Eating a variety of thiamine foods has many benefits, both for physical and mental health. The human body does not produce its own thiamine; therefore it must be ingested from foods in the diet. Unlike other nutrients that can sometimes hard to get enough of, such as vitamin D or magnesium, thiamine is usually pretty easy to acquire from foods, assuming you eat enough calories overall — making thiamine deficiency easy to overcome.
What is the best source of thiamine? Some of the healthiest thiamine-rich foods include yeasts (like nutritional yeast), sea vegetables, certain whole grains, green veggies like asparagus and peas, seeds, beans, and fish. Benefits of eating thiamine foods include gaining more energy, staying focused and alert, protecting your memory, lifting your mood, and protecting your heart.
What Is Thiamine? Why Is It Important?
Thiamine (sometimes spelled as thiamin) is also known as vitamin B1 and is a water-soluble vitamin that’s commonly found in many plant and animal-derived foods. As a water-soluble vitamin, thiamine rapidly breaks down once it’s consumed and is flushed from the body more easily than fat-soluble vitamins, which can accumulate. Thiamine is stored primarily in the liver, but storage only lasts at most 18 days — which is why you need to consume thiamine foods regularly.
How is thiamine used in the body? It is involved in many of the most important metabolic processes of the body. Like most of the B vitamins, thiamine helps our bodies use energy from foods and is vital for cellular functions. When you eat thiamine-rich foods, they help the body convert carbohydrates to energy, which is important for your metabolism, focus and overall strength. It also plays a role in healthy liver function and is needed for healthy skin, eyes, hair and nails. (1)
How much thiamine/vitamin B1 do you need per day? Most foods are a good source of thiamine. The recommended daily allowance for thiamine is 1.2 milligrams a day for men and 1.1 milligrams a day for women. (2) Breastfeeding and pregnant women need more, about 1.4–1.5 milligrams per day. For adults with low levels of thiamine, the usual dose of thiamine is five to 30 milligrams daily in either a single dose or divided doses for one month. The amount that you need depends on your sex, age and level of activity. Factors like stress, exercise, illness and pregnancy all increase your need for thiamine foods.
The absorption of thiamine occurs in the duodenum, a part of the digestive system, by an active process that converts to its active form called thiamine pyrophosphate. Some of the reasons you might need higher amounts of thiamine are if don’t get typically get enough thiamine from your diet, if your body eliminates too much or if you absorb too little.
Top 15 Thiamine Foods
What foods contain thiamine? Here is a list of the top thiamine-rich foods to include in your diet:
- Nutritional Yeast — 2 tablespoons: 9.6 milligrams (640 percent DV)
- Seaweed (Such as Spirulina) — 1 cup seaweed: 2.66 milligrams (216 percent DV)
- Sunflower Seeds — 1 cup: 2 milligrams (164 percent DV)
- Macadamia Nuts— 1 cup: 1.6 milligrams (132 percent DV)
- Black Beans — 1/3 cup dried, or about 1 cup cooked: 0.58 milligram (48 percent DV)
- Lentils — 1/3 cup dried, or about 1 cup cooked: 0.53 milligram (44 percent DV)
- Organic Edameme/Soybeans — 1/3 cup dried, or about 1 cup cooked: 0.53 milligram (44 percent DV)
- Navy Beans — 1/3 cup dried, or about 1 cup cooked: 0.53 milligram (44 percent DV)
- White Beans —1/3 cup dried, or about 1 cup cooked: 0.53 milligram (44 percent DV)
- Green Split Peas — 1/3 cup dried, or about 1 cup cooked: 0.48 milligram (40 percent DV)
- Pinto beans — 1/3 cup dried, or about 1 cup cooked: 0.46 mg (39 percent DV)
- Mung Beans — 1/3 cup dried, or about 1 cup cooked: 0.42 milligram (36 percent DV)
- Beef Liver — 1 3 oz. piece cooked: 0.32 milligram (26 percent DV)
- Asparagus — 1 cup cooked: 0.3 milligram (25 percent DV)
- Brussels Sprouts — 1 cup cooked: 0.16 milligram (13 percent DV)
Other thiamine foods include spinach, eggplant, sun-dried tomatoes, potatoes, sesame seeds, rice bran, wheat germ, oats, barley, dairy products like yogurt or cheese, oranges, and organ meats. (3)
Are high-protein foods like meat, fish and pork a good source of thiamine? Most foods high in protein do provide some thiamine — plus they are good sources of other B vitamins, like B12 and B6. Fish and pork are especially high in thiamine. I don’t recommend eating much or any pork products, considering pork is usually found in processed meats and can contain additives, lots of sodium and contaminants. A better option is to get thiamine from wild-caught fish, especially types like herring and salmon.
