Having optimal levels of vitamin D is known to prevent many health conditions.  Over the past several years, vitamin D research has shown that vitamin D boosts the immune system, among other amazing health benefits.  But what are the best sources of vitamin D?  Read this post to find out the best food sources as well as the functions of vitamin D, recommended daily intakes, and more!

What Does Vitamin D Do?

Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin essential for building bone by helping the body absorb calcium and phosphorus.  Several studies have shown a link between low vitamin D levels and increased risk of fractures in older adults.  Vitamin D supplementation may prevent this from happening. Vitamin D can also help increase muscle growth which can also help prevent falls in older adults.

Also, it may help to reduce infections.  Adults are more likely to have a cold or upper respiratory infection if they have low vitamin D levels.  Low vitamin D levels were also seen in positive COVID-19 cases. 

Amount of Vitamin D Needed

Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) for vitamin D:

  • For adults 19-69 years old, 600 IU per day
  • For adults 70 and older, it is 800 IU per day. 

The maximum daily intake or Tolerable Upper Intake Level is 4000 IU per day, which is the maximum amount that will not cause harmful effects.


What Happens if Your Vitamin D is Low?

Most people do not reach the RDA for vitamin D, and as a clinical dietitian, it is common for me to see many people with low vitamin D blood levels. For example, one study found that the average intake of vitamin D from food was 204 IU in men, 168 IU in women, and 196 IU in children.

And if you live in a cold-weather climate part of the year, this can affect the amount of vitamin D you get from sunlight as well. For example, vitamin D deficiency is common in cities like Chicago or other northern places worldwide, such as Canada and Scandinavian countries like Sweden, where there is a long winter and not much exposure to the sun.  And people with dark skin tend to have lower vitamin D levels due to the skin’s limited ability to produce vitamin D from sunlight.

In addition to inadequate sunlight, you can be at risk for a vitamin D deficiency if you are not getting enough vitamin D from foods or supplements, have an inflammatory bowel disease, or have a metabolic need for more vitamin D.  Older adults, vegetarians, vegans, and people who are lactose intolerant may also be at increased risk for vitamin D deficiency. 

Normal range for Vitamin D

The normal range for vitamin D is between 20 and 40 ng/mL. But depending on the laboratory, the level may be between 30 and 50 ng/mL.

If your vitamin D level is low, this can result in weak and softened bones, a condition called Osteomalacia.  This can be reversed with vitamin D supplementation.  Osteoporosis is an irreversible condition in which the bones are brittle and porous.

If your vitamin D levels are too high, this is usually from an overdose in vitamin D supplements.  So, it is important not to take too much, which is over 4000 IU, unless you are under the supervision of your physician. High vitamin D levels can cause loss of appetite, weight loss, irregular heartbeat, and a hardening of blood vessels and tissues from high calcium levels.


12 Best Sources of Vitamin D

Sunlight

It is an interesting fact that the sun and not food is the best source of vitamin D!  The cholesterol in our skin cells converts the ultraviolet B rays from the sun to vitamin D. One study found that 30 minutes of exposure to the midday summer sun is similar to 10,000 to 20,000 IU of vitamin D. So when the sun is at the highest point in the sky at midday, it may be the safest time to be exposed to the sun rather than in the afternoon.

best sources of vitamin D, sun shining through the trees

Of course, it is important to remember that too much exposure to the sun can be unhealthy due to risks such as sunburns, eye damage, aging skin, heatstroke, and skin cancer. Therefore, applying sunscreen after 10-30 minutes of unprotected sun exposure is recommended to avoid these harmful side effects.  And also, use your best judgment when it comes to your skin’s sensitivity to the sun. For example, people with darker skin have more melanin which protects them from UV rays compared to lighter-skinned people. 

Salmon

Fatty fish such as salmon is a great source of vitamin D.  Wild salmon has more vitamin D than farmed.  Wild salmon has 988 IU of vitamin D in a 3.5-ounce serving, compared to about 250 IU in farmed salmon.

best sources of vitamin D. raw salmon on a plate with sliced lemons

Cod liver oil

Cod liver oil can be a great way to supplement vitamin D if you are not a fan of eating fish.  One teaspoon has 448 IU in 1 teaspoon, 56% of the Daily Value (DV). Cod liver oil is also a great source of omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin A.

Tuna fish

Canned tuna makes a great way to get your vitamin D.  Adding canned tuna to salads or tuna salad sandwiches can give you up to 34% of the DV from a 3.5-ounce serving.  Canned light tuna is 268 IU of vitamin D! It is important to limit canned tuna to 6 ounces or less per week due to the toxin methylmercury.

