The Vitamin D Playbook: Health Benefits, Food Sources & Daily Needs

Getting enough vitamin D is essential to overall health and wellness. But despite its laundry list of health benefits ranging from stronger bones to immune support, Americans are still not getting enough of the “Sunshine Vitamin.”

According to a study published by the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, about 3 out of 4 people are deficient in vitamin D. And that was before the global COVID-19 pandemic, which has only exacerbated the issue.

Why is Vitamin D Important?

Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin that functions as a steroid hormone and is crucial for immune function, bone mineralization and development, regulation of calcium and phosphorus homeostasis, appropriate endocrine activity and cell growth.

Needless to say, it’s important to get enough.

How to Get Enough Daily Vitamin D

Eat Foods Rich with Vitamin D

Fatty fish, like salmon, tuna, mackerel and fish liver oils are among the top-ranked sources of vitamin D. 3 ounces of cooked salmon provides 16.2 mcg (645 IU), and 1 tablespoon of cod liver oil provides 34 mcg (1,360 IU).

Beef liver, cheese and egg yolk contain vitamin D, as well, but in lower amounts. 3 ounces of braised beef liver contains 1 mcg (42 IU) and 1 ounce of cheddar cheese provides 0.3 mcg (12 IU). Beyond animal products, mushrooms also contain 9.2 mcg (366 IU) of vitamin D per ½ cup.

Milk containing fortified vitamin D

Since not many foods contain naturally-occurring vitamin-D, it’s often fortified into fat-rich foods. Milk, breakfast cereals, yogurts, margarine and orange juice are some of the most common vitamin D fortified foods and are considered good sources of vitamin D. [1]

Take Vitamin D Supplements

Most people are able to get enough daily vitamin D through direct sun exposure and vitamin-D-rich foods. However, if you don’t eat meat, fish or mushrooms, vitamin D supplements are an acceptable alternative.

For those looking to add more vitamin D into their lives, supplements can be found at most major grocery stores and drug stores. Going the supplement route also makes getting your daily intake easier, as you don’t have to calculate how much vitamin D you’re getting between your diet and time spent in the sun. Always remember to check with your doctor before taking any supplements and for appropriate dosage.

Vitamin D supplements are also helpful for those with pre-existing conditions that prevent them from efficiently absorbing nutrients such as liver disease, cystic fibrosis, celiac disease, Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis.

Spend Time in the Sun

That’s right — getting direct exposure to sunlight is another way to get more vitamin D. However, not all sun exposure is created equal. The amount of vitamin D you get depends on several variables, including the season, time of day, visibility, the amount of sunscreen you’re wearing and the amount of melanin in your skin.

Women getting her daily vitamin D from the sun

Sun-based vitamin D absorption also varies based on age and skin tone. Older adults and those with darker skin produce less vitamin D from sunlight. Additionally, if you’re indoors, you won’t be able to get vitamin D from the sunlight passing through your window as UVB rays cannot penetrate through glass.

Please note: Although sun exposure can provide vitamin D, exposure to UV rays should be limited to reduce the risk of skin cancer. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) recommends always using sunscreen with an SPF of 15 or more when exposing yourself to the sunlight.

How Much Daily Vitamin D Do I Need?

According to the NIH, the Recommended Dietary Allowance of vitamin D for those 19 to 70 years old is 600 IU per day. Although vitamin D does have an upper limit, the Institute of Medicine states that it is safe for most age groups to take 2,000 to 4,000 IU. As always, be sure to check with your doctor before taking any supplement!

What are the Health Benefits of Vitamin D?

Boost Your Immune System

In recent years, research has surfaced showcasing the immune-boosting properties vitamin D offers. Epithelial tissue and immune cells contain a specific enzyme that converts vitamin D into its active form, allowing vitamin D to bind itself to cell receptors and control cell regulation, growth and immunity. This interaction can help boost your immune system’s response to inflammation and foreign invaders.

Girls smiling from getting their daily vitamin D

Elevate Your Mood

Vitamin D can also help your brain synthesize serotonin and other mood-moderating chemicals. Studies show that it can help with the treatment of depression, anxiety and other mood-related disorders. Vitamin D supplements may also help combat Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), a form of depression associated with reduced sunlight during the fall and winter. [2][3][4][5]

Support Healthy Bones

While calcium gets most of the credit for maintaining strong bones, it’s essentially inept without its partner in crime — vitamin D. Vitamin D allows for better absorption of calcium within your gut, which in turn fortifies and strengthens your bones. Without enough vitamin D, bones can become brittle and misshapen, leading to an increased risk of rickets in children and osteomalacia in adults. [6]

Aid in Weight Loss

Trying to drop a few pounds? Some studies suggest that getting your daily dose of vitamin D may help enhance weight loss. In one study, 218 overweight women were put on a calorie-restricted diet and monitored for one year. Half of the women were given vitamin D supplements while the other half received a placebo. The results showed that the women who took the vitamin D supplement lost an average of 7 pounds more than the other group. [7][8]

Women breathing doing yoga

Improved Respiratory Health

Recent studies have shown that consuming ample daily vitamin D can improve your respiratory health. One cross-sectional study examined 14,076 healthy adults and found that the group of people with the highest vitamin D levels had significantly better pulmonary function than their vitamin D deficient peers. [9][10]

What’s the difference Between Vitamin D2 & D3?

Vitamin D comes in two forms: ergocalciferol (vitamin D2) and cholecalciferol (vitamin D3). While both types offer the same health benefits, they do have a few key differences.

  • Vitamin D2 is found in plants, mushrooms, yeasts and fortified supplements. While less potent, vitamin D2 is more commonly found in supplements since it is cheaper to produce.
  • Vitamin D3 is synthesized when human skin is exposed to sunlight. You can also find it in animal products, such as fish, beef, eggs, milk and cheese. Vitamin D3 is about twice as potent as vitamin D2. [11][12]



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written by

Brenna Wallace

Brenna Wallace