Getting Vitamin D from food alone can be challenging. But if you’re up to the challenge, this week’s blog will help. And if you’re not, don’t worry about it, because later on in this blog, we’ll serve up some supplement-savvy advice to help you figure out your options.
Sunlight can also be your friend when it comes to Vitamin D. The ultraviolet (UV) rays work cooperatively with a protein in your skin (7-DHC) that enables your body to produce its own vitamin D. But don’t use that as an excuse to drench your skin in sunshine, and certainly not without skin protection. As this blog post from the Skin Cancer Foundation advises, “letting the sun beat down on your face and body is not the way to satisfy your [Vitamin] D quotient.”
And to borrow another line we especially like from that just-referenced blog, “…you can have your Vitamin D and literally eat it too…”
So, let’s find out how.
Before we dig into the foods that are richest in Vitamin, let’s first talk about how much Vitamin D you actually need. If you’re between the ages of 1-70 years old, the U.S. government advises a Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) of 600 IU (or 15 mcg) daily, including all sources of the vitamin, and based on the assumption that people are getting minimal sun exposure.
The RDA is defined as an average daily level of intake sufficient to meet the nutrient requirements of nearly all (97%–98%) healthy individuals.
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If you’re over age 70, the recommendations are higher—800 IU (or 20 mcg). As you get older, you’re probably not spending as much time outdoors as you did when you were younger. Plus, even if you’re outdoors all the time, your aging skin just doesn’t synthesize Vitamin D as effectively as it once did. Not only that, but your interest in food and your dietary habits may begin to change as you get older. All of which may increase your risk of a Vitamin D insufficiency, possibly even a deficiency.
Older adults are not the only ones who benefit from higher Vitamin D intake recommendations. Here are some special populations who may need more:
4 (and More) Groups That Might Need to Up Their Vitamin D Game
- Teenagers—It’s not just teenagers, but actually all adolescents (generally defined as ages 10-19) that might benefit from more Vitamin D, with some scientists recommending 1,000 IU daily. This post reports on several studies, including two that associated low Vitamin D levels in children with growing pains, the first finding 94 percent of those children were Vitamin D deficient while the second pointed to 57 percent of the studied population with growing pains also had low Vitamin D levels. In two other studies on the effect of Vitamin D supplementation on growing pains, both demonstrated that pain scores decreased as serum Vitamin D levels increased. In all four studies, it’s important to note that none included control groups for comparison.
- Pregnant women—As the saying goes, you’re eating for two. So, it’s extra important during this time to ensure your Vitamin D levels don’t sink to insufficiency and certainly not deficiency. And that may require adding extra Vitamin D to your diet. In addition to all the benefits Vitamin D provides normally, some research indicates that getting enough Vitamin D during pregnancy may reduce the risk of preeclampsia, a condition which impacts approximately 5-8% of pregnancies. This case-control study matched 83 cases of preeclampsia with 319 controls and found that women with Vitamin D sufficiency during the 3rd trimester as well as in both the 1st and 3rd trimesters had a significantly lower risk of preeclampsia. If you’re pregnant, check with your doctor to determine how much Vitamin D you need and how much you’re already getting from your prenatal vitamin.
- People with dark skin—the pigment melanin in your outermost layer of skin—known as the epidermal layer—is responsible for producing our skin tone. The more melanin, the darker the skin. It’s also a possibility that because melanin reduces the skin’s ability to produce Vitamin D from sunlight, people with dark skin may need to increase their Vitamin D intake. For example, black Americans typically tend to have lower serum(OH)D levels in comparison to white Americans and may need higher doses of Vitamin D to ensure reaching recommended levels.
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- People with specific health conditions—Certain diseases or conditions, including Crohn’s, celiac, obesity, and kidney and liver disease, can result in Vitamin D deficiencies; and Vitamin D deficiencies may lead to other serious health issues or conditions, including diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, and some cancers such as colon, prostate and breast cancers. The bottom line: if you have serious health issues or certain genetic predispositions, make sure you’re aware of your Vitamin D input and keep a watch on your Vitamin D levels, something easily achieved by a simple blood serum test.
