Even if you watch what you eat (most of the time), generally healthy eaters can still miss out on critical vitamins and minerals that the body needs to stay in fine tune, says Wendy Bazilian, DrPH, author of Eat Clean, Stay Lean. Here, three nutrients that keep everything from your brain to your immune system humming—plus easy ways to make sure you get them, courtesy of Health’s contributing nutrition editor, registered dietitian Cynthia Sass.
They boost your brainpower and protect your heart
Of the eight B vitamins, B12 and folate are the most famous. B12 helps your body convert food into energy, and you need it to make the insulation, called myelin, that covers your nerves and helps neurons in the brain communicate with one another. B12 deficiency has been linked to cognitive issues like memory loss, confusion, and depression.
Folate is known to be crucial for pregnant women—but we all need it. “The fact that it plays such an important role in fetal development speaks volumes about its importance,” says registered dietitian Dawn Jackson Blatner, author of The Superfood Swap. Folate is vital because it helps lower levels of an amino acid that can contribute to stroke and cardiovascular disease risk. “Typically, people think of fiber and healthy fats as good for the heart,” says Blatner, “but folate and other B vitamins are part of that heart-smart group.”
Where to get them
Since B12 is one of the rare nutrients not available in plants, it’s easy to come up short, especially if you’re a vegetarian. Good sources include eggs, cheese, fish, milk, yogurt, and red meat. Unlike B12, folate is found in plenty of good-for-you produce, including greens like spinach, asparagus, and Brussels sprouts, as well as beans and fortified cereals.
Dish ’em up
For a smoothie: Blend baby spinach, a small banana, almond milk, almond butter, chickpea our, and ground cinnamon.
For a salad: Top chopped romaine with a big spoonful of guac. Garnish with pico de gallo, black beans, and grilled shrimp.
For a soup: Add 2 cups vegetable broth to sautéed chopped onions and garlic. Bring to a boil, then simmer for 10 minutes. Add 1 cup cooked lentils and 1 cup fresh spinach; stir until spinach has wilted. Top with a dollop of Greek yogurt.
It's good for your bones and your immune system
Scientists don’t agree on exactly how much D people truly need. But plenty of science shows it’s crucial for a healthy body. One of the nutrient’s most important functions is improving your ability to absorb calcium, which helps build strong bones. Vitamin D is also key when it comes to regulating your immune function. There is some evidence linking low levels of D to the development of autoimmune diseases like Crohn’s disease, rheumatoid arthritis, and multiple sclerosis.
Where to get it
Vitamin D is tough to find in food. Most of the D in your body is produced in response to sunlight. But if you slather on SPF (as dermatologists recommend!) or live in a northern climate, you can still get a good dose of the vitamin from foods like egg yolks, oily fish such as sardines, and fortified milks, orange juices, and cereals. (Ask your doc if you should also take a supplement.)
Dish it up
For breakfast: Scramble 2 whole eggs with sautéed onions and shiitake mushrooms.
For lunch: Stir hummus into 1 can of tuna (canned in water). Serve over a bed of chopped spinach and sprinkle with 1⁄4 cup fresh grated beets.
For a side: Toss sautéed onions with spaghetti squash and 3 ounces oven-roasted chopped sardines.
It helps you snooze and eases pain
Lately it seems every insomniac is popping magnesium like crazy. While it won’t knock you out the way a sleeping pill might, the nutrient has been shown to help muscles relax and is also popular among athletes for soothing achy muscles, says Blatner. And magnesium, which may help quiet areas of the brain that keep us awake, could have a calming effect, helping to relieve mild anxiety that keeps you up at night. There’s also evidence that magnesium may ward off migraines.
Where to get it
Dietary surveys consistently show that Americans don’t get enough magnesium. That could be because magnesium is mostly found in high-fiber foods (veggies, brown rice), which have been largely replaced by refined or processed foods in the typical American diet. In addition to fiber, make sure you eat good fats in the form of seeds and nuts (including nut butters), which are some of the best sources of magnesium.
Dish it up
For a salad: Toss a few handfuls of fresh spinach with vinaigrette. Top with 1 cup black beans and 1⁄2 avocado, sliced.
For a snack: Stir pumpkin seeds, banana slices, 1 to 2 chopped dark chocolate squares, and a little cinnamon and maple syrup into a single-serve container of plain Greek yogurt.
For a side: Sauté chopped onions and Swiss chard in 1⁄4 cup veggie broth with garlic, fresh grated ginger, and crushed red pepper.