6 Good Sources of Vitamin D for Vegetarians
It helps your body absorb calcium and maintain adequate serum magnesium and phosphate concentrations — three nutrients important for your teeth, muscles, and bones. It also plays crucial roles in brain development, heart function, your immune system, and mental health.
Low vitamin D levels are widespread worldwide. Symptoms of deficiency include fatigue, muscle pain, weak bones, and — in children — stunted growth.
To maintain adequate levels, children under 12 months should get 400 IU (10 mcg) of vitamin D daily, while children 1–13 years old should get 600 IU (15 mcg) daily. Adults and pregnant or nursing women should aim for 600 and 800 IU (15 and 20 mcg) per day, respectively.
Yet, very few foods contain this vitamin, and those that do are mostly animal products. Thus, it can be difficult to get enough of this nutrient from your diet, particularly if you're vegetarian or vegan.
At the same time, a handful of foods and techniques can give you a boost.
Here are 6 good sources of vitamin D for vegetarians — some of which are suitable for vegans, too.
Your skin can produce vitamin D when exposed to the sun's ultraviolet B (UVB) rays. Most people get at least some of their vitamin D this way.
According to the National Institute of Health (NIH), exposing your face, arms, legs, or back to sunlight for 5–30 minutes twice a week — without sunscreen — is usually sufficient to generate optimal vitamin D levels.
However, depending on your geographical location or climate, it may not be practical to achieve this degree of direct sun exposure.
For instance, smog or an overcast day may reduce the strength of UV rays by up to 60%. Moreover, older adults and those with darker skin tones may require significantly longer than 30 minutes of sun exposure to produce sufficient vitamin D.
That said, excess sun exposure can increase your risk of skin cancer. Hence, the American Academy of Dermatology urges people not to rely on the sun as their main source of vitamin D.
Your skin produces vitamin D following direct exposure to the sun. However, several factors can reduce your body's vitamin D generation, and excess sun exposure isn't recommended, as it may raise your risk of skin cancer.
2. Certain Mushrooms
Mushrooms have the unique ability to make vitamin D when exposed to UV light. This makes them the only edible plant source of vitamin D.
For instance, wild mushrooms and those artificially exposed to UV light may boast anywhere between 154 and 1,136 IU (3.8 and 28 mcg) of vitamin D per 3.5-ounce (100-gram) serving.
What's more, their vitamin D content remains high for the duration of their shelf life and appears to be as effective at raising levels of this vitamin in your body as vitamin D supplements.
When shopping, look for a note on the label mentioning vitamin D content. If you're having trouble finding mushrooms exposed to UV light, you may have better luck at your local health food store or farmers market — which often carry wild mushrooms.
Keep in mind that not all wild mushrooms are edible. Eating poisonous ones can cause symptoms ranging from mild indigestion to organ failure and even death. As such, you shouldn't forage for your own wild mushrooms unless you're expertly trained.
UV-exposed mushrooms contain varying levels of vitamin D and appear to be as effective at raising vitamin D levels as supplements. However, most conventionally grown mushrooms aren't exposed to UV rays and harbor very little of this vitamin.
3. Egg Yolks
Egg yolks provide vitamin D, though their specific amounts rely greatly on the chicken's diet and access to the outdoors.
For instance, eggs sourced from chickens fed vitamin-D-enriched feed can pack up to 6,000 IU (150 mcg) per yolk, whereas eggs from chickens given conventional feed contain only 18–39 IU (0.4–1 mcg).
Similarly, chickens allowed to roam outdoors are exposed to sunlight and typically lay eggs that boast 3–4 times more vitamin D than those of chickens raised indoors.
Free-range or organic eggs tend to have more vitamin D. The label may also indicate that the eggs are enriched with this nutrient.
Egg yolks can provide significant amounts of vitamin D, especially if the eggs are sourced from chicken given enriched feed or allowed to roam outdoors.
Cheese is a natural source of vitamin D, albeit in very small amounts.
Most varieties contain 8–24 IU (0.2–0.6 mcg) of vitamin D per 2-ounce (50-gram) serving. Levels vary based on the way the cheese is manufactured.
Fontina, Monterey, and Cheddar cheeses boast more, while mozzarella has less. Soft types like cottage, ricotta, or cream cheeses offer almost no vitamin D.
Some kinds can also be fortified with vitamin D, and this will be indicated on the label or ingredient list.
Cheese is a natural source of vitamin D, albeit in very small amounts. Cheddar, Fontina, and Monterey boast a little more.
5. Fortified Foods
Although some foods naturally contain small amounts of vitamin D, a variety of products are fortified with this nutrient. Although fortification standards vary by country, a few of these foods include:
- Cow's milk. Depending on the country you live in, you can expect 1 cup (240 ml) of milk to contain up to 120 IU (3 mcg) of vitamin D.
- Nondairy beverages. Plant milks like soy, rice, hemp, oat, or almond milk — plus orange juice — are often fortified with similar amounts of vitamin D as cow's milk. They may provide up to 100 IU (2.5 mcg) of vitamin D per 1 cup (240 ml).
