Vitamin D has made its way out of the shadows of calcium to become the new "it" micronutrient. Responsible for brain development, strong bones, muscle and cardiovascular function, healthy lungs and airways, and keeping your immune system strong, vitamin D is crucial for overall good health. Mounting research also shows it may play a role in exercise capacity, mood and fertility. Unfortunately, approximately 42 percent of Americans are deficient in vitamin with older adults, African Americans and Hispanics at an even greater risk of deficiency. The Institute of Medicine recommends 600 International Units (IUs) a day and 800 IUs for adults 71 years of age and older, although other experts believe these recommendations could still be higher. Read on to learn more about the best sources to help you keep your nutrient intake in check.
Along with fish, mushrooms that have been exposed to light are one of the few foods that naturally contain vitamin D. Some varieties are treated with ultraviolet light therapy -- requiring only one to two seconds of UV exposure -- to produce enough vitamin D for your daily needs. You'll see these labeled as "Vitamin D mushrooms." Research conducted at the Beltsville Human Nutrition Research Center showed that UV-treated portobello mushrooms contained 446 IUs per 3.5 ounces, compared to 10 IUs in the same amount of untreated mushrooms. TIP: You can create your own vitamin D-rich mushrooms by allowing them to soak up the sun for an hour before eating them.
Related: 12 Foods That Can Improve Your Mood
Sardines may be tiny compared to other fish, but their nutritional benefits are mighty. A three-ounce serving supplies 164 IUs of vitamin D. One reason sardines are so rich in vitamin D and calcium is the fact that you eat the entire fish, bones and all. Like humans, fish store valuable amounts of calcium and vitamin D in their bones. Sardines also supply vitamin B12, iron, selenium and protein. If you find sardines' flavor too "fishy," soaking them in milk for an hour creates a milder taste, Bert Cutino, chef and cofounder of The Sardine Factory in Monterey, California, told "Today's Dietitian."
Eggs received an undeserved bad rap in the past due to the yolk's cholesterol content. According to Tamara Duker Freuman, RD, whole eggs including the yolk fit within a healthy diet. "I think eggs are a perfectly fine source of vitamin D and other important nutrients for most people," says Freuman, "and I tend not to discourage them." One large egg offers up 40 IUs of vitamin D, and the vitamin D in eggs is only found in the yolk, not the egg whites. For increased vitamin D add sun-soaked mushrooms to your eggs and serve them with milk.
Related: 20 Surprising Ways to Eat Eggs
A well-known source of protein and heart-healthy omega-3s, salmon is also a top food source of vitamin D. A three-ounce portion of sockeye salmon -- about the size of a deck of cards – provides about 570 IUs of vitamin D. When shopping for salmon, some of the best options are Chinook or Atlantic salmon from recirculating aquaculture systems, or wild Alaskan Sockeye or Chinook salmon.
5. Beef Liver
Beef liver is another food that seldom makes recommended health food lists. "Many people don't enjoy the taste of liver, but it is actually one of the healthiest foods you can eat," says Ana Johnson, RD. Although fairly high in cholesterol, a three-ounce portion is just 162 calories and it provides 40 IUs of vitamin D, and valuable amounts of zinc, iron, niacin and vitamin A. Serve beef liver with quinoa or brown rice and steamed veggies, or dice the liver up as a salad topping. Healthy cooking methods include roasting, baking and grilling.
6. Herring and Pickled Herring
Herring, another fish rich in omega-3 fats, isn't eaten as commonly as salmon in the U.S., but it's a great source of vitamin D provides about 182 IUs in a three-ounce cooked fillet. Pickled herring, which you can make using salt herring or purchase from specialty grocers, is considered a delicacy in Scandinavian countries. Because it keeps well, pickled herring makes for a great party snack that you can leave out on a buffet table or circulating on trays. If you're concerned about your sodium intake, choose fresh herring most often.
Vitamin D is often called the sunshine vitamin because your body produces it when UV rays strike your skin. Most people obtain some of their required vitamin D this way, though spending most of your time indoors or wearing sunblock (typically with an SPF of eight or more) reduces your accessibility to the sun's rays. Some researchers suggest allowing your face, arms, back or legs to soak up sun for 5 to 30 minutes between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. twice per week for sufficient vitamin D. If you are concerned about the sun's damaging rays, you can choose to spend less time in the sun and instead choose to eat more vitamin D-rich foods or take supplements.
8. Vitamin D Lamps
There are Vitamin D lamps available on the market that emit high-intensity UVB rays. The required exposure is typically five minutes a day (depending on the lamp) and it's recommended that you alternate between areas of skin that are exposed to the lamp. While this option is available, some experts recommend taking supplements instead to avoid the typically high cost of more than $350 and the risks from the UVB rays associated with these lamps. Typical light box therapy lamps do not provide the type of light needed for your body to produce vitamin D.
Supplements are an effective option if you aren't getting enough vitamin D from food and sun exposure. The most accurate way to determine a deficiency, says the National Library of Medicine, is the 25-hydroxy vitamin D blood test. If you have a true deficiency, your doctor may prescribe medicinal doses of synthetic vitamin D. While vitamin D consumed through food isn't known to cause toxicity, going overboard on supplemental vitamin D can lead to serious complications. If you simply want to fill in potential dietary gaps, a basic multi-vitamin can provide safe amounts of vitamin D and other essential nutrients.
What Do YOU Think?
Have you had your blood tested for vitamin D deficiency? What did you find out? What are your favorite ways to meet your vitamin D needs? Do you prefer particular foods, supplements or sunshine? Also, do you find that you suffer from seasonal affective disorder or depression in the winter? Let us a comment below and let us know.
- Mayo Clinic Proceedings; Vitamin D Deficiency in Adults: When to Test and How to Treat
- Center for Disease Control and Prevention: Vitamin D Status: United States, 2001–2006
- Office of Dietary Supplements: Vitamin D Fact Sheet
- Office of Dietary Supplements: Calcium Fact Sheet
- National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference: Orange Juice, Fortified
- National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference: Carbonated Beverage, Cola
- National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference: Sardines, Canned in Oil
- USDA: Vitamin D in Mushrooms
- Office of Dietary Supplements: Multivitamin Quick Facts
- National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference: Pickled Herring
- Power of Mushrooms
- Vitamin D Council