Published April 5, 2021
Following a vegan diet is an expression of real commitment to animal and environmental welfare – but it is a lifestyle that comes with some challenges. These include not just sourcing truly vegan food in a meat-eating world, but also ensuring that your diet contains all the nutrients you need to stay healthy, including vitamin D.
But first, the fundamentals. What actually is vitamin D? Like a number of other vitamins, it is actually a group of related nutrients rather than a single substance. The two most important for human health are D2 and D3. The latter is one of the only vitamins which can be generated by the body itself: it is produced from cholesterol within skin cells on exposure to sunlight.
But sunlight – especially in colder countries – is not a reliable source of this important nutrient, which, amongst other roles, helps the body to properly absorb minerals like magnesium, and crucially, phosphorus and calcium, both of which are essential building blocks for healthy bones. It also plays an important role in maintaining a healthy immune system. Low levels of vitamin D may increase the risk of developing autoimmune disorders and catching infections.
Vitamin D deficiency is surprisingly common in countries with a colder climate. A lack can lead to brittle bones, increasing the risk of fractures and breaks. A significant vitamin D deficiency in childhood can trigger the serious bone disorder, rickets.
Dietary vitamin D
So if exposure to sunlight can’t be relied upon, which foods can you eat to ensure health?
Two of the commonest sources of dietary vitamin D3 for most people are:
- Fish – in particular salmon and shellfish
Of course, neither of these are accessible to vegans. But fortunately, vegan-friendly sources of vitamin D do exist. Here are some of the best vitamin D foods for vegans.
Vegan vitamin D sources
Look for the following when food shopping:
Mushrooms should be close to the top of every vegan’s shopping list as they are one of only plant foods to contain natural vitamin D, specifically vitamin D2. But make sure they are not the type grown in the dark: to contain vitamin D mushrooms must be exposed to light while growing.
Fortified food products
A range of foods fortified with vitamin D are available, including orange juice and breakfast cereal. Soya milk, almond milk and rice milk are all available in fortified form as well.
These may not have been specifically made for vegans – fortified foods may be intended simply as general health boosters, to help ensure everyone receives a range of basic nutrients. But as long as these products contain a reasonable level of vitamin D they will keep you topped up: look for around 2.5 mcg or 100 international units (IU) on the label.
Vegan food supplements with no gelatine are now widely available from health food vendors. These may be multivitamin and mineral supplements intended to provide a full spectrum boost – or a more specialist product focused on a single vitamin or group of vitamins. In either case these can be an easy way to ensure your diet contains sufficient vitamin D.
Not all vitamins and minerals are absorbed in the same way. Foods high in healthy fats – for example nuts, seeds and avocados – will make vitamin D absorption much easier for your body, so try and take vitamin D supplements with your meals. According to one 2014 study, a high fat meal could increase vitamin D absorption by as much as a third.
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Written by Bev Walton
Food Writer and Nutritionist, dietician
A chef of over 35 years with experience in all types of cuisine, dietary plans, recipe development, health and nutrition. I have been writing for over 10 years for both magazines, websites and ghostwriting for ebooks, Kindle and fully published books. I have a degree in nutrition and dietetics and work with restaurants and organisations within the healthcare profession. I am also able to take high quality photographs of recipes created. No writing task is too great, and whilst I specialise in the above, I am able to write about any topic you throw at me. Member of the Guild of food writers.