6 Benefits of Thiamine Foods
1. Support the Metabolism and Higher Energy Levels
Thiamine is used to help extract energy from the foods you eat by turning nutrients into useable energy in the form of “ATP.” Foods with thiamine help convert molecules found in carbohydrates and proteins so the body can utilize these macronutrients to carry out various functions.
The coenzymatic form of thiamine is involved in two main types of metabolic reactions within the body that support carbohydrate and fat metabolism: decarboxylation and transketolation. (4) Thiamine also plays an important role in the production of red blood cells, which are used for ongoing energy.
2. Protect Eye Health and Vision
Foods with thiamine help prevent cataracts by working together with omega-3 and omega-6 fats to improve eye health. Thiamine can also help prevent vision loss due to nerve swelling in the eyes. (5) You should also consider adding more vitamin A rich foods into your diet to improve vision.
3. Promote Neurological Health
Eating foods high in thiamine is a natural way to promote healthy cognitive health. Lack of thiamine can contribute to confusion, dementia and even Alzheimer’s disease. (6) This is especially common in alcoholics who lose a lot of B vitamins due to dehydration and improper diet.
Elderly people with Alzheimer’s disease tend to have lower levels of thiamine in the blood than those without the disease. However, at this point the exact connection between thiamine levels and the development of Alzheimer’s disease is still unclear. Administration of thiamine to Alzheimer’s patients has been shown to be helpful for supporting cognitive abilities.
4. Support the Cardiovascular System
Thiamine works with other B vitamins, such as vitamin B12 and B6, to regulate important functions of the cardiovascular system, endocrine system and digestive system. Foods containing thiamine have a positive impact on circulation and functions of the heart, and higher intake has been shown to improve cardiac function, urine output, weight loss, and signs and symptoms of heart failure. (7) Vitamin B1/thiamine may also help prevent heart problems, such as an enlarged heart, high pulse rate, edema, inflammation and muscle wasting (remember the heart is a muscle).
5. Prevent Muscle Weakness, Spasms and Soreness
Low intake of thiamine is associated with restless leg syndrome, soreness, weakness, tenderness, fluid retention and numbness/tingling in the limbs. Thiamine B1 is especially helpful for preventing these symptoms in people with health conditions like diabetes, since it helps with nerve function and protects nerves’ outer coating called the myelin sheath. (8) B1 can also help improve recovery time after exercise and helps reduce lactic acid, which causes soreness.
6. Help Promote Gut and Digestive Health
In people with thiamine deficiency, consuming more thiamine may help improves appetite and strengthen their digestive systems. In animal studies, treating animals eating a low-calorie diet (similar to humans eating a calorie-restricted diet due to dieting or an eating disorder) helped improve appetite and recovery. (9) A lack of energy, anxiety and depression can also all contribute to a poor appetite, low moods and lack of motivation, but thiamine may help prevent these symptoms by supporting the body’s ability to deal with mental and physical stress.
