Vitamin A is an essential nutrient that is important to consider when following a vegan diet. Preformed vitamin A is not found naturally in plant-based foods; therefore vegans rely on beta carotene, a precursor to vitamin A.
Beta carotene is needed in much larger quantities compared to vitamin A, meaning vegans need to ensure they consume enough to meet their needs.
What are Vitamin A and Beta Carotene?
Vitamin A is an essential nutrient with established recommended intake levels. It is found in certain animal-based food products but is not present in plant-based foods, unless fortified.
Beta carotene is a type of carotenoid. There are dozens of carotenoids present in plant-based foods, but beta carotene is the most common and likely the most important for humans. It’s not considered an essential nutrient and there are no established intake levels for it.
The main difference between beta carotene and vitamin A is that beta carotene needs to be converted into vitamin A in the body. The vitamin A from animal foods, or fortified plant-based foods, is “preformed” meaning already in its active form.
Roles of Beta Carotene and Vitamin A in the Body
Vitamin A is most well-known for its role in eye health, but it also contributes to the immune system, and is important for growth and development in children 1.
Beta carotene, once converted into vitamin A, serves the same functions. Additionally, beta carotene and other carotenoids are found to have antioxidant activity in the body 2. 5 Antioxidants are important for overall health and are related to disease prevention 2.
Daily Intake Requirements of Vitamin A
12 mcg beta carotene = 1 mcg vitamin A = 1 RAE
Adult males require 900 RAE of vitamin A per day and adult women (not pregnant or lactating) require 700 RAE of vitamin A per day 3.
Genetic Variation in Beta Carotene Conversion
Currently there are no routine tests used to identify who these people may be. If you have concerns about your vitamin A status, speak with your doctor.
For people who are poor converters of beta carotene, a small vitamin A supplement may be needed, but should only be taken under the advice of a medical professional as excess vitamin A is toxic 8.
There are additional factors that may limit beta carotene conversion, but more research is needed 5. One factor to note is that vitamin A absorption requires adequate intake of zinc, another nutrient that may be challenging for vegans 6.
Vitamin A Deficiency
Since vitamin A also plays a role in the immune system, low intake may impair the body’s ability to fight infections6, 7. This can lead to more severe infections and increases the risk of death from infectious disease 7.
Additionally, vitamin A deficiency can impair proper growth and development in children 7.
Vitamin A Toxicity
Vitamin A is stored in the liver and, if there’s too much present, it can lead to toxicity that results in bone damage, birth defects, loss of appetite, blurred vision, pain, headache, and nausea 8.
It’s particularly important to avoid vitamin A toxicity during pregnancy 8.
Beta carotene is also stored in the body but does not have a set upper limit 3. The body only converts beta carotene to vitamin A as needed, so extra beta carotene shouldn’t result in vitamin A toxicity 1, 5, 8.
The upper limit for vitamin A intake doesn’t include beta carotene from food or supplements but, taking beta carotene supplements may be harmful for other reasons discussed below.
Can Vegans Consume Enough Vitamin A or Beta Carotene?
Meeting vitamin A requirements as a vegan can be challenging, as preformed vitamin A is scarce in plant-based diets. Fortification of certain vegan foods can help, but relying on beta carotene is often necessary.
It is possible to meet vitamin A requirements from beta carotene alone. However, since an average of 12 mcg of beta carotene are needed for 1 mcg vitamin A, it’s essential for vegans to consume enough foods high in beta carotene.
Beta carotene and vitamin A are fat soluble, meaning they’re absorbed along with fat from the intestines into the body 1. Foods high beta carotene typically do not contain fat. Adding fat to meals and snacks with beta carotene can greatly enhance absorption 5, 9.
Vegan Food Sources of Vitamin A
Vitamin A is not naturally present in vegan foods but can be fortified in some plant-based options, often plant-based milks, margarine, or butter substitutes. Check the nutrition label for the products you use to see if they are fortified. Otherwise, orange and dark green fruits and vegetables are highest in beta carotene.
|Food and Serving Size||RAE|
|Sweet potato (½ C baked)||961|
|Carrots (½ C boiled slices)||665|
|Carrots (1 whole, raw, medium)||509|
|Butternut squash (½ C baked cubes)||572|
|Acorn squash (1 C baked cubes)||45|
|Pumpkin (½ C canned)||953|
|Bell peppers, green, raw (1 C slices)||17|
|Bell peppers, red, raw (1C slices)||153|
|Apricots (½ C dried)||117|
|Apricot (1 whole, raw)||34|
|Cantaloupe (1 C chunks)||270|
|Mango (1 C pieces)||89|
|Collard greens (½ C cooked)||386|
|Kale (½ C cooked)||86|
|Spinach (½ C cooked)||472|
|Broccoli (1 C boiled)||120|
|Carrot juice (¼ C)||564|
Based on this list, you can see it’s possible to meet vitamin A requirements from plant-based foods. However, it’s important to regularly consume foods that are high in beta carotene.
In general, one serving of dark green or leafy vegetables and one serving of orange vegetables or fruits per day should help vegans meet vitamin A requirements. Aiming for 2-3 servings of beta carotene-rich foods per day is often recommended.
Do Vegans Need a Vitamin A Supplement?
Vitamin A or beta carotene supplements are unnecessary for vegans meeting their intake requirements through a balanced diet. Since these nutrients are stored in the body, deficiency tends to be rare 10.
However, if dark green or orange vegetables are not consumed regularly, speak with your doctor or dietitian about including a supplement. Vitamin A and beta carotene supplements can be harmful so extreme caution is needed, and supplements shouldn’t be started without supervision 8, 11, 12, 13.
Summary: Vitamin A for Vegans
Vitamin A is an essential nutrient that is not found in plant-based foods unless they’ve been fortified. Beta carotene is present in some plant-based foods and is converted into active vitamin A in the body.
Vegans can meet intake requirements for vitamin A from plant-based foods high in beta carotene, which includes most dark green and orange vegetables and fruits.
Vitamin A deficiency can lead to severe consequences, as can vitamin A toxicity. If you're concerned about meeting nutrient needs as a vegan, speak with your doctor or consult a dietitian who specializes in plant-based nutrition.
Always speak with a doctor before changing your diet or taking new supplements. Please read our full website disclaimer.
About Nicole Stevens
Nicole is a vegan Registered Dietitian (RD) and founder of Lettuce Veg Out.
She helps people thrive on a vegan diet with balanced recipes and easy-to-understand nutrition science.