- People taking certain medications—Some medications, including steroids, laxatives, and some cholesterol lowering drugs—are thought to lower Vitamin D levels.
On the other hand, if you’re someone who is getting maximum sun exposure, perhaps a lifeguard or just a sun worshipper, you may want to consider whether you need to decrease your Vitamin D intake from supplemental sources such as dietary supplements or fortified foods. While taking too much Vitamin D is rare, it can happen.
The best way to figure out whether you need more Vitamin D is to get tested to determine your blood levels. (More on that later!)
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To learn more about populations that may be prone to Vitamin D insufficiency or deficiency, The Office of Dietary Supplements (ODS) has more information in this fact sheet (for healthcare professionals) and The Cleveland Clinic has a valuable article here.
Keep this in mind too. The RDAs for Vitamin D are meant to establish daily intakes that allow healthy people to maintain bone health and normal calcium metabolism. But as the body of scientific research expands demonstrating additional benefits of Vitamin D, other scientists consider daily doses above the RDAs as key to accessing those optimal benefits.
By now you’re probably hungry for more information on what foods are rich in Vitamin D. The simple truth is this: when it comes to whole foods—simple foods generally with one ingredient, or those that are not processed or are processed minimally—it’s not really a long list. But there are added benefits to focusing on whole foods. For example, they’re packed with healthful nutrients, may help reduce the risk of disease, and lessen food cravings. If you need more examples to help convince you that whole foods are the way to eat, check out this piece.
VIDEO: OmegaMatters Episode #8, Part 1 – Interviewing an Omega-3 Legend – Dr. Jorn Dyerberg
Of if you just want to know now what foods can raise your Vitamin D levels, here are six to get you started:
6 Whole Foods with Vitamin D
- Salmon—not only is this fatty fish one of the richest in Vitamin D (3 ounces of sockeye, cooked, contains 570 IU), but it’s also rich in omega-3s EPA and DHA—other good-for-you nutrients.
- Rainbow trout—less omega-3s but a bit more Vitamin D, clocking in at 645 IU for a 3- ounce, cooked serving.
- Egg yolks—the source of Vitamin D with 44 IU is the yolk, but the whites are where the protein is. Unless your doctor advises against it, eat the whole egg.
- Beef liver—3 ounces cooked offers up 42 IU of Vitamin D but is also high in cholesterol. So, maybe not a daily suggestion.
- Cheddar cheese—1.5 ounces includes 17 IU Vitamin D and deliciousness. But too much is not really heart healthy, so don’t overdo it.
- Mushrooms—the vegetarian whole food source of Vitamin D, D2 specifically. There’s 366 IU in a ½ cup of white, raw, sliced mushrooms that have been exposed to UV light (grown in sunshine).
Because the whole food options are somewhat limited when it comes to Vitamin D intake, food manufacturers viewed an opportunity to add Vitamin D, as well as omega-3s, and a number of other nutrients, to a variety of foods in an effort to add health benefits. These foods are known as fortified foods and are sometimes called “functional” or “enriched” foods.
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Check the package to make sure it uses at least one of those words, or states “a good source of,” or check the food label so you know it’s a product that has been fortified.
3 Fortified Foods That Contain Vitamin D
- Soy, almond or oat milk—1 cup serves up between 100-144 IU of Vitamin D.
- Milk—2% milkfat has 120 IU of Vitamin D.
- Cereal—to get 80 IU of Vitamin D, you want 1 serving of boxed/ready-to-eat cereal, fortified with 10% of the DV (more on the DV in a minute).
This helpful chart from ODS is where we sourced these nine options. The chart also lets you know what %DV these foods fulfill. What’s the DV, you say? We’re glad you asked.
