About 40% of Americans have a vitamin D deficiency, which can impact everything from immunity to energy levels. Learn why natural sources of vitamin D are so important, then stock up on these foods high in vitamin D to get closer to your daily dose.

By Karla Walsh
July 28, 2020
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Vitamin D, a fat-soluble vitamin, is one of the most essential micronutrients your body needs to perform at its peak. Yet vitamin D deficiency is surprisingly common, impacting more than 40% of the U.S. population, according to research published in the journal Cereus. Here, we’re diving into why vitamin D deficiency is so common, how it impacts the body, plus how to get vitamin D (including what foods have vitamin D) so you can avoid low vitamin D levels yourself.

What Does Vitamin D Do?

Vitamin D may help the body reduce risk chronic inflammation, it helps regulate cell growth, promotes brain development and health, and helps the body absorb calcium, keeping your skeleton stronger longer, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Office of Dietary Supplements.

“In terms of overall health, vitamin D is involved in bone health and appears to be helpful for those with depression,” explains Michelle Hyman, R.D., a registered dietitian at Simple Solutions Weight Loss. “Being deficient may be linked to a weakened immune system, possibly due to the body’s hampered ability to activate the T cells,” that help fight off foreign invaders.

Recently, we’re learning that vitamin D deficiency may be linked to more severe cases of COVID-19 and increased mortality from the virus, per preliminary research from Northwestern University scientists. While more research is needed, the study authors suggest that vitamin D deficiency might cause immune system cells called cytokines to drastically overreact, leading to harsher lung damage, more respiratory issues, and possibly death. They believe that adequate sources of vitamin D are necessary to support a strong immune system and prevent it from overcorrecting and potentially harming the body. 

The immunity and vitamin D connection might be more simple, and definitely more universal, than its connection to coronavirus alone.

“Most people are familiar with vitamin D and how it’s associated with bone strength, but that’s just the beginning. Vitamin D is basically a messenger that helps facilitate healthy communication between the brain and the body,” says “Lauren Smith, R.D., a Philadelphia-based lead dietitian at Happy Strong Healthy. “That’s why Vitamin D is vital for immune health, because without a healthy link between the brain and the body we would not be able to communicate to our immune system that it needs to battle illnesses like viruses and bacteria.”

How to Get Vitamin D (Beyond Vitamin D Food Sources)

“Both sunlight and dietary sources of vitamin D can be used by the liver and kidney to make the active form our body needs,” Hyman says.

So how much vitamin D do we need each day? Adults should aim for 600 IU (15 mcg) per day, and only a few foods top that amount or come close to making a dent in your vitamin D needs.

“When exposed to sunlight your body actually absorbs it and converts it into Vitamin D,” Smith says. “However, this is with unprotected skin. If you are using sunscreen you may still need a supplement. And if you live in an area where you do not get sunshine all year round you are more at risk of vitamin D deficiency,” Smith says.

There are multiple factors to consider about how much sunlight we need, Hyman adds. Fair-skinned individuals are more efficient at synthesizing vitamin D from the sun than darker-skinned individuals. The time of day and intensity of the sun’s rays, your age, sunscreen application, the season, and how far you live from the equator also impact how much vitamin D your body can score from the sun. Unfortunately, as we age, we tend to have a more difficult time synthesizing vitamin D from sunlight.  

For that reason, getting outdoors and consuming foods that contain vitamin D is your best bet to getting your daily dose.

Hyman suggests getting your vitamin D levels tested once or twice each year through a blood test. “A blood level of 20 to 30 ng/dl is considered insufficient while less than 20 is deficient. Supplements provide varying amounts of vitamin D, and taking the highest available dose is not necessarily appropriate or beneficial for all. That’s why it’s best to have your blood drawn and discuss the results with your primary care provider,” she says. And always consult with your doctor before starting any new supplements.

Karla Conrad

What are the Best Sources of Vitamin D in Food?

While many foods have little to no vitamin D naturally, a few do. And other commonly-consumed products are fortified to become vitamin D-rich foods since so many Americans fall short. Add these foods that contain vitamin D to your next grocery shopping list.

Get Our Smoked Salmon Eggs Benedict Recipes

Canned Tuna and Sardines

Vitamin D per 3 ounces, drained: 40-46 IU (1.0-1.2 mcg)

Almost always less expensive than fresh fish and with a longer shelf life by far, Rachel Fine, R.D., a registered dietitian and owner of the nutrition counseling firm To The Pointe Nutrition in New York City, recommends stocking up on a healthy supply of canned fish, including tuna and sardines. (Then crack open a can or two to use in these 19 canned fish recipes.)

“Canned light tuna has the most vitamin D, but canned albacore tuna and canned sardines still offer a solid dose,” Fine says.

Cod Liver Oil

Vitamin D per 1 tablespoon: 1,360 IU (34 mcg)

Wondering how to get vitamin D fast? “Cod liver oil contains the highest amount of vitamin D out of all of these sources,” Hyman says.

In fact, about ½ Tbsp. will help you reach your daily vitamin D needs. If you find the taste to be off-putting to slurp solo, try stirring it into a flavorful juice or blending into a smoothie recipe.

Eggs

Vitamin D per whole large egg: 44 IU (1.1 mcg)

Don’t throw out the yolk! This is where the majority of the vitamin D lives, Hyman says.

“Eggs are a convenient way to get vitamin D,” says Fine. “They're popular in many breakfast, lunch, dinner, and dessert recipes. [Including these awesome egg casseroles!] Since the vitamin D in an egg comes from its yolk, it's important to use the whole egg, not just the whites. One yolk will give you about 40 IUs.”

Fortified Milks, Cereals, and Juices

Vitamin D per serving: ranges from about 80 IU (2.0 mcg) to 120 IU (2.9 mcg)

If you’re not fond of the natural good sources of vitamin D listed above, consider milk or nondairy milk alternatives, juices, or cereals with vitamin D added. Everything from a2 Milk ($4, Target) to Multi-Grain Cheerios ($4, Target) offer at least 10% of your daily vitamin D thanks to fortification.

Salmon

Vitamin D per 3 ounces, cooked: 570 IU (14.2 mcg)

Great seared, grilled, or roasted, “salmon is one of the only food sources that has a naturally-occurring high vitamin D content. On average, 3 ounces of salmon has about 75% of the recommended dietary intake,” Smith says. “I recommend it to clients because not only does it have vitamin D but it also is a great source of heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids.” (Get your Rx in these 30-minute salmon recipes.)

Trout

Vitamin D per 3 ounces, cooked: 645 IU (16.2 mcg)

One serving of this affordable and healthy fish option packs in enough vitamin D to reach your daily quota at just one meal. Seek out American farm-raised rainbow trout for the most sustainable variety, and try it in these Lemon and Herb Grilled Trout Sandwiches or in this Grilled Trout Stuffed with Lemon and Herbs.

White Mushrooms

Vitamin D per ½ cup, exposed to UV light: 366 IU (9.2 mcg)

One of the best vitamin D foods for vegetarians and vegans, this plant-based food fix offers the biggest benefits only when grown al fresco.

“Just like humans, mushrooms have the capacity to produce vitamin D when exposed to ultraviolet light. Mushrooms, however, are usually grown in the dark and don't contain the vitamin. Specific brands, however, are grown in ultraviolet light to spur vitamin D production,” Fine says. 

Peek at the package to see if it has any mention of mushroom vitamin D levels or growing conditions before counting mushrooms toward your D levels for the day.

Now that you know where to get your vitamin D and why it’s important, you can makeover your menu to help cover your wellness bases, bolster your bones, and support your immune system.

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