7 Foods High in Vitamin D to Add to Your Diet, According to Dietitians

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.

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 Cureus.

We're diving into why vitamin D deficiency is so common and how it impacts the body. We'll tell you how to get vitamin D (including what vitamin D foods are rich in this nutrient), so you can avoid low vitamin D levels.

What Does Vitamin D Do?

Vitamin D may help the body reduce the risk of chronic inflammation. It also helps regulate cell growth which promotes brain development and health.

In addition, vitamin D 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.

During the pandemic, scientists found that a lack of vitamin D may be linked to more severe cases and a higher mortality rate from COVID-19, according to Stuart Cohen, MD, Chief of Infectious Diseases at UC Davis. A Northwestern University study suggests vitamin D deficiency might cause immune system cells called cytokines to drastically overreact. That could lead to harsher lung damage, more respiratory issues, and possibly death. They believe adequate intake of vitamin D foods rich in this essential nutrient is necessary to support a robust immune system.

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

The immunity and vitamin D connection might be simpler and 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.

Hyman mentions multiple factors to consider about how much sunlight we need. Fair-skinned individuals are more efficient at synthesizing vitamin D from the sun than those with darker skin. The time of day, the intensity of the sun's rays, the time of year, and how far you live from the equator also impact how much vitamin D your body can get from the sun. Your age and how much sunscreen you use will also affect your Vitamin D absorption. Unfortunately, as we age, we tend to have more difficulty synthesizing vitamin D from sunlight. For these reasons, getting outdoors and consuming foods that contain vitamin D is your best bet to getting your daily dose.

For these reasons, 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 yearly through a blood test. A blood level of 20 to 29 ng/mL 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," Hyman says. Always consult with your doctor before starting any new supplements.

Smoked Salmon Eggs Benedict
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.

Canned Tuna and Sardines

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

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. They're almost always less expensive than fresh fish and have a far longer shelf life. (Then crack open a can or two to use in these 19 canned fish recipes.)

"Canned light tuna has a good amount of vitamin D, but canned albacore tuna and canned sardines also 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 off-putting to take alone, try stirring it into a flavorful juice or blending it 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 I.U.s."

Fortified Milks, Cereals, and Juices

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

IIf you're not fond of the naturally good sources of vitamin D listed above, consider milk or nondairy milk alternatives, juices, or cereals with vitamin D added. Foods like a2 Milk ($4, Target) and Multi-Grain Cheerios ($5, 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)

Excellent seared, grilled, or roasted, "salmon is one of the only food sources that have 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 enough vitamin D to reach your daily quota at just one meal. Seek out American farm-raised rainbow trout for the most sustainable variety. Try it in these Lemon and Herb Grilled Trout Sandwiches or 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, mushrooms offer the biggest benefits, but 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 mentions 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.

Was this page helpful?
Related Articles