Herring

Another excellent source of vitamin D is herring.  Herring can be eaten fresh or pickled.  Fresh herring provides 216 IU in a 3.5-ounce serving, and pickled herring provides 112 IU of vitamin D. 

Sardines

Canned sardines have 177 IU of vitamin D in one can.  While sardines are not as popular in the United States as in other countries, they should be! They are packed with nutrients! In addition to vitamin D, sardines are a great source of calcium, omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin B-12, and protein. 

Dairy and plant based milk alternatives fortified with vitamin D

Vitamin D is added to milk and plant-based milk, this process is called fortification.  Cow’s milk is naturally a good source of calcium, and the addition of vitamin D works together with calcium to improve bone health.  Most milk is fortified with vitamin D3 and has between 100-150 IU in whole milk. 

best sources of vitamin D, carafe of mik and smoothie made with raspberries topped with nuts

Over the years, the availability of plant-based milk alternatives has dramatically increased.  From options such as soy milk, rice, almond, oat, and many other varieties of plant-based milk, they are beneficial for people with allergies, dietary restrictions, lactose intolerance, or prefer the taste over cow’s milk. For example, I enjoy adding almond or oat milk to my coffee. It tastes delicious!

Plant-based milk is fortified with nutrients such as calcium and vitamin D. The amount of vitamin D in plant-based milk varies depending on the brand. The top brands of plant-based milk contain between 15-25% of the DV for vitamin D or 100-144 IU of vitamin D, making them one of the best sources of vitamin D for vegetarians and vegans.

Egg yolk

While egg yolks have been deemed unhealthy due to cholesterol, newer research has proven that egg yolks have many health benefits and that the cholesterol content does not have a negative effect.  One of those health benefits of egg yolks is vitamin D.  One egg yolk contains 37 IU of vitamin D3!  So, having eggs at breakfast or as a snack can be a great way to boost your vitamin D intake.

best sources of vitamin D, poached eggs on top of toast and avocados

Mushrooms

Mushrooms are another of the best vitamin D sources for vegetarians and vegans since many of the vitamin D sources are from fish, dairy, and eggs.  Wild mushrooms also synthesize vitamin D from UV light, just like humans. As a result, wild mushrooms are an excellent source of vitamin D2 with up to 2300 IU in 3.5 ounces! Wow! Unfortunately, commercially grown mushrooms have minimal vitamin D because they are grown in the dark.  But some are treated with UV light, and these can have between 130 to 450 IU in 3.5 ounces.

best sources of vitamin D, mushrooms on wooden cutting board

Orange juice

While oranges do not naturally contain vitamin D, there are orange juices that have been fortified with vitamin D, making them another great source of vitamin D for vegetarians. However, it is fortified with vitamin D3, an animal source of vitamin D, making it unsuitable for vegans. In addition, not all orange juice is fortified, so check the label to make sure you are getting orange juice that contains vitamin D. 

best sources of vitamin d, glass of orange juice with straw

Liver

Beef liver may not be one of the most popular foods, but it contains many healthy nutrients, including vitamin D!  Beef liver contains 42 IU of vitamin D in a 3-ounce cooked portion.

Fortified cereals

Ready-to-eat cereals are fortified with vitamin D, making them another great vitamin D source for vegetarians and vegans.  These cereals are fortified with up to 80 IU of vitamin D! Of course, adding milk or plant-based milk to your cereal boosts the vitamin content to over 180 IU of vitamin D, making it a great breakfast or snack.


Which are the Best Vitamin D Supplements?

There are two types of vitamin D supplements, vitamin D2 and vitamin D3.  Vitamin D2 is made from plants, and vitamin D3 is made from animal sources.  So if you are vegetarian or vegan, then a vitamin D2 supplement, which is called ergocalciferol, is best for you. 

However, if you are not vegetarian or vegan, some studies show that vitamin D3 is better at raising vitamin D3 blood levels than vitamin D2.  Therefore, you may want to choose vitamin D3 or cholecalciferol if you do not avoid animal products.  Vitamin D3 is the same form of vitamin D that human bodies make when we are in sunlight. 

Conclusion

Vitamin D is an amazing nutrient that is vital for optimal health.  Getting adequate exposure to sunlight and eating food sources high in vitamin D such as fatty fish, dairy and plant-based milk, egg yolks, and mushrooms will ensure you are getting enough vitamin D.  Vitamin D supplements can be a way to ensure you are getting enough vitamin D if you are already deficient, live in a cold climate, or are unable to meet the daily requirements through the foods that you eat.

What are your favorite vitamin D sources? Be sure to leave your answer in the comments!

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Dietitian, food lover, and world traveler! Veronica has been a registered dietitian for over 18 years, specializing in clinical and community nutrition. She enjoys wellness, trying new foods, and exploring the globe to learn about different cultures.