Without a doubt, vitamin D is one of the most important micronutrients when it comes to your health. It’s involved in just about everything from immunity to brain function, and researchers are still regularly turning up new ways that vitamin D affects your well-being. However, with a limited selection of vitamin D foods available — and a huge portion of the population at risk for deficiency — many of us simply don’t get enough of this vital vitamin.
Incorporating a good variety of vitamin D-rich foods into your diet can cut your risk for experiencing vitamin D deficiency. What foods are high in vitamin D, and why does it even matter?
Let’s dive in and discuss why you may want to start paying closer attention to your dietary intake of this essential vitamin and how to consume more vitamin D foods.
What Is Vitamin D?
Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin that plays a central role in many components of health. It stands out from other vitamins because your body is able to make most of what you need through exposure to sunlight, which is why it’s often dubbed the “sunshine vitamin.”
It’s also unique in that it actually acts as a steroid hormone rather than just a vitamin in the body. This is why it’s involved in everything from weight management to bone health, especially because it supports absorption of calcium.
Getting enough vitamin D at any age may be linked to better bone health, improved weight control, enhanced brain function, increased immune function and a lower risk of certain types of cancer.
What’s are the best vitamin D sources?
It’s generally recommended that everyone squeeze in at least 10 to 20 minutes of sun exposure several times per week in order to help meet vitamin D needs.
This number varies based on a number of factors, including age, skin color and body weight. The bottom line is sunlight exposure is the best way to maintain normal D levels.
If you’re not able to spend some time outside to soak up the sun — or you live in a place where your sun exposure is limited — there are other ways to make sure you meet your needs, including food sources and supplements.
Very few vitamin D foods are available, which can make it incredibly difficult to get your fix from food sources alone. This is why, according to experts, a combination of sunlight, foods and supplements may be ideal for most children and adults.
Top 18 Vitamin D Foods
By regularly incorporating a few servings of foods high in vitamin D into your diet, you can help meet your needs, even if the time you spend in the sun is lacking.
In food sources, vitamin D is available in two different forms. Vitamin D3 (cholecalciferol) can be found in animal-based foods, such as fish, while vitamin D2 (ergocalciferol) is found in other sources, such as mushrooms.
Vitamin D3 is considered the more active form. This is the type most often used in vitamin D supplements and multivitamins because it has been found to be more effective at increasing serum levels of vitamin D.
Which foods contain vitamin D, and how much do you need to eat? Here are a few of the top sources to help you meet your daily requirement:
- Cod Liver Oil — 1 tablespoon: 1,360 international units (IU)
- Wild-Caught Salmon — 3 ounces: 447 IU
- Mackerel — 3 ounces: 306 IU
- Tuna Fish — 3 ounces: 154 IU
- Fortified Milk — 1 cup: 124 IU
- Fortified Almond Milk — 1 cup: 120 IU
- Fortified Coconut Milk — 1 cup: 120 IU
- Morel Mushrooms — 1 cup: 3.4 micrograms
- Fortified Yogurt — 1 cup: up to 80 IU
- Sardines — 2 sardines: 47 IU
- Fortified Orange Juice: 1 cup: 47 IU or more
- Beef Liver — 3 ounces: 42 IU
- Eggs (particularly egg yolks) — 1 egg: 41 IU
- Fortified Cereal — 1 cup: 40 IU
- Caviar/Fish Roe — 1 tablespoon: 37 IU
- Fortified Cheeses — 1 ounce: 6 IU
- Shiitake Mushrooms — 1 cup: 1 IU
- Oyster Mushrooms — 1 cup: 0.6 IU
How to Boost Absorption:
Because vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin, it ideally needs to be consumed with fat in order to have optimal absorption.
If you are going to eat a food source of vitamin D, it’s best to combine it with a fat source, too, like ghee, coconut oil, nuts, seeds or fish, to help with absorption.
How Many Vitamin D Foods to Eat:
Aim for one to two servings of vitamin D foods per day. Try to include a good mix of vitamin D vegetables, dairy products and fatty fish to get in a broad array of important micronutrients in addition to vitamin D.
For those who don’t consume fish, it can be a bit tricker to get enough vitamin D from food sources alone. However, there are still many available options of vitamin D foods for vegetarians and vegans alike.
Aside from fatty fish and liver, vitamin D can also be found in sources like eggs and mushrooms, as well as fortified products like cereal, juice and dairy.
