by Rachael Link, MS, RD
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 aren’t getting enough of this vital vitamin to be able to effectively meet our needs. Yes, vitamin D deficiency is very real and can affect your health.
Fortunately, incorporating a good variety of vitamin D rich foods into your diet can cut the risk of deficiency and help optimize your health. So 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 incredibly important vitamin.
What Is Vitamin D? And What Is Its Role in the Body?
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’s actually acts as a steroid hormone rather than just a vitamin in the body and is involved in everything from weight management to bone health.
When you consume vitamin D, it undergoes a two-step process to convert it into its active form. First, it’s made into its storage form 25(OH)D (or calcidiol) in the liver. Next, it’s converted into its active form, 1,25(OH)2D, in the kidneys. From there, it works by communicating with the cells to control a multitude of functions in the body, from altering calcium absorption to boosting immune health.
Meanwhile, when your skin is exposed to sunlight, the ultraviolet B (UVB) rays from the sun provide energy that helps the cholesterol in your skin produce vitamin D. It’s generally recommended to squeeze in at least 5–30 minutes of sun exposure two times per week to help meet your vitamin D needs, although this can vary based on a number of factors, including age, skin color and body weight. (1)
Unfortunately, vitamin D deficiencies affect millions around the world and can come with serious consequences. In fact, according to a study published in Nutrition Research, it’s estimated that nearly 42 percent of the U.S. population is deficient in this key vitamin. (2) To make things even more complicated, there are very few vitamin D foods available, which can make it incredibly difficult to get your fix from food sources alone.
However, 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 plenty of options for other ways to make sure you’re meeting your needs. By regularly incorporating a few servings of foods high in vitamin D into your diet, you can get what you need, even without stepping outside.
So what foods contain vitamin D and how much do you need to be eating? Here’s what you need to know.
Top 12 Vitamin D Sources (and Top Vitamin D Foods)
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 the form most often used in supplements and multivitamins because it has been found to be more effective at increasing serum levels of vitamin D.
Upping your intake of foods with vitamin D is one of the best ways to prevent a deficiency and promote overall health. Children under 12 months need at least 400 IU per day and individuals ages 1–70 require 600 IUs daily. Older adults require even more vitamin D and should aim to get at least 800 IU of vitamin D each day.
So what foods have vitamin D? Here are a few of the top sources to make sure you’re meeting your daily needs for this important fat-soluble vitamin: (3)
1. Sunlight — 5–30 minutes of sun exposure at least twice per week (over 100 percent DV)
2. Cod Liver Oil — 1 tablespoon: 1,360 IU (over 100 percent DV)
3. Wild-Caught Salmon — 3 ounces: 447 IU (over 100 percent DV)
4. Mackerel — 3 ounces: 306 IU (76 percent DV)
5. Tuna Fish — 3 ounces: 154 IU (39 percent DV)
6. Fortified Milk — 1 cup: 124 IU (31 percent DV)
7. Sardines — 2 sardines: 47 IU (12 percent DV)
8. Beef Liver — 3 ounces: 42 IU (11 percent DV)
9. Eggs — 1 egg: 41 IU (10 percent DV)
10. Fortified Cereal — 1 cup: 40 IU (10 percent DV)
11. Caviar — 1 tablespoon: 37 IU (9 percent DV)
12. Mushrooms — 1 cup: 2 IU (1 percent DV)
Benefits of Vitamin D Foods
- May Aid in Weight Management
- Boosts Brain Health
- May Help Prevent Cancer Formation
- Strengthens Bones
- Improves Immune Function
1. May Aid in Weight Management
If you’re having trouble shedding stubborn belly fat despite following a strict diet and workout plan, it may be time to start stocking up on some foods high in vitamin D to make sure you’re meeting your daily needs. Research suggests that there may be a connection between obesity and vitamin D deficiency, with some studies even showing that getting enough of this key vitamin could also aid in weight loss.
One study showed that women who met their requirements for vitamin D lost 7 pounds more than a placebo group over a one-year period. (4a) Meanwhile, another study showed that having a higher amount of body fat was associated with lower levels of vitamin D in the blood. (4b)
However, it’s still unclear whether obesity may increase the risk of vitamin D deficiency or if obesity may contribute to low vitamin D status. More research is still needed to understand the complex role that vitamin D may play in weight control.
2. Boosts Brain Health
In addition to keeping your body healthy, some studies have also found that vitamin D may be equally important when it comes to brain health. Some studies have even shown that a vitamin D deficiency could be associated with a higher risk of developing conditions like schizophrenia. (5) Other research has also found that vitamin D status may also influence depression, anxiety, seasonal affective disorder and insomnia. (6)
Getting enough vitamin D may also bump up brain power as well. One study published in The American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry even reported that lower levels of vitamin D may be linked with poor performance on standardized exams, difficulties with attention and focus as well as impaired decision making. (7)
3. May Help Prevent Cancer Formation
It’s no secret that what you put on your plate can have a major influence on your risk of chronic conditions such as cancer, but did you know that your vitamin D levels may also have an impact? While research is still limited on exactly how vitamin D may affect the risk of cancer, some studies have found that vitamin D deficiency may be linked to a higher risk of certain types of cancer, including prostate, breast and colon cancers. (8)
According to a review in Frontiers in Endocrinology, vitamin D is believed to affect tumor cell growth, cell differentiation and even cancer cell death. Additionally, sun exposure and blood levels of vitamin D may also be associated with a reduced risk of occurrence and mortality for several different types of cancer as well. (9) So add vitamin D foods to your list of cancer-fighting foods.
