Why do we need Vitamin D?
Vitamin D is a crucial nutrient that’s involved in many processes of the body. Some of its amazing functions include:
- Supporting the immune system - SO important, especially in the midst of COVID-19!
- Assisting your body in absorbing calcium to promote bone health and strength. Without vitamin D, calcium can’t perform it’s essential functions!
- Regulating blood pressure and cardiovascular health. Did you know heart disease is the #1 cause of death in the United States?
- Regulating mood - who couldn’t use a mood boost??
- And more!
Some of the best sources of dietary vitamin D are unfortunately not vegan (fish, liver, egg yolks, and cheese). But don't let that stop you from getting your daily needs! Let’s take a look at some deliciously vegan sources of vitamin D.
Deliciously Vegan Sources of vitamin D
The National Institutes of Health suggests a recommended daily intake (RDA) intake of 600-800 IU of Vitamin D per day. Being vegan, you may need to give extra thought to your eating and lifestyle choices to get your daily needs!
Mushrooms are renowned for their amazing pharmacological benefits. What’s even better, they’re the only naturally plant-based sources of vitamin D!
That’s because they contain a compound called ergosterol that is converted into vitamin D2 (ergocalciferol) when exposed to UV light. Your liver then metabolizes vitamin D2 into calcifediol, the active form of vitamin D that circulates in your bloodstream.
Many mushroom growers are now exposing their mushrooms to UV light during the growing process. If you want to be sure that your mushrooms are a good source of vitamin D, you can leave them out in the sun to boost their vitamin D content! After buying them, take them home and spread them out on a flat surface, cover them in plastic wrap to preserve the moisture, and place them outside for about an hour. Aim to do this during the middle of the day if possible in order to get the strongest UV rays. This alone can boost vitamin D production in the mushrooms to hundreds if not thousands of IU’s!
While cooking tends to decrease nutrient content in many foods, feel confident knowing that cooking your mushrooms will not reduce their vitamin D content. What an incredible fungi!
Since mushrooms are the only naturally vegan-source of vitamin D, fortified foods may also be your best friend.
An important thing to note - some vitamin D-fortified foods use a substance called lanolin, which is grease from sheep wool as the source of vitamin D. This is obviously not vegan-friendly, so make sure that a fortified food says “Vegan” on the label.
This indicates that the fortification comes from lichen, a unique plant species that’s considered to be a symbiotic partnership between algae and fungi; that is a natural source of vitamin D3. Some fortified foods also use UV-radiated yeast to provide D2. This is a reminder that checking food labels is important, especially as a vegan!
While there’s many fortified food options, we’ll discuss a couple versatile ones that are nutritious and delicious vegan sources.
When it comes to tofu, you got it - check the label! Not all tofu is fortified, but those that are can contain a significant amount of your daily vitamin D needs. Along with many other beneficial nutrients, like B12 and omega-3 fats which are also commonly deficient in a vegan diet.
Tofu is a versatile food that can be prepared in so many different fashions, similar to meat. It soaks up the flavors and spices that you use so don’t be shy when cooking your delicious vegan meal!
Worried about the soy content of tofu? While scientists used to be concerned about soy products containing a high amount of isoflavones, compounds that bind to estrogen receptors in the body; more recent research has shown that these compounds may actually be beneficial for health, and lead to a reduction in cancer risk. Aim for tofu brands that are organic and non-GMO sourced. Genetically modified soy is a controversial topic among health practitioners and may be better to avoid if possible.
Fortified plant-based milk
As a vegan, plant-based milks might be your best friend! Not only are they delicious, they are often chock full of beneficial nutrients. What’s even better is that there are so many different types of delicious plant-based milks! Top favorites include almond milk, oat milk, cashew milk, rice milk, and more!
Not all are fortified with vitamin D, so once again you will need to check the label. Just one cup of fortified milk can contain about 25% of your daily needs. You can drink the milk by itself, blend it up in smoothies, add to hot beverages, or use in soups! Just aim for brands that don’t have a lot of added sweeteners, fillers, or thickening agents if possible.
Here’s the easiest “vegan” source of vitamin D - sunshine! You may have heard of vitamin D being referred to as the “sunshine vitamin” and that’s not just because vitamin D helps to improve mood. By exposing our skin to sunlight, the UVB rays of the sun cause cholesterol in our skin to produce vitamin D3. But wait a moment - isn’t UVB radiation bad for our skin?
The answer is yes AND no. While exposing our skin to sun without SPF protection can cause skin damage and lead to skin cancer, NOT exposing our skin to any sunlight severely limits our ability to produce vitamin D. The good news? You only need about 10-15 minutes of sunlight a day to get your daily needs, which is usually a safe amount of time for most people. If you have fairer skin, the synthesis of vitamin D takes place even quicker, which is extremely helpful for reducing risk of skin damage. On the other hand, those with darker skin may need longer sun exposure to produce the same amount of vitamin D, which is still safe since increased melanin offers more sun protection. It’s kind of like our body knows what it needs!
Of course, an important consideration is where you live and what season it is. You won’t need to expose your skin to the sun as much in the spring and summer versus the fall and winter months, as the UV rays are stronger during the warmer months. In more temperate zones of the world, it’s easy to get sun exposure year around, while in many places, it’s not so simple. If you live in a colder climate or experience long winters, you may want to consider light therapy, a method proven that mimics natural sunlight exposure to help boost circulating vitamin D levels and is known to help combat seasonal affective disorder (SAD) which can lead to feelings of depression.
So if you’re heading outside for the day, consider waiting a few minutes to put on your sunscreen!
Vitamin D supplements
While not necessarily a delicious vegan source of vitamin D, at the end of the day, it may be easiest to get your vitamin D from supplements. Keep in mind that this may not be necessary if you are getting daily sun exposure or know you are consuming it in your diet. Some supplement brands market vitamin D at dosages way above the safe upper limit, which is 4,000 IU's for adults. This is concerning because vitamin D toxicity can occur and promote an unsafe buildup of calcium in the blood, which can cause nausea and vomiting, and potentially lead to brittle bones and calcium stones in the kidney.
If your sun exposure or dietary intake of vitamin D isn’t consistent, it may be useful to have a supplement on hand. Try to aim for about 1,000 IUs. When choosing a supplement, you may notice that there are options for both vitamin D2 and D3. While both have shown to be effective for increasing vitamin D levels in the blood, vitamin D3 has shown in some research to be a bit more effective at maintaining adequate levels.
Once again - check the label on the bottle to ensure it’s vegan-friendly!
The Bottom Line
Vitamin D may be a bit trickier than your average nutrient to get being vegan, don’t let that stop you! With a combination of foods, sunlight, and supplements, you are sure to get enough of your daily needs.
Still feeling concerned about whether you are getting enough daily vitamin D? Whether a certain food is a good source of it? Remember that you can always reach out to a Vessel nutritionist for assistance on our in-app nutrition chat feature, and they can point you to some more deliciously vegan sources of vitamin D!