Ready to start incorporating more foods with vitamin D into your diet to ensure you get your daily dose? Here are a few healthy and delicious recipes using foods rich in vitamin D to get you started:
- Tuna Pasta Salad
- Mediterranean Roasted Mackerel
- Smoked Salmon Egg Bake
- Grilled Sardines with Lemon, Garlic and Paprika
- Stuffed Mushrooms
Vitamin D in Mushrooms:
Mushrooms are a very interesting and rare food when it comes to vitamin D. In some mushrooms that are now available in certain health food stores, the vitamin D content is boosted by exposing these mushrooms to ultraviolet light.
Mushrooms nutrition contains plant sterols that are able to convert UV light to vitamin D. Exposing mushrooms to as little as five minutes of UV light is believed to produce a substantial amount of vitamin D.
While mushrooms are typically grown indoors, many growers are beginning to grow them outdoors to take advantage of this — or they place the growing mushrooms under special lamps.
Rare and sometimes difficult-to-find maitake mushrooms, for example, contain a huge amount of vitamin D. Portobello mushrooms and other mushroom varieties also make good sources, but they are not nearly as high.
You can ask the workers at your health food store or the farmers at your local market if their mushrooms were grown indoors or outdoors in order to know if the mushrooms you are purchasing contain higher amounts of vitamin D.
Vitamin D in Dairy Products:
Interestingly, and despite what many people think, regular, pasteurized milk and dairy products do not naturally contain much vitamin D at all. Synthetic vitamin D is added to pasteurized cow’s milk, soy milk and rice milk.
Almost all of the U.S. milk supply is fortified with 400 IU of vitamin D per quart, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, but foods made from milk, like cheese and ice cream, are usually not fortified. Synthetic vitamin D added to foods is believed to be much less effective than naturally occurring vitamin D and can also potentially block natural vitamin D’s effects.
Raw milk, on the other hand, is believed to contain a small amount of vitamin D naturally, which is found in its fat and not destroyed during pasteurization. Some sources show that raw milk has about 38 IUs of vitamin D per quart (four cups).
However, it’s hard to know for sure how much is in raw milk because it differs greatly depending on the specific milk tested and correlates with the health of the animal that it came from.
On top of this, the USDA does not list the official vitamin D content of raw milk, and many sources claim different amounts to be present within raw milk. Keep this in mind if you consume raw milk to increase your vitamin D levels.
Children under 12 months need at least 400 international units of vitamin D per day. Adults up to 70 years old require at least 600 IUs daily.
Older adults require even more vitamin D and should aim to get at least 800 IU of vitamin D each day.
While these are minimum requirements needed for overall health, in some cases even higher doses may be beneficial. If you’re prone to deficiency, it’s best to speak with your doctor about which dosage is right for you.
If you do decide to take a vitamin D supplement, opt for a high-quality, food-based multivitamin whenever possible, and find a form that uses vitamin D3 instead of vitamin D2 to help maximize absorption.
Vitamin D and Calcium
Calcium and vitamin D work together, so it’s ideal to consume them at the same time.
Vitamin D helps the body to absorb calcium effectively. Calcium, of course, is a mineral that has many roles, including protecting bone health, aiding in cardiovascular health and even impacting one’s body weight.
When you eat foods with calcium (such as leafy greens, cruciferous veggies, dairy and almonds), you’re actually consuming an inactive form that needs to be converted to an active form to work properly. This conversion requires vitamin D.
Eating foods fortified with calcium and vitamin D, such as milk, yogurt and orange juice, is an easy way to avoid a deficiency and to consume a good balance of these nutrients.
Other food combinations that help you obtain both calcium and vitamin D include:
- Eggs with leafy greens
- Salmon with veggies, such as broccoli, kale, collard greens and spinach
- Fortified yogurt with almonds
- White beans with veggies and fish
- Upping your intake of foods with vitamin D is one of the best ways to prevent a deficiency and promote overall health.
- The best vitamin D foods include fish like salmon, mackerel and sardines; fortified dairy; some mushrooms; eggs; caviar/fish roe; and fortified orange juice and cereals.
- While vitamin D foods can help you meet your needs, sunlight exposure is still the best way to maintain normal levels. Spending 10 to 20 minutes in the sun at least several times per week is most effective.
- You can also boost your intake by adding a D3 supplement to your diet, while still focusing on eating dietary sources, too.