4. Strengthens Bones
One of the most well-known benefits of vitamin D is its powerful effect on bone density. In fact, one of the hallmark symptoms of a severe deficiency of vitamin D is rickets, a condition that affects children and is characterized by bone abnormalities and reduced bone mineral density.
Although rickets is incredibly rare these days, other bone-related disorders such as osteoporosis are still very common. Not only has vitamin D deficiency been linked to an increased risk of osteoporosis, but it’s also been tied to decreased bone mineral density and a higher risk of fractures in older adults. (10)
Getting regular sun exposure and consuming a variety of vitamin D foods in your diet is one of the best ways to keep your bones healthy and strong to reduce the risk of these conditions. And, of course, along with eating lots of vitamin D-rich foods, be sure you’re also getting a good amount of calcium, phosphorus, potassium and magnesium in your diet as well to help boost bone health.
5. Improves Immune Function
While many people tend to dismiss sneezes and sniffles as simply part of the season, few people realize that low levels of vitamin D may be a sneaky source behind certain immune problems and infections. Vitamin D aids in cell replication and is thought to help protect against the development of autoimmune conditions and infections like the cold. (11)
Vitamin D may also help prevent prolonged inflammation, which is often considered to be at the root of many chronic conditions and health problems. Studies show that inflammation may play a part in heart disease, diabetes and cancer along with a wide range of inflammatory conditions like rheumatoid arthritis, lupus and inflammatory bowel disease. (12)
Vitamin D Deficiency Symptoms
Vitamin D has an integral role in nearly every aspect of health, which is why it’s absolutely crucial to get in regular sun exposure or include plenty of vitamin D foods in your diet. Low vitamin D has been linked to a number of chronic health conditions, including osteoporosis, coronary heart disease, diabetes, autoimmune disorders and even cancer. (13)
Low vitamin D levels can also wreak havoc on your daily life and cause a slew of negative side effects. Some of the most common symptoms of a deficiency include:
- chronic fatigue
- trouble sleeping
- weak or broken bones
- weakened immune system
- inflammation and swelling
If you experience any of the symptoms above or have any other concerns about your vitamin D status, it’s best to talk with your doctor to see if you should get your vitamin D levels tested.
How to Get More Vitamin D in Your Diet
While getting regular sun exposure is the best option for warding off vitamin D deficiency, you can also increase your intake of vitamin D-rich foods to maintain your vitamin D status. Aim for 1–2 servings of vitamin D foods per day and 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.
Supplementation is also available and can provide a megadose of vitamin D to help you meet your needs in just one single serving. If you have a deficiency, discuss with your doctor to see if supplementation is necessary or if you can meet your needs through vitamin D foods alone. If you do decide to take a supplement, opt for a high-quality, food-based multivitamin whenever possible and select a form that uses vitamin D3 instead of vitamin D2 to help maximize absorption.
Vitamin D Foods Recipes
Ready to start incorporating more foods with vitamin D into your diet to ensure you’re getting 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
History/Facts of Vitamin D
Rickets is a condition caused by vitamin D deficiency that results in a softening and distortion of the bones in children. Originally described in detail by British physician Francis Glisson in 1650, the cause of rickets has remained a mystery until relatively recently. In 1824, cod liver oil was first prescribed as a treatment for rickets, but it wasn’t until 1906 that biochemist Sir Frederick Gowland Hopkins first theorized that dietary factors could play a role in the development of conditions like scurvy and rickets.
Just a few years later in 1919, scientists began conducting experiments on puppies and found that feeding them a diet consisting of low-fat milk and bread led to the occurrence of rickets. Interestingly, however, the addition of cod liver oil and butterfat was actually effective in preventing rickets, but they ultimately concluded that this was due to the presence of vitamin A.
Vitamin D was finally discovered by Elmer McCollum in 1922, but it was still unknown that the vitamin was also able to be synthesized by sun exposure. In 1925, however, they noted that the compound 7-dehydrocholesterol produced a fat-soluble vitamin, also known as vitamin D3, when exposed to ultraviolet light. In 1928, scientist Adolf Windaus won a Nobel prize for his work aimed at understanding the connection between sterols and vitamins. (14)
Today, we are continuing to learn more about the full scope of vitamin D functions and the many ways that it can affect health. Once thought of as simply a vitamin for bone health, it’s now believed that vitamin D is involved in everything from immunity to weight management and beyond.
Although adding plenty of foods rich in vitamin D into your diet can help decrease the risk of deficiency, it’s best to pair these vitamin D foods with regular sun exposure whenever possible. In some cases, supplementation may also be necessary to ensure you’re meeting your needs. If you have a vitamin D deficiency, you should consult with your doctor to determine the best course of treatment for you.
Because vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin, it should be consumed with your choice of healthy fats to help maximize absorption. Ghee, coconut oil, grass-fed butter, extra-virgin olive oil, nuts and seeds are all excellent choices to help boost the bioavailability of vitamin D.
Additionally, keep in mind that vitamin D toxicity is possible, although it is typically caused by supplementation rather than sun exposure or dietary sources. High doses of vitamin D supplementation can cause symptoms such as vomiting, weakness, nausea and frequent urination. (15) If you do decide to take vitamin D supplements, be sure to stick the recommended dosage to avoid adverse side effects.
- Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin involved in many aspects of health.
- It’s primarily obtained through sun exposure but can also come from food sources such as fatty fish, dairy products, mushrooms, eggs and fortified foods.
- Getting enough vitamin D 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.
- Conversely, a deficiency in this key vitamin may be associated with chronic conditions and symptoms like weakness, fatigue and depression.
- Eating a few vitamin D foods per day can help you easily meet your needs and reduce the risk of deficiency.
Read Next: Top 10 Vitamin B5 Foods (Pantothenic Acid)
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