The 6 Best Plant-Based Sources of Vitamin D
The NIH recommends 600-800 IU per day, but it is recommended that vegetarians and vegans shoot for the top of that range. The amount every person needs depends on their age and other factors as well. Babies need less (400), while most kids and adults need 600. If you are a senior citizen, consider upping your intake to at least 800, but keep in mind the upper limit of how much anyone should take is 4,000. After that, you could experience nausea, vomiting and weakness.
But that's not an issue for most people. More often than not, the vitamin D levels are too low. Black and Hispanic populations are at greatest risk. If you aren't getting enough vitamin D, you might feel fatigue, muscle pain, and weakened bones. Vitamin D deficiency can also cause stunted growth in children.
Yes, we can get vitamin D from sunlight, but with more and more of us living and working inside, getting our daily dose of sun is getting harder. Getting it through your diet can be tricky — especially if you are a vegetarian or vegan because most foods containing the vitamin are animal-based. But don't despair! There are vegetarian and vegan-friendly foods that can help you increase your Vitamin D levels.
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Mushrooms are the only plant-based sources of vitamin D found in nature. They have a compound which when exposed to sunlight converts into vitamin D2. The FDA has even approved UV-treated mushrooms as an additive to other foods to increase vitamin D intake.
Of course, mushrooms typically grow in darkness, but that doesn't mean you can't boost their vitamin D levels on your own. Simply spread them out on a baking sheet and put them in the sun from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. These D levels don't decrease when cooked, either. And the vitamin D levels have a long shelf life, too, so you can prepare them and then cook or eat them anytime.
Be careful when consuming mushrooms — especially wild ones. Not all wild mushrooms are edible and consuming poisonous mushrooms can make you sick or even kill you, so make sure you buy yours at the grocery store or trusted farmers market.
2. Fortified Cereals
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Just because it's not found in nature, doesn't mean it doesn't exist. Many foods are fortified with vitamin D, including almost every mainstream cereal you can buy. This includes dry cereals and most oatmeal.
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And what do you wash that cereal down with? Plant-based milks like almond, soy, rice and even cashew milk, are fortified with vitamin D, too. One cup can get you 10-25 percent of your daily value. Keep in mind that if the milk doesn't specifically say that it is fortified, it will have very low levels of vitamin D because the vitamin doesn't occur naturally in the substance.
4. Fortified Orange Juice
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Not a milk fan? When it comes to orange juice, there are a lot of options. Not all are fortified with vitamin D but you can almost always find one that has both calcium and vitamin D3. It's been shown that drinking fortified orange juice can raise your D levels the same amount as if you were taking supplements. While they can provide you with 10-25 percent of your D intake, you don't want to rely on juice alone for vitamin D. It has a lot of sugar and no fiber to buffer that sucrose spike. To counteract this, consider using OJ as part of a vitamin and protein-rich smoothie.
The best thing about tofu is how versatile it is. You can include it in a variety of meals, for any time of day. Not all tofu is fortified but some can contain up to 20 percent of your daily vitamin D requirements. It also has vitamin B12 and omega 3 fats, which are also necessary for vegetarian diets. You can scramble it in the morning for breakfast, throw it in a soup or stew or curry, or spice it and toss it with rice or other plant-based dinner options.
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You can be your own source of vitamin D! In fact, this is how most people get quite a bit of it. The National Institutes of Health says that exposure of your face, arms, legs or back for 5-30 minutes twice a week is usually enough to get proper vitamin D levels. The exposure has to be without sunscreen though, so make sure not to stay out in those rays too long.
Depending on the time of year and where you live, the UV rays from the sun vary, so keep that in mind. Another factor is the amount of melanin you have. The more you have the longer you have to expose yourself to the sun's rays to get the desired result. Because of the cancer risks, it's recommended you get some of your vitamin D from other sources.
Vitamin D is fat-soluble so eating it alongside fatty foods will help with its absorption. Vitamin D helps bone growth, regulates the immune system, reduces inflammation, improves mood and helps metabolize glucose in the body. It also helps your body absorb calcium and helps regulate blood pressure and cholesterol, so not having enough of it can severely impact your health.
Make sure you are getting the amount you need to have energy and good health throughout the day.
Darlena Cunha is a freelance writer and a professor at the University of Florida, with degrees in communications and ecology.