(Updated October 2019). Veganism is rising in popularity around the world, as more and more people seek out a more ethical and environmentally friendly lifestyle. For some, it can be a challenge at first to figure out which plant-based foods to eat to get all of the vital vitamins and minerals.
Vitamin D is one of those important nutrients, and – according to the experts – it’s entirely possible to get enough of it on a plant-based diet if you are conscious of your lifestyle and the food you eat.
We’ve put together a comprehensive guide on vitamin D to answer your burning questions – from why you need it, to how much you need, to where you can get it from.
Why Do You Need Vitamin D?
Vitamin D helps you to absorb calcium, magnesium, and phosphate, the nutrients that keep your bones, teeth, and muscles healthy.
According to health and herbal remedy website Avogel, it is also thought by some that vitamin D can help your body in other ways, improving brain development, as well as muscle and heart function, and even the function of your immune system.
How Much Vitamin D Do You Need?
How much vitamin D you need depends on age; babies need around eight and a half to 10 micrograms per day, whereas adults and children from the age of one need 10 micrograms each day, according to the NHS.
What Happens if You Don’t Get Enough Vitamin D?
According to the NHS, one in five people in the UK suffers from low vitamin D levels, which can cause fatigue, depression, and muscle pain, amongst other symptoms. However, having low levels of vitamin D is not the same as being completely deficient, which is more serious.
If children do not get enough vitamin D they can develop rickets, a painful bone disorder. Children who suffer from the condition may have weak bones, stunted growth, or even deformities.
Healthline notes, “A vitamin D deficiency makes it difficult for your body to maintain sufficient levels of calcium and phosphate. When this occurs, your body produces hormones that cause calcium and phosphate to be released from your bones. When your bones lack these minerals, they become weak and soft.”
Rickets is most common in children aged between 6 and 36 months of age and symptoms include low mood, digestive problems, and bowed legs when they begin to walk. Rickets was much more common during the industrial revolution, however, according to Avogel it’s on the rise again, as children now spend more time playing inside, away from the sun, than outside.
For adults, the softening of the bones caused by a vitamin D deficiency is known as osteomalacia. It is similar to rickets and can be treated with supplements, according to to the NHS. Symptoms include partial bone fractures, muscle weakness, and general pain felt in the bones.
Is it Possible to Get Enough Vitamin D on a Vegan Diet?
According to certified clinical and integrative nutritionist Sunny Brigham, whose job is to help people transition to a plant-based lifestyle, it’s not possible to get enough vitamin D on a plant-based diet. But this isn’t exclusive to vegans. For meat-eaters too, its hard to get enough vitamin D, Brigham notes, and this is why plant-based vitamin D supplements are the way forward for her.
But Brigham’s view isn’t shared by everyone. Chirag Shah MD, the co-founder of Accesa Labs, which offers vitamin D testing, maintains it is possible to get enough Vitamin D on a plant-based diet – if you eat enough mushrooms.
Shah explained to LIVEKINDLY, “Mushrooms are thought to make vitamin D from a molecule called provitamin D2 with the help of the sun.” She added, however, that “people who are interested in tracking their vitamin D levels should consider getting a vitamin D blood test before adding some mushrooms to their diet.”
David Barbour, the co-founder of wellness company Vivio Life Sciences, agrees with Shah. “There are two main versions of vitamin D; D2 and D3 is in animals. Living on a plant-based diet you should you eat mushrooms (UV light exposed mushrooms), fortified foods, and/or supplements.”
Can You Take Too Much Vitamin D?
A deficiency in vitamin D can negatively impact your health, but taking too much can be bad for your body too. According to Healthline, if you take too much vitamin D, this can cause some harmful side effects.
Overcompensating and taking too many supplements could cause intoxication, Healthline states. It explains, “Vitamin D intoxication occurs when blood levels rise above 150 ng/ml (375 nmol/l). Because the vitamin is stored in body fat and released into the bloodstream slowly, the effects of toxicity may last for several months after you stop taking supplements.”
One potential side effect of too much vitamin D is elevated calcium levels in the blood, which could cause you to suffer from a variety of unpleasant symptoms, including stomach pain, nausea, or excessive thirst.
Further, taking enough vitamin D is essential for bone health, but taking too much could be detrimental to your bones. According to Healthline, high levels could interfere with vitamin K2 activity and even cause bone loss.
Although taking too much vitamin D is something you need to be aware of, it is worth noting that it is extremely rare to suffer from vitamin D intoxication. If you manage your meals and lifestyle well, it is perfectly possible to get just the right amount of vitamin D from a vegan diet.
Vitamin D and Cancer
According to NutritionFacts.org founder Dr. Michael Greger, vitamin D may also reduce cancer-related deaths. “Higher blood levels of vitamin D were associated with lower mortality of patients with colorectal cancer,” he wrote on his website noting the mortality rate dropped by nearly half. “And, the higher the vitamin D levels, the lower the death rate appeared to fall.”
While Dr. Greger points to a number of factors, he says new randomized controlled trials point to higher vitamin D levels with a reduced risk.
