Vitamin D has gotten a lot of buzz lately. And for good reason: Though the fat-soluble vitamin has long been associated with bone health because it helps the body absorb calcium and has been shown to protect older adults from osteoporosis, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), it turns out those aren’t the only health benefits.
Vitamin D is increasingly being linked to immunity and can also help protect against major diseases. According to an April 2014 study published in the BMJ, adults with low levels of vitamin D had a 35 percent increased risk of dying from heart disease and a 14 percent greater likelihood of dying from cancer. Another analysis, of more than 26,000 people, also published in June 2014 in the BMJ, found that people who don’t get enough vitamin D are at an increased risk of dying early.
But exactly how much of the important nutrient should you be getting on a daily basis anyway? James Fleet, PhD, a professor in the department of nutrition science at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, says most adults need about 600 international units (IU) of vitamin D a day (that number increases to 800 IU once you hit age 70, according to the NIH).
If your levels are low, you may feel weak, tired, and gloomy in general. Those symptoms can be associated with many different health issues (and sometimes even just a bad night’s sleep!), so it’s tough to know if a vitamin D deficiency is to blame unless your doctor administers a blood test.
Luckily, there are a few simple ways to get your fill. “Vitamin D is so important that our bodies have figured out a way to make it from sunlight,” Fleet says. When the sun’s ultraviolet B rays hit the skin, the body begins vitamin D synthesis.
Research suggests that stepping out in the sun (without sunscreen) twice a week for 5 to 30 minutes, depending on the individual, between the hours of 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. should do the trick and help you reach sufficient vitamin D levels. But you may live in a cloudy climate or may be wary of exposing your skin to the sun without protection. Or maybe you’re at risk of being deficient, if you’re elderly, obese, have dark skin, or don’t have sufficient access to sun exposure. Even the time of year can make a difference: In most of the United States, UVB rays aren’t present during the winter months, so the skin can’t make vitamin D. That’s when infusing your diet with vitamin D–rich foods can help.
Here are 10 foods to add to the menu for an extra dose of the sunshine vitamin.
1. Sockeye Salmon Is a Lean Source of Protein
Not only is salmon a great option if you’re looking for lean protein to add to your diet, but it’s also rich in the sunshine vitamin. According to the Office of Dietary Supplements, a division of the NIH, 3 ounces (oz) of cooked sockeye salmon offers about 447 IU of vitamin D. Add it to your dinner rotation with this flavorful Dijon-based recipe. Other cold-water fatty fish, like mackerel, sardines, and swordfish, also have similarly high levels of vitamin D, adds Kelly Pritchett, PhD, an assistant professor of sports nutrition, clinical nutrition, and eating disorders at Central Washington University in Ellensburg.
2. Canned Tuna for More Than 25 Percent of Your Daily Goal
Three oz of canned tuna in water contains 154 IU of vitamin D. The affordable cupboard staple is great for easy lunches like a classic tuna sandwich or tuna salad. Put a healthy twist on the deli favorite with this artichoke and ripe-olive tuna salad recipe. Or include it on your dinner plate with a delicious comfort-food meal like this healthy tuna casserole with rigatoni.
3. Mushrooms for a Versatile Vitamin D Punch
While mushrooms don’t naturally offer up a high amount of vitamin D, some are treated with UV light, providing a larger dose of the nutrient as a result, Fleet says. The vitamin D amounts will vary depending on the amount of UV light, according to the Agricultural Research Service of the USDA. A serving could offer between 400 and 700 IU. “You can find high-vitamin D mushrooms,” says Fleet, but you have to read the labels. Pritchett recommends adding sautéed mushrooms to your eggs or fish for a meal even richer in vitamin D. Or make a more substantial mushroom dish, such as these veggie-stuffed portobellos.
4. Fortified Milk for Vitamin D Plus Calcium
In addition to being an excellent source of calcium, a cup (8 fluid ounces [fl oz]) of milk offers between 115 and 124 IU of vitamin D. Be sure to check the label of your favorite brand for the exact amount. Fortified plant-based milks, such as soy, can also offer some vitamin D, Pritchett adds. Enjoy a cold 8 oz glass of your preferred fortified milk straight up, blend it into a smoothie, or use it to whip up your choice coffee drink.
5. Fortified Orange Juice for a Healthy Start to the Day
6. Fortified Yogurt for a Gut-Healthy Snack
Yogurt is a convenient, tasty snack — and it’s healthy, too. It’s an excellent source of good-for-the-gut probiotics, and reaching for a fortified variety will knock off between 10 and 20 percent of your daily requirement of vitamin D (which is currently 600 IU for adults), depending on the brand. Many fortified varieties are flavored; some brands pack a hefty dose of sugar, so be sure to read labels and be conscious of ingredients. Try cooking a meal with yogurt for a vitamin D–enhanced entrée: This Middle Eastern–style chopped vegetable salad includes greens, herbs, and grains also uses one cup of plain yogurt and offers a cooling alternative to a hot dish.
7. Fortified Cereal and Oatmeal for a Hit of Fiber
A packet of unsweetened, fortified oatmeal will add a solid dose of vitamin D to your diet. Ready-to-eat fortified cereal typically gives you 40 IU of vitamin D per serving, but may offer more if you choose a more heavily fortified cereal, like Raisin Bran, which offers 91 IU per cup. Fortified cereal can be a solid base for a nutrient-rich, high-fiber meal — especially if you add fortified low-fat or fat-free milk to your bowl for an extra 60 IU per half cup. Or you can be more adventurous and make a breakfast cookie that includes both fortified cereal and vitamin D–fortified margarine.
8. Enjoy Swordfish — in Moderation
Swordfish has a whopping 566 IU in a 3 oz serving — that’s 94 percent of your daily goal! Try it in a Cuban-style swordfish sandwich topped with tomato salsa. Even though you’ll be able to just about meet your vitamin D goals in one meal, avoid eating swordfish every day — especially if you’re pregnant — since the fish is known to be high in mercury.
9. Eggs for Protein and Immunity-Boosting Benefits
Egg yolks have gotten a bad rap because eating too many of them was thought to lead to high levels of “bad” LDL cholesterol. But skipping them in favor of egg whites means you’ll miss out on some of the protein and several minerals, such as zinc and selenium, in yolks that play a role in boosting your immune system. And you’ll also miss out on vitamin D. One egg yolk has 41 IU, or 10 percent of your daily value.
10. Sardines for Calcium, Omega-3s, and Protein
Buying fresh fish can be pricey. If that’s holding you back, give sardines a try. They’re more affordable and are high in protein, heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids, calcium, and vitamin D. Two sardines from a can offer 46 IU of the vitamin, or 8 percent of your daily value. The underrated fish works well on top of salads as well as in pasta sauces and stews.