Thiamine Deficiency Symptoms
Thiamine deficiency occurs most often when someone consumes a diet that’s too low in calories, low in animals products (such a vegan or vegetarian diet) or if that person overconsumes alcohol. The human body requires a minimum of 0.33 milligrams of thiamine for every 1,000 kilocalories it consumes to prevent deficiency. This means that an individual who consumes an average 2,000 calories per day should ingest a minimum of 0.66 milligram of thiamine daily, although more is even better. (10)
What are the symptoms of thiamine/vitamin B1 deficiency? Severe thiamine deficiency is also known as beriberi. Signs and symptoms of beriberi can include heart failure, muscle weakness, delirium or confusion, and a burning sensation in the hands and feet. (11) Other symptoms can still be experienced even if vitamin B1 deficiency is not as severe. The most common vitamin B1/thiamine deficiency symptoms include:
- Chronic fatigue
- Gut issues, such as colitis or diarrhea
- Muscle wasting and weakness
- Neurological degeneration, including decreases in memory or confusion
- Weight loss
- Poor appetite
- Nerve damage and inflammation (neuritis)
- Mood changes, such as irritability, apathy or depression
- Cardiovascular effects, such as an enlargement of the heart
In industrialized nations, when most people consume enough calories, thiamine deficiency is rare. Thiamine deficiencies are not very common because the vitamin is plentiful in most foods that are widely available. Certain people who eat restrictive diets or who have trouble metabolizing and absorbing thiamine can still be deficient, though. What are the main causes of thiamine deficiency? These can include:
- Alcoholism. Why do alcoholics commonly have thiamine deficiency? Because alcohol interferes with absorption of thiamine. In fact, most drugs reduce the amount of thiamine in the body, including tobacco, alcohol, caffeinated and carbonated drinks. Thiamin deficiency in alcoholics is known as Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome.
- Calorie restriction, whether from an eating disorder, illness or even dieting.
- Intense mental stress.
- Intense exercise or active physical work.
- Pregnancy and breastfeeding, when the need for B vitamins increases to support fetal growth and development.
- Older adults. Elderly individuals usually require more thiamine because they have markedly reduced ability to assimilate all the vitamins they consume due to changes in gut health.
- People with HIV/AIDS.
- People with diabetes, anemia or liver disease.
- People who have had bariatric surgery, which reduces appetite and calorie intake.
- If you’re taking medicines that can lower thiamine levels, such as Furosemide (Lasix®), which is used to treat high blood pressure and swelling, or Fluorouracil (5-fluorouracil and Adrucil®), which is used in chemotherapy treatments.
Where to Find and How to Use Thiamine Foods
Most adults can meet the daily thiamine requirement by eating a variety of whole foods, including vegetables, sea veggies, seeds, nuts, sources of protein like fish or meat, and soaked/sprouted legumes. Most fruits and vegetables do not provide very high amounts of thiamine, although there are some exceptions, like peas, asparagus and tomatoes.
Here are ideas for adding more thiamine foods to your diet:
- Make homemade miso soup using fermented miso and seaweed. You can also consume dried seaweed by making juice from green powder.
- Add seeds, nuts or nut butter (such as macadamia nut butter or tahini) to smoothies, oatmeal or baked goods.
- Soak beans before making homemade chili or hummus.
- Roast Brussels sprouts, then toss them in nutritional yeast.
- Top steamed asparagus and spinach with a sesame tahini dressing.
- Add cooked liver to chopped meat, meatballs or meatloaf.
- Make a plant-based “cheese” sauce using nutritional yeast and other spices.
One group of thiamine foods that I don’t recommend consuming is enriched grain products — like most breads, pastas, rice and fortified cereal grains. These foods are usually highly processed and contain added/synthetic vitamins; overall they aren’t a great source of quality nutrients and can be difficult to properly digest. When thiamine is added to the food synthetically, you will usually see the words “enriched” or “fortified.” I recommend having natural foods with thiamine rather than those with synthetically added B vitamins.
Should You Take Thiamine Supplements?
