Vitamin D is an important nutrient for vegans to be aware of. There is very little naturally occurring vitamin D in the food supply and vitamin D is particularly lacking in plant-based foods. Learn about:
- What is Vitamin D?
- What Does Vitamin D Do in the Body?
- Recommended Daily Intake Levels for Vitamin D
- Vitamin D Deficiency
- How to Consume Enough Vitamin D as a Vegan
- Vegan Food Sources of Vitamin D
- Vitamin D Supplements for Vegans
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What is Vitamin D
Vitamin D is an essential fat-soluble vitamin that is also considered a hormone due to its activity in the body. While most essential nutrients are critical to get through the diet (food and drinks), vitamin D is an interesting nutrient because it can be produced when the skin is exposed to sunlight.
With modern workplaces, where people are inside through the day, and for other reasons, most people need to rely on consuming enough vitamin D from food or drinks. It's just not realistic to completely rely on the sun for vitamin D, for a majority of people.
What Does Vitamin D Do in the Body?
For years, this was the only known function of vitamin D. In recent years, vitamin D has been shown to play many other roles in the body, and in disease processes. Vitamin D also plays a role in gene transcription (allowing cells to divide in a healthy way) and cell growth 1.
Vitamin D has been associated with some types of cancer, multiple sclerosis, fibromyalgia, rheumatoid arthritis, polycystic ovary syndrome, diabetes, high blood pressure, psoriasis, and likely plays a role in helping the immune system fight infections 1, 7.
There have also been studies associating vitamin D with many other health concerns 7. However, association does not mean causation, and one cannot say that low vitamin D levels cause these conditions. They may cause low vitamin D levels, or another factor could be responsible for the association.
Recommended Daily Intake Levels for Vitamin D
The recommended daily intake of vitamin D for vegans is the same as that of the general population. Vitamin D recommendations vary by country, but in Canada for adults, the recommended dietary allowance is 600 IU per day 2.
There’s debate over this vitamin as recommendations are based largely on vitamin D’s role in bone health. Research on other functions of vitamin D is relatively new, but generally suggests a higher intake is favorable. Certain organizations and researchers have made a call to increase these recommendations (while ensuring intake levels aren't too high) 8.
That said, there is an upper intake limit set for vitamin D 2. This means that high intakes have been shown to cause some sort of harm or side effects. For adults, the upper intake limit is 4000 IU per day, meaning that intake over this level can cause harm and it is not advised to consume vitamin D over this level unless under the direct supervision of a doctor 2.
Vitamin D Deficiency
The most obvious outcomes of vitamin D deficiency are rickets in children, and osteomalacia in adults 1. Both of these are disorders of softening bones which relates to the primary role of vitamin D in calcium balance.
Severe deficiency can have impacts on the neuromuscular system with symptoms including muscle weakness, limb pain and impaired physical function 1. Low vitamin D levels may also increase risk for type 1 diabetes, insulin resistance, multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, cardiovascular disease, cancer and psoriasis 1.
How to Consume Enough Vitamin D as a Vegan
There are very few natural sources of vitamin D in the food supply, vegan or otherwise, because humans evolved to make vitamin D from exposure to sun. As noted above, getting vitamin D from the sun is not practical for many, therefore people must rely on consuming foods fortified with vitamin D or on vitamin D supplements.
Canada requires fortification of vitamin D into liquid cow’s milk, powdered cow’s milk, evaporated milk products and margarine 3. Cow’s milk does not contain a lot of naturally occurring vitamin D, so when you hear that milk is a good source of vitamin D, note that it was added in.
Other food products may be voluntarily fortified with vitamin D, but it is up to individual companies to do so. If you consume dairy and assume it has vitamin D, check the label; yogurt, cheese, butter, ice cream etc. are not required to be fortified.
On a positive note, many vegan milk alternatives are fortified with vitamin D. Choosing fortified options can be a way to increase intake of essential nutrients.
Improving Absorption of Vitamin D
While ensuring adequate intake of vitamins is essential, it's equal as important to maximize the body's ability to absorb those vitamins. Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin, meaning it will be absorbed into the body the same way dietary fats are.
