Vitamin A plays a critical role in multiple areas of the body, including the eyes, brain, skin, lungs, kidneys and more. What are good sources of vitamin A? Some vitamin A foods include carrots, sweet potatoes and organ meats.
Many people don’t realize that vitamin A from plants (provitamin A) is not the same thing as active/preformed vitamin A (retinol). In the body, active vitamin A is present as retinol, which is bound to a fatty acid. Beta-carotene, the type found primarily in plants, needs to first be converted to active vitamin A in order to be utilized by the body. This takes place in the intestinal mucosa and the liver.
Many times the full amount of vitamin A found in a plant food is not converted to active vitamin A, especially if someone has poor gut health that makes conversion difficult. This is one reason why it’s recommended to consume a varied diet that includes some animal sources of active vitamin A, since these are easier for the body to use.
It’s also an example of why it’s so important to heal gut issues like leaky gut syndrome, inflammatory bowel disease or irritable bowel syndrome — since these types of digestive issues may block your body’s ability to make good use of healthy vitamin A-rich foods.
What Is Vitamin A?
Vitamin A is a fat-soluble vitamin that has immune-enhancing, antioxidant properties, meaning it helps reduce free radical damage (or oxidative stress). What does it mean to be a fat-soluble vitamin? Vitamin A and other fat-soluble vitamins have the ability to travel through fat and be stored inside body fat or organs, including the liver. They can also penetrate through cells, unlike water-soluble vitamins.
Vitamin A can take one of three forms in the human body: retinol, retinal and retinoic acid. How do you get vitamin A from your diet? From eating both plant and animal-derived whole foods, which provide two different forms of vitamin A.
The two primary forms of vitamin A obtained from foods are beta-carotene (found in certain plant foods, especially those that are orange, red and yellow) and active vitamin A, also called retinol (found in certain animal foods like eggs and offal, or organ meats).
What foods are rich in vitamin A? When it comes to plant foods with vitamin A, a good rule of thumb is that fruits and veggies that are orange, yellow or red have a high likelihood of providing vitamin A.
In terms of animal foods rich in vitamin A, those that naturally have a higher fat content (such as eggs, butter, liver or full-fat dairy) are more likely to provide vitamin A since it’s a fat-soluble vitamin.
Below is a vitamin A foods list that includes the best dietary sources:
1. Winter/butternut squash
1 cup, cooked cubes: 22,869 international units (457 percent DV)
2. Sweet potato
1 medium, cooked potato: 21,907 international units (438 percent DV)
1 cup, chopped: 10,302 international units (206 percent DV)
1 medium raw carrot: 10,190 international units (204 percent DV)
5. Beef Liver
1 ounce: 8,881 international units (178 percent DV)
1 cup raw: 2,813 international units (56 percent DV)
7. Dried apricots
1 ounce: 1,009 international units (20 percent DV)
1 cup raw: 567 international units (11 percent DV)
1 tablespoon: 350 international units (7 percent DV)
10. Egg yolks
1 large egg: 245 international units (5 percent DV)
Other healthy vitamin A foods include cod liver oil, red bell peppers, raw whole milk (full-fat) and cheeses, mangos, tomatoes, cantaloupe, green peas, papaya, peaches, oatmeal, and spices/herbs like basil and paprika.
- Protect eye health
- Support immunity
- Relieves inflammation
- Supports skin health internally and externally
- Cancer fighting
- Supports reproductive health
- Boosts bone health
- Reduces cholesterol
How much vitamin A do you need each day? The amount of vitamin A you need depends on your age, current health and reproductive status (for example, if you’re a woman who is pregnant or breastfeeding).
The recommended daily allowance for vitamin A is 900 micrograms a day for adult men and 700 micrograms a day for adult women. Adults need between 700–900 micrograms of “retinol activity equivalents” (RAE) per day.
Sometimes you will see vitamin A content listed as international units (IU), not micrograms RAE. According to the National Institutes of Health, “Converting between IU and mcg RAE is not easy. A varied diet with 900 mcg RAE of vitamin A, for example, provides between 3,000 and 36,000 IU of vitamin A depending on the foods consumed.”
Recommended intake of vitamin A for women who are pregnant or nursing ranges between 1,200 and 1,300 micrograms per day, since developing fetuses need vitamin A for proper growth.
Not only do people get vitamin A from foods in their diets, but many also get some provitamin A from dietary supplements, usually in the form beta-carotene, which must be converted once consumed.
Risks and Side Effects
Should you be concerned about vitamin A toxicity if you eat lots of foods rich in vitamin A? It’s very unlikely that you’d experience toxicity simply from eating vitamin A foods, although it is possible to obtain too much vitamin A from supplements. Studies have found that taking high levels of supplemental vitamin A (usually in beta-carotene form) does not necessarily provide benefits, including for preventing cancer, so this should be avoided.
Symptoms of vitamin A toxicity can include dry skin, joint pain, vomiting, headaches and confusion. Vitamin A supplements may interact with some birth control pills, blood thinners (like Coumadin), acne medicines (like Accutane), cancer treatments and many other drugs.
Because vitamin A can be stored in your liver and fat, it can be hard for your body to get rid of excess vitamin A that it doesn’t need, causing it to accumulate. The healthier way to obtain this vitamin is from natural vitamin A foods.
Although recent studies suggest that expectant mothers can benefit from consuming vitamin A, which dramatically reduced the mother and infant mortality rates in the research, too much can be toxic to developing fetuses. Pregnant women should not take very high doses of vitamin A and should talk to their doctors if they have concerns about supplements they are taking.
- Vitamin A is found in both plant and animal-derived whole foods. The two primary forms of vitamin A obtained from foods are beta-carotene (found in orange, red and yellow colored) and active vitamin A, also called retinol.
- Some of the top vitamin A foods include carrots, sweet potatoes, kale, spinach, berries, apricots, papaya, cantaloupe, mangoes, eggs, butter, raw milk and cheeses, cod liver oil and organ meats like liver.
- Benefits of foods high in vitamin A include maintaining healthy vision, supporting neurological health, protecting skin, helping with fetal growth and development, and supporting reproductive health.