How to Optimize Your Vitamin D Intake When You’re Not Getting Much Sun

Vitamin D is a valuable micronutrient. It plays a vital role in supporting immunity, maintaining bone and teeth integrity, and regulating insulin. Researchers also believe having low levels may be linked to diseases like heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and osteoporosis. It’s often referred to as the “sunshine” vitamin because it can be made in the skin from exposure to sunlight—but if you’re sheltering in place and not getting much time outside, it’s important to ensure you’re getting your daily dose from food. 

Keep reading to learn ways to optimize your vitamin D levels and discover which food sources deliver the most.

Who’s at Risk of a Vitamin D Deficiency?

In general, not exposing your skin to sunlight can result in low levels of vitamin D production. So if you’re housebound right now, you may be at risk. You’re at the highest risk of having a vitamin D deficiency if you have darker skin pigmentation, as this lowers your ability to manufacture vitamin D from the sun. You may also be at risk if you have diabetes, are obese, or don’t consume fortified milk products every day (check the label). But, in general, if you’re spending most of your days indoors and aren’t able to take sufficient advantage of the sun’s rays—hello, COVID-19!—there’s a good chance you aren’t getting your daily dose of the “sunshine” vitamin.

If you fall into any of these categories, or if you’ve had a recent blood test that suggests your vitamin D levels may be below the desirable range, it’s important that you look for ways to optimize your vitamin D intake from food.

How Much Vitamin D Do You Need?

For children and adults alike, the recommended amount is 15 micrograms (μg) per day. If you’re older than 70 years, it goes up to 20 micrograms (μg) per day.

Top Vitamin D-Rich Food Sources

Animal Sources

  • 3 oz salmon, sockeye, canned: 18 μg
  • 3 oz (85 g) cooked cold-water fish like salmon, tuna, sardines, sole, or flounder: 3 to 18 μg
  • 3 oz (85 g) cooked white fish like barramundi, hoki, king dory, basa: 2 to 3 μg
  • 1 tsp cod liver oil (Note: large doses can cause vitamin A toxicity): 11 μg
  • 1 cup fortified milk: 3 μg
  • 1 cup fortified yogurt: 2 to 3 μg
  •  ½ cup fortified ricotta cheese: 0.2 μg
  • 2 large free-range or cage eggs (Note: vitamin D is found in the yolk): 3 to 9 μg
  • 3 oz (85 g) beef liver: 1 μg

Plant-Based Sources

  • 1 cup fortified breakfast cereals: 2 μg
  • Fortified soy, rice, or almond milk: 2 to 3 μg 
  • Fortified fruit juices (orange and apple juices are commonly fortified): check the label
  • Soy products (tofu, soy milk, soy yogurt, tempeh are almost routinely fortified and can offer a rich source of vitamin D, especially tofu!): check the label
  • ½ cup mushrooms that have been exposed to UV light or sunlight (mushrooms are the only vegetable considered to be a ‘natural’ source of vitamin D. Place your punnet in the sun for at least 15 minutes before cooking them to boost the vitamin D levels.): 9 μg

Although you can get some vitamin D from food sources, if your levels are already low it may be difficult to get enough from food alone. So if you can get out and get some sunshine, try to go for a walk every day. Generally, getting about 10 to 15 minutes of sun on your arms and legs a few times a week is enough to give you nearly all the vitamin D you need. If that’s just not possible, you might consider speaking to your doctor about prescribing a vitamin D supplement to help give your levels a boost. 

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