Research shows that vitamin D supplements are best absorbed when taken with the largest meal of the day 5. Other research has demonstrated that a meal higher in fat increases vitamin D absorption compared to a low fat meal 6.
These two studies suggest that consuming a source of fat with a vitamin D supplement is likely the best option to improve absorption. This means it's likely best to take vitamin D supplements with a meal or snack that contains fat; the largest meal of the day may be the best choice.
Absorption of essential fat-soluble nutrients is one of the many reasons why it's important to include some healthy, plant-based fats into the diet!
Vegan Food Sources of Vitamin D
Apart from fortified plant-based milk alternatives, margarine is required to be fortified with vitamin D in Canada 3. Therefore, if you consume margarine on a regular basis along with fortified plant-based milk, you may be able to meet your vitamin D needs.
Please note that only margarine is required to be fortified. Butter and butter substitutes including vegan butter alternatives do not need to be fortified 3.
The only other possibility for getting vitamin D through vegan foods is with the use of irradiated mushrooms. Mushrooms can produce vitamin D when exposed to sunlight 4. While this is a very interesting possibility, the research is not where we need it to be to recommend this as a reliable source of vitamin D 4. There are many factors that determine how much vitamin D may be present in a mushroom and until we know for sure how much we may be getting, it’s best to choose a reliable method for meeting nutrient needs 4. Most mushrooms on the market are not exposed to sunlight and therefore do not contain vitamin D.
Vitamin D Supplements for Vegans
A common recommendation from healthcare providers is for Canadians (who do not consume enough vitamin D from fortified foods) to take a vitamin D supplement in the winter months (November to April). For someone who doesn’t receive adequate sunlight exposure in the summer months, it may also be helpful to take a vitamin D supplement year-round.
Speak to your doctor or dietitian about whether a supplement is right for you and if so, they can help you select an appropriate dose.
Please always keep in mind that more is not always better, and often can be harmful. The upper limit for vitamin D intake is 4000 IU and I’ve seen many supplements with doses over this limit – they may be harmful and should never be taken without medical supervision. Remember, the recommended daily intake level is 600 IU and that includes what you consume from food sources and supplements combined.
Note: Vitamin D3 is not always vegan. If this is a concern for you, look for vegan vitamin D3 products that specify they are sourced from plants. Vitamin D2 is always vegan but may not be as effective in the body as vitamin D3.
Summary: Vitamin D for Vegans
Vitamin D is an essential nutrient for a healthy life. A majority of people have difficulty getting adequate vitamin D from the sun (including all Canadians in the winter months). There are few foods that naturally contain vitamin D. In Canada, all margarine is fortified with vitamin D (but not butter or butter products/ vegan butter substitutes) and many plant-based milks are fortified. If you do not consume these foods, a vitamin D supplement is likely necessary to meet your intake needs. Talk to your doctor or dietitian before starting any new supplements.
Join the Community for Vegan Recipes
- Not enough vitamin D: Health consequences for Canadians
- Dietary Reference Intakes Tables
- Foods to Which Vitamins, Mineral Nutrients and Amino Acids May or Must be Added
- A Review of Mushrooms as a Potential Source of Dietary Vitamin D
- Taking Vitamin D with the Largest Meal Improves Absorption and Results in Higher Serum Levels of 25-Hydroxyvitamin D
- Effect of High- versus Low-fat Meal on Serum 25-Hydroxyvitamin D Levels after a Single Oral Dose of Vitamin D: A Single-Blind, Parallel, Randomized Trial
- Sunlight and Vitamin D
- Optimal Vitamin D Supplementation Doses that Minimize the Risk for Both Low and High Serum 25-Hydroxyvitamin D Concentrations in the General Population
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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Author Profile: Nicole Stevens
Nicole is a vegan Registered Dietitian (RD) and founder of Lettuce Veg Out. She provides vegans with balanced meals and easy-to-understand nutrition science.
Having attained a Masters degree and passing a national registration exam, Nicole is a trusted source of nutrition information. She uses this knowledge to educate others about vegan diets and how to thrive as a vegan.