- Yogurt. Some dairy and nondairy yogurts are fortified in vitamin D, giving around 52 IU (1.3 mcg) of this vitamin per 3.5 ounces (100 grams).
- Tofu. Not all tofus are fortified, but those that are offer around 100 IU (2.5 mcg) per 3.5 ounces (100 grams).
- Hot and cold cereals. Oatmeal and ready-to-eat cereals are often fortified with vitamin D, with 1/2 cup (120 grams) providing up to 120 IU (3 mcg), depending on the variety.
- Margarine. Unlike butter, which is not typically fortified with vitamin D, many brands of margarine add this nutrient. One tablespoon (14 grams) usually provides around 20 IU (0.5 mcg).
Due to inconsistent fortification standards between countries, checking a food's ingredient list or nutrition label remain the best way to verify whether it's fortified in vitamin D and how much it contains.
Numerous common foods and beverages, including dairy and nondairy milks, as well as some cereals, are fortified with vitamin D. Because standards vary between countries, it's best to read the label carefully.
If you're concerned you may not be getting enough vitamin D from your diet, supplements can act as a reliable and consistent source. These come in two forms:
- Vitamin D2: typically harvested from yeast or mushrooms exposed to UV rays
- Vitamin D3: usually derived from fish oil or sheep's wool, with vegan forms more recently developed from lichen
When taken in large doses of 50,000 IU (1,250 mcg) or more, vitamin D3 appears to be more effective at raising and maintaining high blood levels of vitamin D than D2.
Yet, when taken in smaller, daily doses, the advantage of D3 over D2 appears to be much smaller.
You can tell which type your supplement contains by reading the label. Most lichen-derived D3 supplements also add vegan certification.
Because vitamin D is fat-soluble, eating it with fatty foods may help increase its absorption.
Keep in mind that the Reference Daily Intake (RDI) is 400–800 IU (10–20 mcg), depending on factors like age and pregnancy. Exceeding this dosage for extended periods is not recommended, as it may cause toxicity.
Symptoms of vitamin D toxicity may include confusion, difficulty concentrating, depression, abdominal pain, vomiting, high blood pressure, hearing loss, psychosis, and —in extreme cases — kidney failure and coma.
Supplements are a reliable and consistent source of vitamin D. They're best consumed in combination with fatty foods and shouldn't be taken in amounts exceeding the RDI for extended periods.
The Bottom Line
Although vitamin D plays several crucial roles in your body, few foods naturally contain it — and vegetarian or vegan sources are especially sparse.
Spending time in the sunshine is a great way to boost your levels, but this isn't possible for everyone.
As such, you can try foods like wild mushrooms, egg yolks, or items enriched with vitamin D. Supplements are another option.
If you're concerned that you may have low levels of this vitamin, speak with your healthcare provider.
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By Bob Jacobs
Hanako, a female Asian elephant, lived in a tiny concrete enclosure at Japan's Inokashira Park Zoo for more than 60 years, often in chains, with no stimulation. In the wild, elephants live in herds, with close family ties. Hanako was solitary for the last decade of her life.
Hanako, an Asian elephant kept at Japan's Inokashira Park Zoo; and Kiska, an orca that lives at Marineland Canada. One image depicts Kiska's damaged teeth. Elephants in Japan (left image), Ontario Captive Animal Watch (right image), CC BY-ND
Affecting Health and Altering Behavior<p>It is easy to observe the overall health and psychological consequences of life in captivity for these animals. Many captive elephants suffer from arthritis, obesity or skin problems. Both <a href="https://doi.org/10.11609/JoTT.o2620.1826-36" target="_blank">elephants</a> and orcas often have severe dental problems. Captive orcas are plagued by <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jveb.2019.05.005" target="_blank">pneumonia, kidney disease, gastrointestinal illnesses and infections</a>.</p><p>Many animals <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2017.09.010" target="_blank">try to cope</a> with captivity by adopting abnormal behaviors. Some develop "<a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.applanim.2017.05.003" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">stereotypies</a>," which are repetitive, purposeless habits such as constantly bobbing their heads, swaying incessantly or chewing on the bars of their cages. Others, especially big cats, pace their enclosures. Elephants rub or break their tusks.</p>
Changing Brain Structure<p>Neuroscientific research indicates that living in an impoverished, stressful captive environment <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jveb.2019.05.005" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">physically damages the brain</a>. These changes have been documented in many <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/cne.903270108" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">species</a>, including rodents, rabbits, cats and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1006/nimg.2001.0917" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">humans</a>.</p><p>Although researchers have directly studied some animal brains, most of what we know comes from observing animal behavior, analyzing stress hormone levels in the blood and applying knowledge gained from a half-century of neuroscience research. Laboratory research also suggests that mammals in a zoo or aquarium have compromised brain function.</p>
This illustration shows differences in the brain's cerebral cortex in animals held in impoverished (captive) and enriched (natural) environments. Impoverishment results in thinning of the cortex, a decreased blood supply, less support for neurons and decreased connectivity among neurons. Arnold B. Scheibel, CC BY-ND<p>Subsisting in confined, barren quarters that lack intellectual stimulation or appropriate social contact seems to <a href="https://doi.org/10.1590/S0001-37652001000200006" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">thin the cerebral cortex</a> – the part of the brain involved in voluntary movement and higher cognitive function, including memory, planning and decision-making.</p><p>There are other consequences. Capillaries shrink, depriving the brain of the oxygen-rich blood it needs to survive. Neurons become smaller, and their dendrites – the branches that form connections with other neurons – become less complex, impairing communication within the brain. As a result, the cortical neurons in captive animals <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/cne.901230110" target="_blank">process information less efficiently</a> than those living in <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/dev.420020208" target="_blank">enriched, more natural environments</a>.</p>
