We all know that we need to get our vitamins, but why exactly are they so important? Vitamins are substances that your body needs to function properly, usually in pretty small amounts. Most vitamins can’t be made in our body, so we have to get them from food. The one exception? Vitamin D. Unlike other vitamins, our body can make vitamin D. Let’s take a closer look at this fat-soluble vitamin.

What is vitamin D?

Vitamin D is one of the fat-soluble vitamins (along with vitamins A, E and K). Fat soluble vitamins are absorbed with the help of fats in food. They are then stored in the fatty tissues in our body and in the liver. Fat-soluble vitamins are easier to store than water-soluble vitamins, so they can stay stored in our bodies for much longer.

What does vitamin D do?

Vitamin D plays an important role in bone health, working together with calcium and phosphorus to develop and build strong bones and prevent osteoporosis. Even if you eat enough calcium, you can’t absorb it properly without enough vitamin D. Vitamin D also helps muscles to move and our nervous system to carry messages. Our immune system needs vitamin D in order to fight off infections and viruses.

How much vitamin D do I need?

For children, teens and adults, 600 IU of vitamin D per day is recommended. For those over 71 years of age, that number increases to 800 IU per day. Children under the age of 1 need slightly less.

How do we get vitamin D?

While most vitamins need to be gotten through food, vitamin D can actually be made within the body. We create vitamin D when our skin is exposed to sunlight. The sun is an excellent way to get vitamin D, however it is hard to quantify how much vitamin D you get. Plus, those of us living above a certain latitude (i.e. north of Virginia on the east coast and north of mid-California on the west coast) have many months out of the year where we don’t get much sunlight. In addition, the risk of skin cancer may outweigh the benefits.

What foods contain vitamin D?

Very few foods are a natural source of vitamin D, so many foods are now fortified with vitamin D. Here are the top five food sources of natural and added vitamin D.

  1. Fish Oil – the best natural source of vitamin D, cod liver oil contains about 427 IU per teaspoon.
  2. Fatty Fish – if you’re not into swallowing fishy-tasting oil, fatty fish and seafood are also a good source of vitamin D. Try salmon, mackerel, whitefish, trout, herring, sardines and tuna. About 2.5 ounces of fatty fish contains anywhere from 100 to 500 IU of vitamin D.
  3. Egg Yolks – here is another benefit to eating the yolks: natural vitamin D! Two egg yolks contain approximately 60-90 IU of vitamin D.
  4. Mushrooms  all mushrooms contain small amounts of vitamin D, but, similar to humans, mushrooms naturally produce vitamin D when they are exposed to sunlight. Some mushroom growers use a sunlamp to help convert ergosterol, a plant sterol found in mushrooms, into vitamin D2. Look for light-exposed or light-treated mushrooms, which can provide around 400 IU of vitamin D per serving.
  5. Fortified Foods and Beverages – several foods and beverages have vitamin D added, including orange juice, soy milk, cow’s milk, yogurt and cereal. Fortification can vary by brand, so be sure to check to nutrition facts and ingredients to see if vitamin D has been added.

While in most cases it’s best to get vitamins from real food, vitamin D may be the exception. Since so few foods contain vitamin D, many people fall short on meeting their needs, especially if they live in an area where they don’t get much sunlight. If you think you may need more vitamin D, consider talking to your healthcare provider about whether a vitamin D supplement is right for you.

Have a question about vitamin D? Share in the comments section below!

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