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If you have any medical questions or concerns, please talk to your healthcare provider. The articles on Health Guide are underpinned by peer-reviewed research and information drawn from medical societies and governmental agencies. However, they are not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.
It’s not just actors; vitamins get pigeonholed, too. That’s exactly what happened with vitamin D, which you might know as “the sunshine vitamin.” And although, yes, this vitamin does play an integral role in how your body absorbs calcium and your overall bone health, its résumé is actually far longer.
Vitamin D is actually a group of more than one fat-soluble steroid; for humans, the most important forms are D2 and D3. The Ds take hormone-like action in your body.
Most of us know we can get it through the sun and that it helps our bones, but little else. Maybe that’s why 41.6% of American adults are vitamin D deficient. Anyone under 70 needs 600 IU or international units of vitamin D a day, while those over 70 need 700 IU to hit their recommended dietary allowance (Forrest, 2011).
But the benefits of getting enough vitamin D extend well beyond strong bones. There’s an association between vitamin D deficiency and anxiety and depression, and getting enough could alleviate your depression symptoms (Armstrong, 2006; Jorde, 2008).
It could also potentially prevent certain cancers, such as colon, breast, and prostate cancer. And men specifically want to make sure they’re getting enough vitamin D as it can improve sexual functioning and boost testosterone levels in those who are deficient (Tirabassi, 2018; Pilz, 2011).
But sometimes your job or geography prevents you from getting the sun exposure needed to produce enough of the Ds yourself (by the way, that’s not an excuse to skimp on sunscreen).
Not a problem: this essential nutrient, which you can get through skin exposure to ultraviolet light (UV light) and vitamin D supplements, is also available through food. Make sure you know your levels, and then load your plate up with these foods if you’re lagging in vitamin D.
Vitamin D-rich foods
The two essential forms of vitamin D are found in different foods: vitamin D2 in plant sources and fortified foods, and D3 in meat and dairy products. But your focus should simply be on getting enough of both of the Ds.
Both forms are essential and carry out the same functions in your body, though D3 is more readily absorbed. Your goal is to prevent vitamin D deficiency and get enough vitamin D to feel your best, not prioritize one form and its food sources over the other.
It’s always a good idea to talk to your healthcare provider and get your vitamin D levels checked before beginning any new regimen. It is possible to get too much vitamin D, although many Americans are deficient. Treating a deficiency may also require short-time high-dose treatment, too, so it’s best to seek the medical advice of a medical professional.
Fatty fish is a great source of not only omega-3 fatty acids but also vitamin D3. One serving of fatty fish can get you close to hitting your daily D needs. In fact, one 100 g serving of sockeye salmon (about 3.5 ounces) packs 563 IU of vitamin D.
Other good choices include herring (168 IU in 100 g), sardines (192 IU in 100 g), mackerel (552 IU in 100 g), and swordfish (558 IU in 100 g) (FoodData Central, n.d.).
But none of them hold a candle to cod liver oil. Just one teaspoon of the supplement that many people’s grandmothers swore by will get you 450 IU.
Investing in a bottle of this food with high vitamin D content could even boost your heart health; vitamin D deficiency is associated with an increased risk of medical conditions such as cardiovascular disease, hypertension, and heart disease (Judd, 2009).
Eggs truly are incredible, marketing aside. You shouldn’t judge the impact of the egg on your daily intake of vitamin D on its size. Just one egg yolk from a large egg provides 36.7 IU of vitamin D.
Starting your day with two eggs sets you out on the right nutritional foot with healthy fats and protein to keep you full and give you sustained energy as well as a dose of vitamin D.
Speaking of things your grandma used to swear by for better health, beef liver more than earns its spot on this list of vitamin D foods. Expand your culinary horizons by trying 100 g of braised beef liver, and you’ll get 48 IU of vitamin D as your reward.
If you don’t think you can stomach the offal, there are other ways to reap the health benefits. Beef liver is also available as a dietary supplement; just make sure you’re choosing one made from grass-fed cows.
Mushrooms are top of the list of food sources of vitamin D for those who can’t or don’t eat animal products as they’re naturally rich in D2. It might not sound like a lot, but 100 g of mushrooms––slightly more than one cup before they’re sliced––provides 8 IU of vitamin D.
But mushrooms are a low-fat, low-calorie food, so at just 22 calories, you can easily fit multiple servings in your menu to help toward your daily dose. Still, fortified foods are likely to be the easiest way for vegans to hit their RDA of this crucial vitamin.
Fortified foods are sort of like a combination of food and dietary supplements––essentially, they are regular foods that we add vitamins and minerals to during processing.
You’ve probably come across this if you’ve ever seen milk or cereal that says it has been “fortified” with something. Although the amount of vitamin D in each fortified food isn’t as high as it is in, say, salmon, they add up to boost your overall vitamin D levels. Even just one juice box of fortified orange juice, for example, provides 33.4 IU of vitamin D.
In fact, breakfast may be a great time to front-load your day to make sure your vitamin D intake is on point. An 8-ounce glass of skim cow’s milk will start you off with 107.5 IU of the Ds, and the vegan-friendly alternative, soy milk, will provide 97.6 IU in the same serving.
Pair either of those with 1 cup of certain breakfast cereals for an additional 38 IU toward your daily value. Just make sure you’re looking for a breakfast cereal that’s fortified to ensure your morning bowl is a good source of vitamin D.
- FoodData Central. (n.d.). Retrieved October 20, 2019, from https://fdc.nal.usda.gov/index.html
- Forrest, K. Y., & Stuhldreher, W. L. (2011). Prevalence and correlates of vitamin D deficiency in US adults. Nutrition Research, 31(1), 48–54. doi: 10.1016/j.nutres.2010.12.001. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21310306
- Jorde, R., Sneve, M., Figenschau, Y., Svartberg, J., & Waterloo, K. (2008). Effects of vitamin D supplementation on symptoms of depression in overweight and obese subjects: randomized double blind trial. Journal of Internal Medicine, 264(6), 599–609. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2796.2008.02008.x. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18793245
- Judd, S. E., & Tangpricha, V. (2009). Vitamin D Deficiency and Risk for Cardiovascular Disease. The American Journal of the Medical Sciences, 338(1), 40–44. doi: 10.1097/maj.0b013e3181aaee91. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19593102
- Pilz, S., Frisch, S., Koertke, H., Kuhn, J., Dreier, J., Obermayer-Pietsch, B., … Zittermann, A. (2010). Effect of Vitamin D Supplementation on Testosterone Levels in Men. Hormone and Metabolic Research, 43(03), 223–225. doi: 10.1055/s-0030-1269854. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21154195
- Tirabassi, G., Sudano, M., Salvio, G., Cutini, M., Muscogiuri, G., Corona, G., & Balercia, G. (2018). Vitamin D and Male Sexual Function: A Transversal and Longitudinal Study. International Journal of Endocrinology, 2018, 1–8. doi: 10.1155/2018/3720813. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29531528
- Trump, D. L., & Aragon-Ching, J. B. (2018). Vitamin D in prostate cancer. Asian Journal of Andrology, 20(3), 244–252. doi: 10.4103/aja.aja_14_18. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29667615
Dr. Mike is a licensed physician and the Director, Medical Content & Education at Ro.