An actual cortical neuron in a wild African elephant living in its natural habitat compared with a hypothesized cortical neuron from a captive elephant. Bob Jacobs, CC BY-ND<p>Brain health is also affected by living in small quarters that <a href="https://doi.org/10.3233/BPL-160040" target="_blank">don't allow for needed exercise</a>. Physical activity increases the flow of blood to the brain, which requires large amounts of oxygen. Exercise increases the production of new connections and <a href="http://dx.doi.org/10.1126/science.aaw2622" target="_blank">enhances cognitive abilities</a>.</p><p>In their native habits these animals must move to survive, covering great distances to forage or find a mate. Elephants typically travel anywhere from <a href="https://www.elephantsforafrica.org/elephant-facts/#:%7E:text=How%20far%20do%20elephants%20walk,km%20on%20a%20daily%20basis." target="_blank">15 to 120 miles per day</a>. In a zoo, they average <a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0150331" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">three miles daily</a>, often walking back and forth in small enclosures. One free orca studied in Canada swam <a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/s00300-010-0958-x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">up to 156 miles a day</a>; meanwhile, an average orca tank is about 10,000 times smaller than its <a href="https://www.cascadiaresearch.org/projects/killer-whales/using-dtags-study-acoustics-and-behavior-southern" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">natural home range</a>.</p>
Disrupting Brain Chemistry and Killing Cells<p>Living in enclosures that restrict or prevent normal behavior creates chronic frustration and boredom. In the wild, an animal's stress-response system helps it escape from danger. But captivity traps animals with <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1215502109" target="_blank">almost no control</a> over their environment.</p><p>These situations foster <a href="https://doi.org/10.1037/rev0000033" target="_blank">learned helplessness</a>, negatively impacting the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1155/2016/6391686" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">hippocampus</a>, which handles memory functions, and the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuropharm.2011.02.024" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">amygdala</a>, which processes emotions. Prolonged stress <a href="https://doi.org/10.3109/10253899609001092" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">elevates stress hormones</a> and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1523/JNEUROSCI.10-09-02897.1990" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">damages or even kills neurons</a> in both brain regions. It also disrupts the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2005.03.021" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">delicate balance of serotonin</a>, a neurotransmitter that stabilizes mood, among other functions.</p><p>In humans, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1006/nimg.2001.0917" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">deprivation</a> can trigger <a href="https://doi.org/10.3389/fnins.2018.00367" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">psychiatric issues</a>, including depression, anxiety, <a href="https://doi.org/10.3389/fnins.2018.00367" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">mood disorders</a> or <a href="https://doi.org/10.1177/1073858409333072" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">post-traumatic stress disorder</a>. <a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/s00429-010-0288-3" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Elephants</a>, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pbio.0050139" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">orcas</a> and other animals with large brains are likely to react in similar ways to life in a severely stressful environment.</p>
Damaged Wiring<p>Captivity can damage the brain's complex circuitry, including the basal ganglia. This group of neurons communicates with the cerebral cortex along two networks: a direct pathway that enhances movement and behavior, and an indirect pathway that inhibits them.</p><p>The repetitive, <a href="http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.bbr.2014.05.057" target="_blank">stereotypic behaviors</a> that many animals adopt in captivity are caused by an imbalance of two neurotransmitters, dopamine and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2010.02.004" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">serotonin</a>. This impairs the indirect pathway's ability to modulate movement, a condition documented in species from chickens, cows, sheep and horses to primates and big cats.</p>
The cerebral cortex, hippocampus and amygdala are physically altered by captivity, along with brain circuitry that involves the basal ganglia. Bob Jacobs, CC BY-ND<p>Evolution has constructed animal brains to be exquisitely responsive to their environment. Those reactions can affect neural function by <a href="https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/311787/behave-by-robert-m-sapolsky/" target="_blank">turning different genes on or off</a>. Living in inappropriate or abusive circumstance alters biochemical processes: It disrupts the synthesis of proteins that build connections between brain cells and the neurotransmitters that facilitate communication among them.</p><p>There is strong evidence that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1523/JNEUROSCI.0577-11.2011" target="_blank">enrichment</a>, social contact and appropriate space in more natural habitats are <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1748-1090.2003.tb02071.x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">necessary</a> for long-lived animals with large brains such as <a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0152490" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">elephants</a> and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1080/13880292.2017.1309858" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cetaceans</a>. Better conditions <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5543669/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">reduce disturbing sterotypical behaviors</a>, improve connections in the brain, and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/cdd.2009.193" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">trigger neurochemical changes</a> that enhance learning and memory.</p>