6 Foods Highest in Vitamin D (+ Why Deficiency is Common)
Vitamin D, also known as the sunshine vitamin, is an incredibly important nutrient for most all bodily cells and functions. This key nutrient has been shown to prevent osteoporosis and cancer, increase immunity, improve symptoms of depression, and studies have shown that it can even be helpful in the prevention of type I diabetes. Every cell in the human body needs sufficient vitamin D levels to survive and thrive.
Deficiency is shockingly common due to factors of inadequate sun exposure and lack of vitamin D rich foods as part of a whole foods diet (more on specific foods in just a moment).
Vitamin D comes in two main forms, which include D2 and D3. When considering food sources and possible supplementation, D3 is the important form to focus on, as it is the biologically active form that is most easily absorbed and assimilated by the body.
While the RDA of vitamin D is set at 400 IU per day in order to reach the healthy blood serum level of about 20 ng/mL, many studies show that for optimal health and wellness, an individual should actually be no lower than 30 ng/mL, and this might well be higher for a sick or pregnant person. In this case, supplementation between 1,000-4,000 mcg is recommended, which is well above the RDA.
The American Pregnancy Association recommends 1,000 IU per day of vitamin D for pregnant women as an effective dosage in preventing preterm labor/births and infections (1). Additionally, babies in the womb have higher levels of vitamin D, which then drop after birth and begin rising again upon exposure to sun. If pregnant women are deficient during pregnancy, their children could be at higher risk for neonatal hypocalcaemia (not enough calcium in the blood) or rickets, a bone deficiency due to vitamin D deficiency (2). Breast milk is not particularly high in Vitamin D.
Benefits of Vitamin D
A little known fact about vitamin D in comparison to other vitamins, is that it is actually a steroidal hormone that is best produced in the body via sufficient sun exposure. Lets begin by taking a look at some of the key benefits provided by this vitamin:
- Prevention of osteoporosis and other bone fractures or sprains
- Cancer prevention
- Increased immune health
- Increased mood and help with depression
- Prevention of type I diabetes (3)
And these are just some of the reasons sufficient vitamin D blood levels are crucial to achieve optimal health. Another commonly overlooked but crucial reason to ensure proper vitamin D levels is that the body cannot adequately absorb calcium without sufficient levels of Vitamin D. According to the Institute of Health, when the body cannot absorb enough calcium, it begins drawing on existing bone stores, which can lead to weakened bone structure, fracture and disease (4).
Why is Vitamin D Deficiency So Common?
Vitamin D deficiency is surprisingly common, even in sunny parts of the world where the population could easily be getting enough from sunlight alone. However, in many tropical cultures it is common to purposefully avoid the sun, and in parts of the globe further from the equator, the problem exists of there simply not being enough sunlight throughout the year.
While is it important to avoid burning, exposing as much skin to direct sunlight as possible for a certain period of time per day can provide adequate levels of vitamin D. However, determining your need for sunlight (how many minutes and times per week) hugely varies. The Norwegian Institute of Air Research has devised a very useful online tool where you can insert the city or latitude/longitude of any particular location, skin color, and time of day sun exposure will take place and see the recommended daily dose of direct sunlight one needs in order to bring their vitamin D levels to 1000 IU.
Another important point to keep in mind is that, for some, absorption and assimilation of vitamin D from both foods and supplements could be compromised if gut health is poor, as Vitamin D is absorbed in the small intestines. According to the Harvard Medical School, if an individual suffers from conditions such as Chrohn’s disease, leaky gut syndrome, celiac disease, chronic pancreatic or cystic fibrosis, vitamin D levels could be affected (5).
Application of sunscreen also blocks the bodies’ ability to produce vitamin D, so consider spending a short window of time without, as long as possible within this timeframe without burning. If spending a longer period in the sunlight, simply apply sunscreen after your skin has been allowed this small window of direct exposure.
6 Foods High in Vitamin D
A big reason so many people are vitamin D deficient is due to the fact that it is extremely difficult to get sufficient amounts through food alone. So, if you don’t live in an especially sunny climate, this leaves you quite susceptible to deficiency.
Here are the food sources highest in this key vitamin. While it can be found in food sources, it is (unfortunately) extremely difficult to get enough from just food sources, unless you are eating fresh fish every day.
1. Cod Liver Oil (1 tbsp. cod liver oil: 27% RDA)
One of the best ways to supplement your diet with both vitamin D and omega 3 fatty acids is with cod liver oil. This nutritional supplement is also very high in vitamin A, and helps protect against the risk of cancer and diabetes that can develop from vitamin D3 deficiency (6).
2. Wild Salmon (3 oz. wild salmon: 75% RDA)
Again, to meet your body’s vitamin D needs, you would need to eat more than 3 oz. of wild salmon every day. Salmon is also exceptionally high in anti-inflammatory omega 3 fatty acids, and a great source of potassium, selenium and B vitamins. Salmon has also been linked with a lower risk of cardiovascular disease (7).
3. Wild Tuna (3 oz. wild tuna: 26% RDA)
Tuna (especially canned, wild tuna) is a quick and easy high protein food that offers significant amounts of vitamin D. For a quick lunch idea, simply top a green salad with your choice of chopped veggies, 1 can of wild tuna and some olive oil and vinegar.
4. Beef Liver (3 oz. beef liver: 7% RDA)
While not nearly as high in vitamin D as fish, liver is one of the most nutritionally dense foods on the planet. It concentrates many nutrients such as vitamin B12 and iron, and some health experts even refer to it at “nature’s multi-vitamin.” Liver is especially high in folate, vitamin A, vitamin B12 and copper (8).
5. Eggs (1 large, whole egg: 7% RDA)
Sadly, mainstream nutrition has encouraged us to stay away from the nutrient powerhouse that is the egg, but that is definitely a myth. While you won’t meet your vitamin D needs via eggs alone, you will also be getting brain and heart healthy fats found in the yoke, and one of the best complete protein sources available in the white. In fact, eggs are one of the best dietary sources of choline, which is essential for cognitive health (9).
6. Sardines (1 sardine: 4% RDA)
Sardines are a small and oily fish that are usually purchased nowadays in their canned version (opt for while sardines in water or olive oil). Unfortunately, many people can’t stomach these little guys, as their taste is particularly fishy, but their nutrient profile is impressive. Considering that you eat the fish whole, which includes the organs, bones, etc, it’s no surprise that these offer most every nutrient essential to human health (10).
What Do I Do If I Have a Vitamin D Deficiency?
Vitamin D deficiency is quite common, and the best remedies are direct sunlight, cod liver oil supplementation and wild fish (especially salmon). If you live in a cloudy place that is far away from the equator, you might want to consider vitamin D testing with your doctor and supplement as necessary. Not having enough vitamin D in your body is risky business, so proceed with caution.