Vitamin A is an essential nutrient and is important to consider when following a vegan diet.
- What is Vitamin A? What is Beta Carotene?
- What Does Beta Carotene and Vitamin A Do in the Body?
- Daily Intake Requirements of Vitamin A
- Vitamin A Deficiency
- Vitamin A Toxicity
- How to Consume Enough Vitamin A as a Vegan
- Vegan Food Sources of Vitamin A
- Vitamin A Supplements for Vegans
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What is Vitamin A? What is Beta Carotene?
Vitamin A is an essential nutrient with established recommended intake levels. It is found “preformed” (in it’s active form) in certain animal-based food products and is not found preformed in plant-based foods (unless fortified).
Beta carotene is a molecule in the carotenoid family. There are dozens of carotenoids present in plant-based foods, but beta carotene is the most common and likely the most important for humans. Beta carotene is found in larger amounts in some plant-based foods and can also be present in animal-based food products. Beta carotene is not technically an essential nutrient and there are no established intake levels for it.
The main difference between beta carotene vs vitamin A is that beta carotene needs to be converted into vitamin A in the body whereas vitamin A from animal foods is “preformed” meaning already in its active form.
What Does Beta Carotene and Vitamin A Do in the Body?
Beta carotene is converted into vitamin A in the body. The vitamin A that is created from beta carotene can act in the same way as preformed vitamin A molecules (found in some animal-products).
While beta carotene is not classified as an essential nutrient on its own (vitamin A need can be met with preformed vitamin A), some research suggests it plays a role in the body even before it’s converted to vitamin A.
Beta carotene and other carotenoids are found to have antioxidant activity in the body 3. Antioxidants are important for health and have been shown to help lower the risk of many diseases including cancer and heart disease 3.
Foods rich in carotenoids such as beta carotene have been associated with reduced risk of certain cancers, cardiovascular disease, age-related macular degeneration, and cataracts 3.
Daily Intake Requirements of Vitamin A
Vitamin A requirements are reported as “Retinol Activity Equivalents” or RAE 4. These Retinol Activity Equivalents were developed from research that showed for every 6 micrograms (mcg) of beta carotene, the body produces 1 mcg of vitamin A. In reality, newer research shows it may take anywhere from 3.8 mcg to 28 mcg to produce 1 mcg 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 4.
As noted above, vitamin A requirements are presented as RAE because the body uses both preformed vitamin A (from animal foods or fortified into plant-based foods) or beta carotene (mainly from plant-based foods) to meet vitamin A requirements 4.
Vitamin A Deficiency
The first sign of vitamin A deficiency is night blindness which can progress to more serious eye diseases and eventually total, irreversible blindness.
Since vitamin A also plays a role in the immune system, low intake may impair the body’s ability to fight infections. Low vitamin A may also decrease growth and development in children and impact bone health.
Vitamin A Toxicity
As with most vitamins, minerals and other beneficial compounds from foods, more is not always better and can even be toxic. Consuming too much vitamin A can happen from food sources alone or in combination with supplements/ fortified foods.
Vitamin A is fat-soluble, meaning the body stores this nutrient which leads to potential for harm if too much is absorbed and present in the body. Vitamin A is stored in the liver and can lead to bone damage, birth defects in pregnant women, loss of appetite, blurred vision, pain and nausea 7.
The upper limit for vitamin A intake in adult men and women is 3000 RAE 4. This upper limit is for preformed vitamin A from food (including fortified foods) and supplements combined 4. The upper limit does not apply to beta carotene in food or supplement forms 4.
This is because the body absorbs most of the preformed vitamin A consumed and stores it as vitamin A in the liver, which can be toxic. However, the body limits the amount of beta carotene converted to vitamin A and only converts beta carotene to vitamin A as needed. So if people have too much beta carotene in their system and don’t need to convert any to vitamin A, they’ll store it as beta carotene (which is not harmful) and convert it to vitamin A as needed.
While the upper limit for vitamin A intake doesn’t include beta carotene supplements, taking these supplements may be harmful for other reasons (keep reading to learn more about supplementation).
How to Consume Enough Vitamin A as a Vegan
One argument against veganism being a healthy dietary choice is the reliance on beta carotene to meet vitamin A requirements.
