Vitamin D is familiarly known as “the sunshine vitamin,” because our bodies are able to synthesize it from sun exposure. It helps the body absorb calcium and phosphorus, making it a critical element in development of healthy bones and teeth. Beyond that, some research indicates that adequate levels of vitamin D have been shown to have a protective effect against breast and colorectal cancer, cardiovascular disease (in men), and multiple sclerosis. It may also play a role in helping to fight depression. Although more research needs to be done to reach definite conclusions about vitamin D’s benefits, it’s definitely important to get enough of the sunny stuff.
The problem? A significant portion of Canadians don’t get enough vitamin D, especially in the winter. According to Statistics Canada, 40 percent of Canadians had vitamin D levels below levels that were enough to maintain healthy bones from November to March—mostly because there’s a lot less sun in the winter. Health Canada recommends that children aged one to adults aged 70 get 600 International Units (IU) of vitamin D a day (get 800 IU if you’re over 70)—but that’s tough if the sun isn’t out, if you have dark skin, or if you’re older than 70.
But never fear, Canucks: there are some foods you can eat to help boost your D levels—sunny skies not required. While it doesn’t occur naturally in many foods, it’s there in some, and added to others.
Salmon and other fatty fish
Salmon is a great option to boost your D levels—one three-ounce fillet of sockeye gives you about 450 IU, which puts you well on the way to meeting your daily goal. Mackerel, trout, snapper, and eel are also good sources. Canned fish, like tuna and sardines, also have vitamin D, but at lower levels than the fresh stuff. Looks like a date at the sushi restaurant is a good idea.
An eight-ounce glass of milk should give you at least 100 IUs of vitamin D. Looking for the most vitamin D bang for your buck? The sunshine vitamin is fat-soluble—so ditch the skim milk and go for a slightly higher-fat variety. Not into dairy? Some brands of rice, almond, or soy milk are fortified with vitamin D, but make sure you read the label. Not into milk of any kind? You can get fortified orange juice.
Abandon your egg-white omelettes for now—egg yolks are where the D is found. One egg yolk will give you about 40 IU of vitamin D—so not a ton, but a good supplement if you’re eating other D-rich foods.
Pick a low-fat, high-fibre fortified cereal for breakfast, and you’ve got a head start on your D intake for the day. A half-cup of All-Bran gives you 60 IU of vitamin D, while a packet of instant oatmeal can provide up to 150 IU. Pair that with milk in your cereal bowl and a glass of fortified juice on the side, and you’ll be about a third of the way to hitting your target.
Shiitake mushrooms will give you about 40 IU of vitamin D per cup—not earth-shattering, perhaps, but not a bad start. Some cultivators are experimenting with growing mushrooms in UV light, thus significantly increasing their vitamin D.
Symptoms of a clinical vitamin-D deficiency include excessive sweating (especially from the scalp), muscle weakness, chronic pain, depression, and—yikes—broken bones. However, it’s possible to not get enough vitamin D without showing signs of clinical deficiency. Health Canada recommends a daily supplement of 400 IU for adults over 50 and infants aged 0-one year, while Osteoporosis Canada advises year-round supplementation for all healthy adults. Health Canada sets the upper safe limit of consumption per day at 4,000 IU.
Bottom line? A healthy diet can help—but if you think you might be D-deficient, or just want to know where you stand, D-wise, talk to your doc.