The 10 Highest Vitamin D Foods for Vegetarians

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    As a vegetarian, it can be hard to balance your vitamin D levels. Here is a guide to the highest vitamin D foods for vegetarians.

    While the FDA recommends between 10-20 mcg or 400 and 800 IU of vitamin D, the majority of us do not reach that level. Vitamin D is a naturally-occurring vitamin that helps support calcium absorption and bone development, making it one of the most important vitamins to get. Even though we are able to make vitamin D ourselves with the help of sunlight, it can be difficult to get high enough vitamin D levels into our systems.

    Especially as the winter months draw near and many of us will be getting less natural sunlight, it is essential to supplement our vitamin D intake with our diet. Fortunately, some foods contain vitamin D. For more information about the best foods to increase your vitamin D intake, keep reading.

    Best 10 vitamin D foods for vegetarians

    Being a vegetarian should not limit your vitamin D intake! Fortunately, there are many vitamin D-enriched foods available to support your diet.

    1. Soy products

    Many soy milks are fortified with vitamin D. While dairy products are great at boosting vitamin D levels, many milk alternatives also provide a much-needed blast of vitamin D.

    While cow’s milk usually contains vitamin D3 or cholecalciferol, soy milks typically contain more vitamin D2 or ergocalciferol.

    2. Cheese

    Like many dairy products, cheese is rich in vitamin D. Cheese is not fortified like milk or yogurt, but some varieties of cheese, such as fontina and American cheese, naturally contain vitamin D. American cheese can have up to 2.125 mcg or 85 IU of vitamin D per 1.5 oz portion!

    3. Milk

    Many dairy products are fortified with vitamin D, including milk. Because vitamin D helps support bone health by aiding with calcium absorption, it makes sense to enrich our dairy milk with vitamin D.

    In addition to milk, dairy products such as eggs and butter contain vitamin D, too! Egg yolks, in particular, are naturally rich in vitamin D.

    4. Best fruits for vitamin D

    Oranges & orange juice

    If you’d like to get more vitamin D from your daily fruit intake, orange juice is the best place to start. Many orange juice brands fortify their beverages with vitamin D. Orange juice is also ideal for those who do not enjoy drinking milk or milk alternatives.

    In fact, recent studies have shown that orange juice fortified with vitamin D2 or D3 can be as effective as taking daily supplements. Orange juice is also naturally rich in vitamin C, boosting your immune system and giving you a great start to your day. Just be cautious about the sugar levels present.

    5. Best fish for vitamin D

    • Mackerel
    • Wild salmon
    • Bluefish
    • Cod
    • Tuna
    • Sardines
    • Rainbow trout

    Oily fish, such as mackerel and salmon, are well known to have vitamin D naturally occurring in their flesh. While we may need further exploration of how much of the naturally occurring vitamin D actually makes it through the cooking process and onto your plate, fish is still a great place to incorporate extra vitamin D.

    Fish such as bluefish, cod, wild salmon, and tuna all contain hundreds of IU of vitamin D per ounce. Vitamin D-rich proteins like these are ideal for incorporating into your weekly meal rotation.

    6. Best vegetables for vitamin D

    Though many vegetables may not produce as high levels of vitamin D as other foods, there are several vegetables to incorporate into your meal plan. Leafy greens contain high levels of calcium, making them an ideal side dish for a vitamin D-rich dinner. The pairing of fatty fish with kale or collard greens can help the body absorb calcium.

    7. Mushrooms

    As far as vegetables go, mushrooms contain the highest levels of vitamin D by far. Mushrooms naturally contain high levels of ergosterol, which is a precursor to this essential nutrient. Once the mushrooms are exposed to UV rays, the ergosterol becomes vitamin D2, called ergocalciferol.

    Mushrooms are a great vegetable for increasing amounts of vitamin D in your diet. Mushrooms are versatile, popular, and relatively inexpensive. Thanks to increased UV exposure, mushrooms can contain 10 μg or more of vitamin D in 100 g of mushrooms.

    8. Fortified cereals

    Fortified cereals can be an easy way for vegetarians to boost their vitamin D intake. Many breakfast cereals and grain bars are fortified with vitamin D. In fact, the FDA has recently increased the allowable amount of vitamin D that can be added to these products, further enhancing their nutritional value. Regular consumption of these fortified cereals can certainly contribute to meeting your vitamin D needs. That said, relying solely on fortified cereals might not be sufficient to entirely prevent deficiency.

    9. Margarine as a source of vitamin D

    Margarine and various vegetarian butter alternatives are also often fortified with vitamin D. These butter alternatives are typically fortified with the same amounts of vitamin D that traditional butter would have. By checking the nutrition facts label, you can quickly see how much vitamin D is added. By incorporating vitamin D-fortified foods into your daily meals, you can potentially double your intake of this crucial vitamin.

    10. Alternative milk for vitamin D

    In the United States, it’s required for cow’s milk to be fortified with vitamin D. However, for those who follow a plant-based or lactose-free diet, there are milk alternatives that present a promising option. While alternative kinds of milk are not obligated to fortify with vitamin D, many of these products on the market are indeed enriched with this essential vitamin.

    It's essential to be mindful of the nutritional aspect, as research found that children consuming plant-based or milk alternatives tended to have lower vitamin D levels compared to those consuming cow's milk dairy products. To ensure sufficient vitamin D intake, check the nutrition facts label on your chosen milk alternative to identify the amount, if any, of vitamin D added.

    Why Vitamin D is a Must-Have for Vegetarians

    Vitamin D is a fat-soluble essential vitamin that is found in food and naturally occurs in sunlight. This vitamin provides a wide array of health benefits. But, most importantly, vitamin D is essential for calcium absorption in the body.