There’s no naturally occurring preformed vitamin A in vegan diets, although it’s sometimes fortified into vegan foods like plant-based milks or margarine. If a vegan doesn’t consume these fortified foods, they’ll be completely reliant on beta carotene to meet their intake needs.
Consuming adequate amounts of beta carotene should meet the body’s requirements for vitamin A. However, it’s important for vegans to consume at least one good source of beta carotene each day to ensure the requirement for vitamin A can be met.
As noted above, an average of 12 mcg of beta carotene is needed to produce 1 mcg of vitamin A, so fairly large amounts of beta carotene are needed to meet this requirement. Luckily there are some plant-based foods that have very high levels of beta carotene in them!
Beta carotene and vitamin A are fat soluble, meaning they’re absorbed along with fat from the intestines into the body 1, 2. Whole food sources of beta carotene typically lack in fat content; therefore, adding fat to a meal that contains good sources of beta carotene can increase absorption.
Vegan Food Sources of Vitamin A
Vitamin A is only naturally found in animal foods but is also fortified into some plant-based foods. This list focuses on beta carotene content (listed as RAE) in whole plant-based foods.
|Food and Serving Size||RAE|
|Sweet potato (1/2 C baked)||961|
|Carrots (1/2 C boiled slices)||665|
|Carrots (1 whole, raw, medium)||509|
|Butternut squash (1/2 C baked cubes)||572|
|Acorn squash (1 C baked cubes)||45|
|Pumpkin (1/2 C canned)||953|
|Bell peppers, green, raw (1 C slices)||17|
|Bell peppers, red, raw (1C slices)||153|
|Apricots (1/2 C dried)||117|
|Apricot (1 whole, raw)||34|
|Cantaloupe (1 C chunks)||270|
|Mango (1 C pieces)||89|
|Collard greens (1/2 C cooked)||386|
|Kale (1/2 C cooked)||86|
|Spinach (1/2 C cooked)||472|
|Broccoli (1 C boiled)||120|
|Carrot juice (1/4 C)||564|
As you can see from this list, it’s possible to meet the daily intake requirements from plant-based foods; however, it’s essential to consume at least one serving (if not 2-3 servings) of orange or dark green vegetables/ fruits each day to meet this requirement.
It’s generally a good idea for vegans to aim for at least one serving of leafy greens per day, and getting adequate vitamin A (in the form of beta carotene) is yet another reason to meet this recommendation. If it’s not possible, consuming orange vegetables like sweet potato, carrot, butternut squash or pumpkin is a great step.
Vitamin A Supplements for Vegans
Vitamin A supplements and/ or beta carotene supplements are not necessary for vegans meeting their intake requirements for this nutrient.
However, if you do not consume dark green or orange vegetables and fruits on the list above on a regular basis, speak with your doctor or dietitian about including a supplement. Vitamin A supplements are not generally recommended as people can store vitamin A in the liver or beta carotene in fat tissue, so deficiency is rare and there is a high potential for toxicity and harmful side effects 6.
There needs to be a huge warning when it comes to vitamin A or beta carotene supplements. Vitamin A can be toxic in large doses and research also suggests beta carotene from a concentrated supplement may be harmful to some people (but beta carotene from food sources is found to be safe) 6. Do not take any supplements without first speaking to your doctor, especially for vitamin A and beta carotene.
Summary: Vitamin A and Beta Carotene for Vegans
Vitamin A is an essential nutrient, not found preformed in vegan food options (unless the food is fortified with vitamin A). Beta carotene can be converted into active vitamin A in the body. It’s possible to meet intake requirements for vitamin A from beta carotene alone, but some consideration is needed to ensure enough beta carotene is consumed. Vitamin A deficiency can lead to severe consequences, as can vitamin A toxicity. Vitamin A toxicity could occur through consuming too much preformed vitamin A from food and/ or supplements. Beta carotene supplements may also pose a health risk. Always speak to a doctor before starting any supplements.
If you’re concerned about meeting nutrient needs as a vegan, working with a vegan Dietitian is a great option to optimize your health!
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- Bioconversion of dietary provitamin A carotenoids to vitamin A in humans
- Vitamin A
- Antioxidant functions of carotenoids
- Table 1 – Reference Values for Vitamins
- Fruits and Veggies, Vitamin A and Vegan Diets
- What You Need to Know About Vitamin A
- Vitamin A Toxicity
Please note that this is a curated list of references for the topics above and is not intended to be comprehensive.
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