While our bodies make this bone-building micronutrient, it's usually not enough for our bodies, so it’s crucial to supplement more in our diet. Many vitamin D food sources are animal-based and unsuitable for a vegan diet – read below for a comprehensive list of the best plants with vitamin D to boost your immunity, bone health, and mood!
Despite our bodies' ability to synthesize vitamin D with the help of the sun, we're experiencing collectively low levels of this crucial vitamin across the world.
Why the vitamin D deficiency?
Few foods contain this macronutrient essential to maintaining strong bone health, heart function, immune system, and brain development, making it challenging to eat a vitamin D rich diet.
Most of the dietary sources of vitamin D are animal-based, which makes eating enough vegan foods with vitamin D a seemingly impossible task.
But if you eat plant-based, worry not! There are still some great ways to source vitamin D naturally, and you can round out as needed with a vegan vitamin D supplement.
Read all about the loads of good this nutrient does for us and the very best vegan foods to keep your vitamin D levels in the healthy range below!
Why Do You Need Vitamin D?
Vitamin D primarily plays a vital role in healthy bone maintenance – with chronically low vitamin D, our bones can become weak and brittle.
Studies link Vitamin D deficiency to immune function, and a lack of vitamin D correlates with increased autoimmune issues and a bigger risk of infection.
If our body makes vitamin D, why do we need more?
Our bodies indeed synthesize vitamin D from exposure to sunlight. The National Institute of Health claims that 5-30 minutes of direct exposure of the arms, legs, back, or face twice per week is enough to generate an ample supply of vitamin D for our bodies.
Climate and geographical location are factors in vitamin D synthesis – season, time of day, and smog all affect our skin's ability to absorb the crucial rays.
In climates that experience cool winters, it can be challenging to get enough sun. In warm, sunny temperatures, unprotected sun exposure is a more significant risk factor for skin cancer.
Certain Groups Need More Vitamin D
Certain groups of the population are at an increased risk for vitamin D deficiency as their bodies naturally don't absorb it well.
If you belong to any of the groups below, it's even more essential to supplement with some vegan foods high in vitamin D. These groups include:
- Those with darker skin tones
- Those with limited sun exposure
- Those with a body mass index of 30 or more
- Older adults and breastfed babies
Health Benefits of Vitamin D
We've touched on why vitamin D is crucial for your body's best development. Here's the lowdown on precisely what vitamin D can do for you:
- Promotes healthy bones and joints. Vitamin D works to help our bodies absorb nutrients like calcium and phosphorus, which in turn keeps calcium in our bones and blood for a strong thick skeleton, even as we age.
- Aids immune function. Vitamin D supports healthy immune system function, which fights off foreign bacterial and viral invaders that can make us sick. Vitamin D deficiency may increase the risk of developing autoimmune disorders in which your body gets confused and starts to attack its healthy cells along with the invading ones.
- Helps stabilize mood. While there are plenty of mental and physical factors that create anxiety and mood disorders, people with these disorders tend to have deficient vitamin D levels. Supplementation along with other therapies may help support better mood.
4 Essential Vegan Sources of Vitamin D
We have to say that mushrooms are one of the strangest things to come from the natural world – just like humans, these fungi make vitamin D when exposed to UV light. Are we more similar to a mushroom than we thought? (Probably not.)
Wild mushrooms and artificially exposed shrooms contain anywhere between 150 to 1,130 IU (international unit) per 3.5 oz portion.
The best part is that the vegan vitamin D3 in mushrooms seems to be very shelf-stable, which means more going into your system with every bite while our bodies readily absorb this particular source well. It's a double win!
#2: Fruits and Vegetables
There are plenty of fruits and vegetables with vitamin D that can boost your daily intake. Try to include these foods into your meals as often as possible:
- Sweet potatoes
- Sweet bell peppers
All I ever want is one more reason to eat one of my favorite vegan fat sources, fresh avocado, all day long!
#3: Fortified Plant-Based Products
While there are a few plant-based options of naturally rich vitamin D food, manufacturers often fortify vegan products with extra vitamin D.
- Non-dairy plant milk like rice, hemp, soy, oat, or almond milk usually contains as much added vitamin D as in cow's milk, with up to 100 IU in each cup.
- Non-dairy yogurts with a coconut or soy base contain around 50 IU in a 3.5 oz serving.
- Fortified tofu usually contains 100 IU per 3.5 oz portion.
- Oatmeal and other vegan cereals often contain around 120 IU per ½ cup serving.
Read your product labels closely, as these vitamin D levels vary from brand to brand.
#4: Vitamin D Supplements
While it's better to use real food sources for nutrients whenever possible for maximum absorption, a supplemental pill with vitamin D for vegan dieters can be helpful to round out your supply.
When deciding on the right supplement for your diet, there are two forms of vitamin D to consider:
- Vitamin D2 generally comes from yeast or mushrooms
- Vitamin D3 usually comes from sheep's wool or fish oil, though some vitamin D3 vegan sources exist, like lichen
Read the supplements' labels closely to ensure that whichever supplement you get is coming from a vegan source.
While D3 may be more effectively absorbed than vitamin D2, the advantage doesn't seem significant, so get whichever supplement is most convenient for you.
Vitamin D is fat-soluble, so you can increase absorption rates by taking the supplement with a fatty meal.
Daily Dosage: How Much Vitamin D Do You Need?
If you choose to use vitamin D supplements, stick within the Recommended Daily Intake of 400-800 IU.
Most adults need around 600 IU of vitamin D each day, but there is an upward trend for people to take much higher doses, up to 10,000 IU per day in more recent years.
One study showed that increasing the daily dose of vitamin D didn't improve vitamin D levels any better than 400 IU. In fact, bone density (related to vitamin D levels) slightly decreased in those taking higher doses.
Taking high doses of vitamin D is unnecessarily expensive and potentially dangerous for your body.
Unlike other vitamins, our bodies can't flush excess vitamin D from the system through our urine – if we “overdose” on vitamin D for an extended time, it can build up in our systems and cause vitamin D toxicity.
Watch out for these symptoms of vitamin D toxicity:
- Confusion and difficulty concentrating
- Depression and mood disruption
- Abdominal pain and vomiting
- High blood pressure and hearing loss
- Kidney failure and coma (in extreme cases)
Final Note: The Best Vitamin D Foods
Vegan dieters don't have to live in a world of hurt with weak bones and vitamin D deficiency! You just need to include many of the vegan sources above into your diet and round out your vitamin D supply with a good-quality vegan supplement of vitamin D2 and D3 as necessary.
Don't fall for the hyped-up trends to mess around with increasing dosage beyond the RDI, as vitamin D toxicity is a problematic issue that can arise – and from all of the science we see, upping your dose is useless.
We hope you reap the many benefits of this supernutrient: healthy bones, a robust immune system, and a stable mood!