7 Foods High in Vitamin D to Add to Your Diet, According to Dietitians

Karla Walsh

7 Foods High in Vitamin D to Add to Your Diet, According to Dietitians

About 40% of Americans have a vitamin D deficiency, which can impact everything from immunity to energy levels. Learn why natural sources of vitamin D are so important, then stock up on these foods high in vitamin D to get closer to your daily dose.

Vitamin D, a fat-soluble vitamin, is one of the most essential micronutrients your body needs to perform at its peak. Yet vitamin D deficiency is surprisingly common, impacting more than 40% of the U.S. population, according to research published in the journal Cereus. Here, we’re diving into why vitamin D deficiency is so common, how it impacts the body, plus how to get vitamin D (including what foods have vitamin D) so you can avoid low vitamin D levels yourself.

What Does Vitamin D Do?

Vitamin D may help the body reduce risk chronic inflammation, it helps regulate cell growth, promotes brain development and health, and helps the body absorb calcium, keeping your skeleton stronger longer, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Office of Dietary Supplements.

“In terms of overall health, vitamin D is involved in bone health and appears to be helpful for those with depression,” explains Michelle Hyman, R.D., a registered dietitian at Simple Solutions Weight Loss. “Being deficient may be linked to a weakened immune system, possibly due to the body’s hampered ability to activate the T cells,” that help fight off foreign invaders.

Recently, we’re learning that vitamin D deficiency may be linked to more severe cases of COVID-19 and increased mortality from the virus, per preliminary research from Northwestern University scientists. While more research is needed, the study authors suggest that vitamin D deficiency might cause immune system cells called cytokines to drastically overreact, leading to harsher lung damage, more respiratory issues, and possibly death. They believe that adequate sources of vitamin D are necessary to support a strong immune system and prevent it from overcorrecting and potentially harming the body. 

Related: The 10 Best Immune-Boosting Foods to Help Combat Colds, Flu, and More

The immunity and vitamin D connection might be more simple, and definitely more universal, than its connection to coronavirus alone.

“Most people are familiar with vitamin D and how it’s associated with bone strength, but that’s just the beginning. Vitamin D is basically a messenger that helps facilitate healthy communication between the brain and the body,” says “Lauren Smith, R.D., a Philadelphia-based lead dietitian at Happy Strong Healthy. “That’s why Vitamin D is vital for immune health, because without a healthy link between the brain and the body we would not be able to communicate to our immune system that it needs to battle illnesses like viruses and bacteria.”

How to Get Vitamin D (Beyond Vitamin D Food Sources)

“Both sunlight and dietary sources of vitamin D can be used by the liver and kidney to make the active form our body needs,” Hyman says.

So how much vitamin D do we need each day? Adults should aim for 600 IU (15 mcg) per day, and only a few foods top that amount or come close to making a dent in your vitamin D needs.

“When exposed to sunlight your body actually absorbs it and converts it into Vitamin D,” Smith says. “However, this is with unprotected skin. If you are using sunscreen you may still need a supplement. And if you live in an area where you do not get sunshine all year round you are more at risk of vitamin D deficiency,” Smith says.

There are multiple factors to consider about how much sunlight we need, Hyman adds. Fair-skinned individuals are more efficient at synthesizing vitamin D from the sun than darker-skinned individuals. The time of day and intensity of the sun’s rays, your age, sunscreen application, the season, and how far you live from the equator also impact how much vitamin D your body can score from the sun. Unfortunately, as we age, we tend to have a more difficult time synthesizing vitamin D from sunlight.  

For that reason, getting outdoors and consuming foods that contain vitamin D is your best bet to getting your daily dose.

Related: Do Gummy Vitamins Actually Work? Here’s What Science Says

Hyman suggests getting your vitamin D levels tested once or twice each year through a blood test. “A blood level of 20 to 30 ng/dl is considered insufficient while less than 20 is deficient. Supplements provide varying amounts of vitamin D, and taking the highest available dose is not necessarily appropriate or beneficial for all. That’s why it’s best to have your blood drawn and discuss the results with your primary care provider,” she says. And always consult with your doctor before starting any new supplements.

Karla Conrad

What are the Best Sources of Vitamin D in Food?

While many foods have little to no vitamin D naturally, a few do. And other commonly-consumed products are fortified to become vitamin D-rich foods since so many Americans fall short. Add these foods that contain vitamin D to your next grocery shopping list.

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