It’s that time of the year, folks.

By Betty Gold
January 31, 2020

The end of January means we’re officially knee-deep in winter weather, which for many of us translates to snow flurries, sub-zero temperatures, and a decided lack of sunshine. And whether your doctor recommended it or those gray skies have you wondering whether it’s time to step up your vitamin D game, you’re not alone.  

Vitamin D is a nutrient essential for your wellbeing. It’s connected to so many different processes in the body related to bones, inflammation, sleep, immunity, heart health, cognition and brain health, and fertility, says Alexandra Lewis, RD, LDN, a dietician for Baze.

Foods with vitamin D

The Institute of Medicine recommends that most adults consume between 600 to 800 IU per day, which is the Recommended Dietary Allowance, or RDA. And though fatty fish (including salmon, sardines, tuna, and mackerel), egg yolks, cheese, shiitake mushrooms, and fortified foods, like milk or orange juice, are all good sources of vitamin D, many of us still aren’t meeting the recommended amount.

“An issue for some of us is that there aren’t tons of foods that naturally contain vitamin D,” says Lewis. “To put this into perspective, 3 ounces of salmon contains 447 IU, a cup of milk contains 124 IU, and an egg contains 41 IU. Clearly, it’s not easy to reach the 600-800 IU recommendation every day, and most Americans do not get enough vitamin D through food alone." Studies have shown that the average American consumes at most 276 to 288 IU per day (dependent on age).

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Sunlight as a source

But UV light from the sun also contributes to some of our vitamin D needs, as UV light starts the process to convert inactive compounds into active vitamin D. “Some research has shown that going out into the sun for five to 30 minutes daily and letting the sun hit your arms, legs, face, and back can potentially be enough to meet your daily vitamin D needs," explains Lewis. "But cloud cover, sunscreen, clothing choices, time spent outside, time of day, latitude, and skin color and pigmentation are just a few of the factors that play into this equation." Take note: the sun is at its highest point at noon when its UVB rays are most intense. This means you need less time in the sun to make sufficient vitamin D if you expose yourself as close to 12 p.m. as possible. “However, with the dangers of prolonged UV exposure over the course of each day and over the course of your lifetime, I would not recommend putting all your eggs in that basket,” adds Lewis.

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Vitamin D deficiency

Alas, it’s fairly common for people to consider a vitamin D supplement to meet their needs. The National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) reports that 37 percent of Americans studied have taken a vitamin D supplement. Why? Because, according to Lewis, long-term vitamin D deficiency can lead to osteomalacia (softening of the bones), which can cause symptoms of bone pain and muscle weakness. “The issue with these symptoms is they can be due to many different factors and/or can go unnoticed and undetected for a long period of time,” she adds. “Insufficient vitamin D intake is also associated with osteoporosis, cardiovascular disease, cognitive decline, diabetes, and various cancers.”

But figuring out your body’s personal needs is tricky. “What is considered an optimal level of vitamin D is something of a controversy. Some medical institutions think vitamin D deficiencies have been overestimated, while others feel they’ve been underestimated when it comes to the American population," Lewis says. 

The bottom line

According to Lewis, we should all be adding more vitamin D-rich foods to our diets. But if you find you're still deficient, you may want to consider a vitamin D supplement, especially in winter months. “However, I would not supplement blindly, as there are a wide range of doses to choose from and the dose should be dependent on your baseline level, and how far away you are from the normal blood level range.”

Of course, the best starting place is getting a vitamin D test done to assess your baseline level prior to taking a supplement. This is especially helpful to do in the wintertime when levels tend to be lowest for Americans. Depending on your medical history and vitamin D levels in your blood, your doctor may recommend a vitamin D supplement. The dose you’ll need to maintain healthy blood levels depends on your diet, genetics, body size, and additional lifestyle factors.

4 simple strategies to get more vitamin D in your diet

  • Eat fatty fish at least two to three times per week. This is recommended by the American Heart Association for cardiovascular health particularly because of the omega-3s, but it’s also a great strategy for your vitamin D needs. Swordfish, salmon, tuna, mackerel, and shrimp are your best bets.
  • Fatty fish will get you the most bang for your buck, but milk is another decent option: almost all dairy milk is fortified with vitamin D. If you’re choosing plant-based milks, make sure it’s fortified. (Most are nowadays).
  • Check your cereal label. Some are fortified with vitamin D, which can be helpful to choose.
  • Eat more mushrooms. They’re the only completely plant-based source of vitamin D.

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