“Researchers suggest getting blood levels up to at least about 75 nanomoles per liter,” he says. “These levels are not reached by as many as three-quarters of women with breast cancer nor achieved by a striking 97 percent of colon cancer patients.”
“Getting up to these kinds of levels—75 or, perhaps even better, 100 nanomoles—might require about 2000 to 4000 IU of vitamin D a day, levels of intake for which there appear to be no credible evidence of harm. Regardless of what the exact level is, the findings of these kinds of studies may have a profound influence on future cancer treatment.”
What Are Plant-Based Sources of Vitamin D?
Portobello, maitake, morel, button, and shiitake are thought to be the best kinds of mushrooms to source vitamin D from. To maximize the amount of vitamin D they contain, you could even place them in sunlight. According to mushroom business Fungi Perfecti, just like our skin, even sliced or dry mushrooms will soar in vitamin D levels when placed in direct sunlight.
The business even conducted an experiment on their own mushrooms to prove the theory. They used three sets of mushrooms in the test; the first set were grown and dried inside, the second were dried outside with their gills facing down away from the sun, and the third set of mushrooms were dried outside for 2 days, for 6 hours a day with gills facing up. It was the final set that contained the most vitamin D, soaring from 100 IU per 100 grams, to nearly 46,000 IU per 100 grams. When tested a year after the exposure, they still contained significant levels of vitamin D.
As well as vitamin D, mushrooms contain a multitude of health benefits, notes Fungi Perfecti. The business notes, “Mushrooms have many helpful nutrients, including beta-glucans for immune enhancement, ergothioneine for antioxidative potentiation, nerve growth stimulators for helping brain function, and antimicrobial compounds for limiting viruses.“
2. Fortified Vegan Milk
Fortified vegan milks – like coconut, almond, and soy – can contain high levels of vitamin D. Check the label of your regular nondairy milk to be sure it contains enough vitamin D, if not, you can switch to a new one! Alpro milks contain a number of vitamins and minerals, including D and B12. They also contain calcium, vitamin E, and B2.
Oatly’s vegan oat milk in original, chilled, barista, and chocolate flavors are also fortified with vitamin D, according to the brand. Ripple is another vegan milk brand which has products fortified with substantial amounts of vitamin D. The brand notes, “Each serving of [Ripple] has 8g of protein, 50% more calcium than 2% dairy milk, more vitamin D and iron and contains only [half] the sugar of 2% dairy milk.”
Tofu is a good source of a number of vitamins and minerals, including vitamin D. The good thing about tofu is its versatility. You can use it in a variety of dishes at different times of the day. Consider scrambling it and having it on toast for breakfast, or you could make a tofu Thai green curry for lunch or a breaded tofu burger for dinner.
4. Orange Juice
Drinking orange juice is a good way to keep your vitamin D levels up. One study – conducted at the Boston University School of Medicine – discovered that participants who took supplements and those who drunk orange juice fortified with 1,000 IU of vitamin D had the same risen levels of the vitamin by the end of the experiment. Tropicana is just one example of a brand that offers fortified orange juice, its Tropicana Pure Premium variety also contains vitamin C, potassium, calcium, and folic acid.
If you’re struggling to get enough vitamin D, consider taking a supplement. Fortunately, there are many vegan supplements on the market. Major UK health food chain Holland & Barrett offers mushroom vitamin D supplements. It also offers a multivitamin, packed with D, as well as E, C, A, B1, B6, and B12. Mykind Organics, founded by vegan actor Alicia Silverstone, also offers a plant-based vitamin D supplement in chewy, tablet, and spray varieties.
Mykind Organics notes, “Our extended family of organic farmers provides the fresh fruits, vegetables, and herbs that make up mykind Organics’ personalized, whole food formulas.” It continues, “Each tablet or spray provides clean, whole food nutrition. In addition, mykind Organics is the first to utilize Clean Tablet Technology, our patent-pending process that uses only organic, whole food ingredients.”
Country Life also offers vegan Vitamin D supplements, as does new brand Future Kind. The company’s products even come in recycled packaging. According to co-founder Shaun Cunningham, “Future Kind is the first supplement to offer just the essentials, in the form and dose that’s ideal for vegans. It takes the guesswork out of ensuring that you’re getting what you need.”
6. The Sun
Getting enough sunlight is also essential for keeping your vitamin D levels up. “When your skin is exposed to Ultraviolet B (UVB) rays your skin absorbs it and with precursors in the skin it makes vitamin D3, this is the reason why animal sources of the vitamin provide the D3 version,” said Barbour.
However, too much sunlight can be dangerous for your skin and your overall health – putting you at risk of sunstroke, exhaustion, or even skin cancer – so it is important to regulate the amount of exposure you have. Barbour explained, “You must practice safe and limited sun exposure while the sun is high in the sky, not when your shadow is longer/taller than you are. I suggest noon, no matter where you are this should be fine. Keep in mind, do not get sunburns or excessive exposure, this can be counterproductive.”
“Eat UV exposed mushrooms, enough sunlight, and if you really think you need more or live in a dark/cold place you can supplement vitamin D or buy fortified foods.“