Most people don’t require thiamine supplements to meet their daily needs, but getting more thiamine can be helpful if you’re feeling fatigued, stress or ill. When supplementation is taken into account, the USDA believes that some adults double or even triple their daily need for thiamine. If you’re unsure about whether supplementation may be beneficial for you, talk to your doctor and mention any risk factors you might have for thiamine deficiency.
A great way to get thiamine easily without taking a supplement is by having one to two tablespoons of nutritional yeast daily, which is high in many B vitamins and even plant-based protein. Sprinkle these yellow flakes over veggies, a baked potato, popcorn or eggs, since it tastes very similar to cheese. Just one tablespoon provides more than 150 percent of your daily thiamine needs, plus amino acids and other minerals. Look for organic nutritional yeast if possible that is not fortified.
Thiamine is included in many vitamin B complex supplements and multivitamins. While thiamine works best when consumed or taken with other B vitamins, it is not the same as vitamin B12, B6 or other B vitamins. If you want to increase your intake of thiamine, it’s better to take a B complex formula than a B12 supplement. B12 is also good for supporting energy levels and mental health, but these two vitamins have different mechanisms of action.
Thiamine Foods Recipes
Below are recipe ideas for cooking with some of the healthiest foods that are high in thiamine:
History of Thiamine and Thiamine Foods
- Thiamine was the first of the water-soluble vitamins to be described and discovered. The effects of thiamine/vitamin B1 were first discovered by a researcher named Kanehiro Takaki in Japan when he was researching how rice bran helped cure patients of beriberi (now known to be caused by thiamine deficiency).
- In the early 1900s, it was discovered that a diet containing barley, meat, milk, bread and vegetables could nearly eliminate beriberi in men taking sea voyages that lasted nine month or longer. Today, thiamine is still used to treat beriberi, Korsakoff’s syndrome and Korsakoff’s psychosis, although it’s now extremely rare for these conditions to become fatal.
- In 1897, a military doctor named Christiaan Eijkman made an important connection between diets containing cooked, polished rice and the development of nerve damage. He was the first to point out that the endosperm of rice, which gave the grain protection, also held important nutrients that helped prevent diseases. This led Eijkman to the conclusion that polished rice was tied to beriberi and that whole grains could be life-saving because they included more essential nutrients. Eijkman was eventually awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine in 192, because his observations led to the discovery of vitamins.
- A large body of research now shows that thiamine has “antioxidant, erythropoietic, mood modulating, and glucose-regulating activities.” (12) It is given to patients suffering from a variety of health conditions, ranging from neurological disorders to diabetes.
Precautions Regarding Thiamine
How much is too much thiamine? In other words, can you overdose on vitamin B1/thiamine?
Consuming high doses of thiamine from foods isn’t very dangerous because thiamine is water-soluble and can be excreted from the body via urine pretty easily. This is why thiamine is considered non-toxic even in high amounts. Only a small percentage of a high dose of thiamine is actually absorbed by the body. That being said, it is still possible to get too much thiamine from supplements if you take very large amounts at once, such 50 milligrams a day or more from a combination of food or supplements. (13)
Not many side effects have been attributed to having too much vitamin B1 from foods alone, but to be safe it’s still best to read supplement dosage directions carefully.
Final Thoughts on Thiamine Foods + Their Benefits
- Thiamine, also known as vitamin B1, and is a water-soluble vitamin that’s found in many plant and animal-derived foods.
- Thiamine foods include nutritional yeast, sea vegetables, certain whole grains, green veggies like asparagus and peas, seeds, beans, and fish.
- Benefits of eating thiamine rich foods include supporting the metabolism, raising energy levels, protecting the heart, supporting neurological health and protecting the eyes/vision.
- People who require higher intake of thiamine and can benefit from eating more foods with thiamine include alcoholics, people eating low-calorie diets, diabetics, pregnant or breastfeeding women, the elderly, and people with anemia, HIV, inflammatory bowel disease or liver disease.
- Most people don’t need a thiamine supplement to get enough, and because it’s water-soluble there isn’t much risk involved with consuming too much thiamine.
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