It’s not a simple answer.
The Daily Value, aka as the DV, was created to help consumers better understand and compare how the nutrient content of foods and dietary supplements fit within the context of a total diet. If you’ve ever read the Nutrition Facts box on a food package or the Supplement Facts box on a dietary supplement bottle, you will have seen a column that lists %DV for some nutrients, but not all. There is an established DV for Vitamin D of 800 IU (20 mcg) for adults and children aged 4 years and older. As an example, that sockeye salmon we talked about before? The one where a 3 oz. cooked serving gets you 570 IU of Vitamin D? That’s 71%DV.
Food and supplement labels could be a blog post in themselves. So, we’re going to move on but leave you with two sources for better understanding of food labels, here and supplement labels, here.
Do I Need Vitamin D Supplements?
There’s a good chance you do need them, either in a single supplement or a multivitamin.
According to the government, in the U.S., most people have adequate blood levels of vitamin D, but almost one out of four people have levels that are too low or inadequate for bone and overall health. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans refers to vitamin D a nutrient of concern because of its widespread underconsumption.
Want to determine whether you should add to, keep or delete Vitamin D supplements from your health regimen based on where your Vitamin D levels stand? The best way to do that is through a simple blood test. Your doctor can order a test that draws blood. Another choice is a simple, at-home prick of the finger blood test from OmegaQuant.
If it turns out you’re not at the “Goldilocks Level”—not too little, not too much, but just right—adding a Vitamin D supplement is a generally a perfectly fine option.
4 Tips for Picking Your Vitamin D Supplement
- Choose your brand wisely. There are many, many options when it comes to Vitamin D supplements. Do your research so you’re buying from a company that’s reputable and practices values that you personally find important. Price may be a factor, but high quality doesn’t come cheap. If price is important, look for coupons or special promotions. Companies that have their products independently tested for GMPs or other standards or certifications from organizations like NSF or USP may be a plus; but lack of certification is not necessarily a deal-breaker.
- Determine what kind of Vitamin D you want—either D2 (ergocalciferol) or D3 (cholecalciferol). Most of the research buzz these days is focused on D3, which is the form that your body makes from exposure to sunlight. D3 is thought to be better at increasing your Vitamin D blood levels. Vitamin D2 is often used in high-dose prescription pills and is also available in supplements. It is plant-based, so if you’re vegetarian, that’s something to consider. The bottle may just say Vitamin D, but the Supplements Facts box should list the form.
- Read the label (which should be available online) to consider the dose and accompanying %DV. Remember to also consider whether there are other supplements you’re taking (e.g., a multivitamin) that contain Vitamin D and figure out which single supplement to add based on serving size/dose as one consideration.
- Follow label instructions. It’s trite but true. Just because a little is good, doesn’t mean a lot is better.
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At OmegaQuant, we’ve developed a science-based Vitamin D Calculator and accompanying at-home blood test designed to help people who want to reach a desirable level in the blood to achieve protective and optimal benefits of vitamin D.
Testing to see where you’re at is the first step. OmegaQuant has identified 30 ng/mL to 50 ng/mL as the “Goldilocks Level” for Vitamin D and >100 ng/mL as excessive.
Remember your Vitamin D intake should be estimated based on all sources, not just supplemental.
Once you get your results, you can use the Vitamin D Calculator to determine whether you need to change your Vitamin D regimen to help ensure you get and/or stay at the protective/optimal levels of vitamin D in your blood.
For more information about the Vitamin D test, click here. To see a “sample” report, click here. To try the Vitamin D calculator, click here. (Keep in mind the calculator’s recommendations are considered most helpful after you know your vitamin D blood level either from your doctor or from your OmegaQuant test. In either case, keep your doctor in the loop at the very least!)
VIDEO: OmegaMatters Episode #8, Part 2: Interviewing an Omega-3 Legend – Jorn Dyerberg