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“Eat your carrots! Don’t you want to have good eyesight?”
If your parents told you something along those lines when you were a kid, they were right. Carrots are just one of the many foods that contain vitamin A, an essential nutrient that plays many roles in the body, from eyesight to reproductive health. This article covers what vitamin A is and 11 food sources of vitamin A.
What is vitamin A?
Vitamin A is one of the fat-soluble vitamins—meaning it gets absorbed by fat in the body—that play an essential role in many functions, including eye health, immune function, and fetal development during pregnancy. You might see vitamin A referred to by many different names, including retinoids and carotenoids, which are different forms of the vitamin.
The recommended dietary allowance (RDA) of vitamin A is around 700–900 mcg (2300–3000 IU) for adults (Chea, 2021).
Vitamin A deficiencies are uncommon in developed countries since this vitamin is found in so many different foods, although it still leads to night blindness in some developing countries. A weakened immune system, dry eyes (xerophthalmia), and skin irritation are a few other vitamin A deficiency symptoms.
Most people with good access to food can get enough vitamin A from their diet without the need for dietary supplements.
In rare cases, people may develop vitamin A toxicity, where there’s too much vitamin A in the body. Fat-soluble vitamins are stored in body fat and can build up in the body over time. Long-term intake of high doses of vitamin A supplement may lead to toxicity and symptoms like:
- Birth defects
- Coarse hair
- Cracked lips
- Ulcer in the corner of the mouth.
Pregnant women should follow their healthcare provider’s medical advice to consume prenatal vitamins as recommended and eat a balanced diet, as both too little and too much vitamin A can cause problems in the developing baby.
Health benefits of vitamin A
Here are some of the important uses of vitamin A (Chea, 2021):
- Eye health: Inadequate vitamin A can lead to dry eye symptoms and night blindness.
- Immune health: Vitamin A helps support the immune system by increasing the development of immune cells.
- Pregnancy: Vitamin A helps support cell division and the growth of the baby’s organs, vision, and bones.
- Antioxidant properties: Vitamin A is a type of antioxidant, meaning it helps protect cells from damage and lowers cancer risk.
11 foods high in vitamin A
Here are some common foods high in vitamin A:
Orange and yellow colored fruits and vegetables get their color from a substance called beta-carotene, which turns into vitamin A in the body. Beta-carotene provides the orange pigment in foods, so it can help you identify foods with vitamin A.
Half of a cup of raw carrots contains about 450 mcg of vitamin A. While carrots can’t help you see in the dark, they do provide a large amount of your daily vitamin A needs to help prevent a deficiency.
Vitamin A palmitate supplementing
2. Sweet potatoes
Sweet potatoes are an excellent source of vitamin A. One sweet potato contains about 1400 mcg of vitamin A when consumed with its skin.
Sweet potatoes are also high in fiber, magnesium, and potassium.
Some of the vitamins and minerals in foods—including vitamin A—can be lost during cooking, so uncooked foods can help ensure you’re getting all of the nutrients you need. Cantaloupe is a great option for this reason. There is about 135 mcg of vitamin A in a half cup of cantaloupe.
One medium apricot holds about 34 mcg of vitamin A. They’re also a great source of other antioxidants like vitamin C, vitamin E, and flavonoids. These nutrients help reduce the risk of chronic diseases like heart disease and diabetes (Ciumarnean, 2020).
5. Beef liver
Beef liver and other types of animal livers are rich sources of vitamin A. Humans (and other animals) convert vitamin A into its active form in the liver, and some vitamin A is stored there (Blaner, 2016).
One serving of beef liver contains about 6,500 mcg of Vitamin A and other nutrients like:
6. Dairy products
Many dairy products naturally contain vitamin A. In the U.S., many of these products are fortified with additional vitamin A. Often, products contain between 200 to 300 mcg of vitamin A depending on the type of dairy food.
Many dairy products are also good sources of calcium, vitamin D, and B vitamins.
7. Leafy green vegetables
Dark green, leafy vegetables are loaded with many beneficial nutrients, like vitamin A, iron, vitamin C, and more. For example, a serving of spinach can provide around 500 mcg of vitamin A.
Try adding spinach to your salad, smoothie, or as a cooked side for a fiber and nutrient boost to any meal or snack.
8. Cod liver oil
Fatty fish is an excellent source of anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids, but they also offer other nutrients like vitamin D, vitamin A, vitamin K, and vitamin E. One tablespoon of cod liver oil contains around 4000 mcg of vitamin A.
Research suggests that regularly consuming fatty fish helps lower inflammation, protect heart health, and lower the risk of chronic diseases (Derbyshire, 2019).
How to choose a multivitamin tablet
Grapefruit is an excellent source of vitamin A, vitamin C, and fiber. One medium grapefruit contains around 140 mcg of vitamin A.
While grapefruit is a great source of vitamins, you should talk with your healthcare provider about eating grapefruit if you’re taking any medication. Some medications don’t interact well with grapefruit.
10. Red bell peppers
Bell peppers, like sweet red peppers, are full of vitamins and minerals. A half cup of raw red pepper provides about 120 mcg of vitamin A and contains vitamin C, folate, and vitamin B6.
Research suggests the antioxidants and carotenoids in bell peppers may help protect against degenerative and metabolic diseases (Hassan, 2019).
Tomatoes are packed with vitamins and minerals like vitamin C, vitamin A, lycopene, lutein, and zeaxanthin. One medium tomato provides around 1,000 IU of vitamin A.
Tips for eating vitamin A
Vitamin A is widely available in many foods. Most people are able to meet their needs through diet alone.
Many of the sources of vitamin A are plant-based, so it’s important to pair these foods with other types of food that contain fat. Since vitamin A is a fat soluble vitamin, it absorbs best when eaten with fat.
The best way to ensure adequate nutrition is to consume a wide variety of foods, specifically lean protein, whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and healthy fats.
- Blaner, W. S., Li, Y., Brun, P. J., Yuen, J. J., Lee, S. A., & Clugston, R. D. (2016). Vitamin A absorption, storage and mobilization. Sub-cellular Biochemistry, 81, 95–125. doi: 10.1007/978-94-024-0945-1_4. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27830502/
- Chea, E. P., Lopez, M. J., & Milstein, H. (2021). Vitamin A. [Updated 2021 Jul 25]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Retrieved on Oct. 18, 2021 from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK482362/
- Ciumărnean, L., Milaciu, M. V., Runcan, O., Vesa, Ș. C., Răchișan, A. L., Negrean, V., et al. (2020). The effects of flavonoids in cardiovascular diseases. Molecules, 25(18), 4320. doi: 10.3390/molecules25184320. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7571023/
- Derbyshire, E. (2019). Oily fish and omega-3s across the life stages: a focus on intakes and future directions. Frontiers In Nutrition, 6, 165. doi: 10.3389/fnut.2019.00165. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6861329/
- Hassan, N.M., Yusof, N. A., Yahaya, A. F., Mohd Rozali, N. N., & Othman, R. (2019). Carotenoids of capsicum fruits: pigment profile and health-promoting functional attributes. Antioxidants, 8(10), 469. doi: 10.3390/antiox8100469. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6827103/
Dr. Steve Silvestro is a board-certified pediatrician and Senior Manager, Medical Content & Education at Ro.