However, biotin does help our bodies synthetize fat and store it so we can use it for energy later. It also helps to convert protein into glucose in the liver, so that we can use it for energy.
You can find biotin in most vitamin B-rich foods, including milk, eggs, organ meats, legumes, nuts, and pork.
“It’s especially important during pregnancy, because it’s key in the development of the nervous system and brain in babies,” says Romeo. In fact, the CDC mandates that certain enriched grain products, like breakfast cereals, be fortified with folic acid (the synthetic form of folate) to help ensure that women get enough during pregnancy. Folate also helps break down homocysteine, an amino acid in the blood that contributes to heart disease risk.
Great sources of folate include dark leafy greens (spinach, kale, and Swiss chard), Brussels sprouts, asparagus, liver, avocado, broccoli, black-eyed peas, and kidney beans. It’s also found in fortified grain products, including cereals and pasta.
Vitamin B12 (Cyanocobalamin)
We need B12 mainly for red blood cell production, neurological function, and DNA synthesis. It also happens to be the B vitamin people are most often deficient in, because it’s only found in animal products, Romeo says. If you’re vegan, there’s a good chance you’re not consuming enough B12, and your doctor may recommend taking a supplement or eating foods fortified with B12. Stomach acid also plays a role in helping us use the B12 in protein we consume, so if there’s something off with your stomach acid, you may not absorb it properly, potentially contributing to deficiency, says Romeo.
Clams, trout, salmon, tuna, liver, beef, ham, chicken, eggs, milk, yogurt, and cheese are great sources of B12. The vitamin can also be found in fortified grain products and some types of nutritional yeast.
Keep in mind that most doctors don’t routinely check for B-vitamin levels in regular bloodwork. Parsley Health doctors look at many nutrient levels, including B-vitamins and particularly if a patient complains of low energy. If you suspect a nutrient deficiency, ask your doctor to check your levels.