    By balancing our calcium and phosphate levels, vitamin D ensures adequate bone development. According to the National Institutes of Health, vitamin D deficiency can contribute to potential bone issues. Vitamin D is essential for healthy and strong bones.

    By supporting our natural vitamin D levels with a proper diet and supplements, keeping your vitamin D levels up will be a breeze.

    What are the signs of vitamin D deficiency?

    Diets low in vitamin D are a more prevalent concern for those following vegetarian diets or who do not consume dairy products. However, research indicates that other factors beyond diet can significantly influence vitamin D status. These factors include skin pigmentation and the amount and intensity of sun exposure.

    Astonishingly, approximately 1 billion people worldwide suffer from vitamin D deficiency, while 50% of the population experiences vitamin D insufficiency. Many people may be unaware that they even have low levels of this important vitamin, as vitamin D deficiency may not always exhibit noticeable symptoms. This holds true even if a deficiency persists for an extended period or when it reaches very low levels.

    There aren’t many common symptoms associated with vitamin D deficiency, although various conditions may be associated with it. Research has found that muscle weakness, aches, and low back discomfort may be symptoms of low vitamin D, but they won’t occur in everyone.

    How to optimize vitamin D absorption from vegetarian foods

    One effective method is to consume vitamin D3 supplements with a meal that includes fat. This will significantly enhance the absorption of vitamin D. Interestingly, the specific type of fat in the meal does not matter. This is because the presence of fat, in general, aids in the release of bile acid and pancreatic lipase, which are necessary for the efficient absorption of vitamin D.

    Additionally, supporting stomach, pancreatic, gallbladder, and liver health with the help of digestive enzymes may further enhance overall digestive function, thus facilitating the optimal absorption of essential nutrients, including vitamin D.

    Other natural sources of vitamin D

    Aside from food, there are a few other ways that you can help boost your vitamin D levels. Let’s break down two of the best: sunlight and supplements.

    Sunlight as a source of vitamin D

    There is no specific consensus on what is an optimal serum amount of vitamin D. Sunlight stands as the best and most natural source of vitamin D, contributing to 50-90% of our vitamin D intake. It’s recommended that you should receive approximately 20 minutes of sunshine per day while exposing at least 40% of the skin in order to synthesize sufficient vitamin D.

    However, there are several factors that can decrease the efficiency of vitamin D synthesis through sun exposure. These include aging, darker skin pigmentation, reduced sun or outdoor exposure, and consistent sunscreen use.

    There are also more specific factors that affect how much UVB rays can reach the skin and cause the cutaneous production of vitamin D. For instance, melanin, the pigment responsible for skin color, absorbs UVB rays. This is why individuals with darker skin require more exposure to sun UVB rays to achieve enough exposure for vitamin D synthesis. This is also why sunscreen impairs or blocks the synthesis of vitamin D from the sun.

    Unfortunately, sunscreen usage with SPF 8 reduced UVB production of vitamin D by greater than 95%, with SPF 15 reducing to greater than 98%!

    Furthermore, during the winter months, sunlight's UVB rays become less direct, with the ozone layer absorbing more UVB, making it challenging to produce vitamin D even on sunny winter days. Additionally, regions at latitudes greater than 37 degrees experience reduced UVB rays. Finally, early morning and evening hours have less direct UVB radiation, even during the summer.

    Best vitamin D supplements

    When considering vitamin D supplements, it's important to prioritize vitamin D3, as it’s widely regarded as the superior choice compared to vitamin D2. Vitamin D3, also known as cholecalciferol, is the form of vitamin D that our skin naturally produces in response to sunlight.

    In addition, selecting a reliable and high-quality product is of utmost importance when purchasing supplements. Care/of’s vitamin D supplement capsules stand out as a recommended choice. It contains 25 mcg (1000 IU) of vitamin D3 that is easier to digest and absorb. It’s also suitable for most diets, as it is vegetarian, gluten-free, and certified C.L.E.A.N.

    The Bottom Line

    Maintaining adequate vitamin D levels is essential for everybody. It can sometimes be difficult for vegetarians to obtain proper vitamin D through the diet, as some of the best sources of vitamin D are fish and animal proteins. Luckily, there are several plant-based vitamin D-rich foods that can support your diet. Soy products, milk, cheese, mushrooms, and fortified cereals are some great options.

    Above all, sunlight remains the best and most natural way to boost vitamin D levels. However, there are certain times of the year when this may not be possible. This is when supplements can really help out. Opting for vitamin D3 supplements remains the superior choice for optimal effectiveness to boost vitamin D levels in the body.

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    Dr. Carla Montrond Correia ND, CNS
    Medical Content Manager
    Dr. Montrond-Correia is a licensed naturopathic physician and a certified nutrition specialist (CNS). She holds degrees from University of Bridgeport, Georgetown University, and University of Saint Joseph, and supplemented her education with internships in the health and wellness space. She's focused on research, herbal medicine, nutrigenomics, and integrative and functional medicine. She makes time for exercise, artistic activities, and enjoying delicious food.
    Jordana Tobelem, RD
    Freelance Contributor
    Jordana Tobelem is a Registered Dietitian who enjoys helping others become the best versions of themselves through proper nutrition education. Jordana is passionate about promoting lifestyle changes through nutrition, physical activity, and behavior to create a superior quality of life. She uses her experience in the clinical field of dietetics to provide consulting services to an array of healthcare brands and companies. Jordana loves finding the most current research in nutrition to create meaningful content to share with her clients. Jordana has been a member of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics since 2018 and also holds certifications in both Personal Training and Health Coaching.