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  • Writer's pictureAshish Santhalia

How to get vitamin D on a vegan diet

Updated: Mar 5, 2022

Sunlight for vitamin D

If you eat a vegan diet, getting enough vitamin D each day can be challenging. Many of the foods highest in vitamin D, such as salmon, egg yolks, and shellfish, aren’t vegan-friendly.

Why do you need vitamin D?

Vitamin D’s primary role is to help your body absorb calcium and phosphorous from food.

Both these minerals are essential for maintaining healthy bones. People who don’t get adequate amounts of vitamin D are at a heightened risk of developing weak and brittle bones.

Your immune system also needs vitamin D to work well. Research from 2011 shows that vitamin D deficiency is linked to increased autoimmune issues and a higher risk of developing infections. Depression, mental health problems and Seasonal Affective Disorder have also been linked to low vitamin D levels in patients. Other diseases which can be caused by a deficiency in Vitamin D include high blood pressure, diabetes, autoimmune diseases, excess fat accumulation around vital organs, different types of cancer, atherosclerosis (thickening of arteries), osteoporosis (deterioration of bone mass) and osteopenia (thinning of bones).

How much vitamin D do you need?

The amount of vitamin D you need each day depends on your age.

According to the National Institutes of Health, an average daily intake of 400 to 800 IU, or 10 to 20 micrograms, is sufficient for more than 97 percent of people.

Here’s the recommended daily intake of vitamin D based on age:

  • Babies (0–12 months): 400 IU

  • Children (1–13): 600 IU

  • Teenagers: 600 IU

  • Adults 70 and under: 600 IU

  • Adults over 70: 800 IU

The upper safe limit of dietary vitamin D for people ages 9 and above is 4,000 IU per day. Taking too much can cause the following symptoms.

  • loss of appetite

  • nausea

  • vomiting

  • constipation

  • weakness

  • weight loss

Getting too much vitamin D can also raise calcium levels in your blood. Excess calcium can cause an irregular heartbeat and disorientation.

What are the symptoms of vitamin D deficiency?

Vitamin D deficiency can cause several health problems. You’re at a greater risk of developing a deficiency if you don’t get regular sun exposure. African American and Hispanic populations are at the highest risk of developing vitamin D deficiencies. Some symptoms of low vitamin D include the following:

  • weakened immune system

  • weak bones

  • depression

  • fatigue

  • slow wound healing

  • hair loss

Vegan sources of vitamin D

Vitamin D is unique compared to other vitamins. Even though you can get it from various food sources, your body can also make it. When you expose your skin to sunlight, your body has the ability to convert cholesterol into vitamin D, which also acts as a hormone. Many of the foods highest in vitamin D come from animals. However, there are good sources of this vitamin that are vegan-friendly. You may see vitamin D content listed in micrograms (mcg or μg) or international units (IU). A microgram of vitamin D is equivalent to 40 IU.

Here are some of the best vegan sources of vitamin D: Fortified soy milk One cup of soy milk fortified with vitamin D contains about 2.9 mcg (116 IU) of vitamin D. It’s important to check the label before buying a brand of soy milk to see if vitamin D is included. Brands that aren’t fortified contain very little vitamin D. Mushrooms Mushrooms are one of the only plant sources that contain a significant amount of vitamin D. Mushrooms grown in the dark may not contain a significant amount of vitamin D. However, mushrooms exposed to ultraviolet light when growing may contain about 450 IU per 100 gramserving. Mushrooms contain vitamin D-2, while animal products contain vitamin D-3. Research has found that vitamin D-2 might not be as bioavailable as vitamin D-3 but can still raise vitamin D levels. Fortified cereals Many breakfast cereals and brands of oatmeal are fortified with vitamin D. Cereals fortified with vitamin D will usually list the vitamin in the nutritional information. The amount of vitamin D found in fortified cereals can vary between brands. Most typically contain between 0.2 to 2.5 mcg (8 to 100 IU) per serving. Fortified orange juice Not all orange juices are fortified with vitamin D. However, brands that are fortified may contain up to 2.5 mcg (100 IU) per serving. Juices that are fortified with vitamin D will typically mention this on the packaging. Fortified almond milk Fortified almond milk contains about 2.4 mcg (96 IU) of vitamin D per serving. Many brands of almond milk are also fortified with calcium. Fortified rice milk Rice milk fortified with vitamin D contains about 2.4 mcg (96 IU) per serving. Some brands of rice milk may also be fortified with other nutrients such as vitamin A and vitamin B-12 Sunshine Although sunshine isn’t a food, it’s a great source of vitamin D. Stepping out into the sun for about 10 to 30 minutes three times a week is enough for most people. However, people with darker skin may need more sun exposure than people with light skin to reap the same benefits. Try to limit your sun exposure, as too much time spent in the sun can damage your skin, cause sunburn, and increase your risk of skin cancer.

What about supplements?

Vitamin D supplements are another option to boost your intake of this vitamin if you eat a vegan diet. Not all vitamin D supplements are vegan-friendly, so be sure to research a brand before buying a supplement. To enhance absorption, it’s recommended that you take vitamin D supplements with a meal. Foods that are high in fats, like avocados, nuts, and seeds, are particularly helpful with increasing the absorption of vitamin D into your bloodstream. According to one study, people who took vitamin D-3 supplements with a high-fat meal had 32 percent higher vitamin D blood levels after 12 hours compared with people who ate a fat-free meal.

The bottom line

If you eat a vegan diet, getting enough vitamin D can be challenging, but there are ways to increase your intake that don’t involve animal sources.

Cereals and milk replacements fortified with vitamin D are two of the best sources of dietary vitamin D for vegans. Taking a daily vitamin D supplement can also help you boost your levels.

Exposing your skin to sunlight can also increase your body’s natural vitamin D production. For most people, 10 to 30 minutes three times a week is sufficient.

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