What Vegans Should Know About Getting Enough Vitamin D From Food & Supplements
If you eat a vegan diet, chances are you've answered a question...or a hundred...about how you get your fill of nutrients, like calcium and protein, that people traditionally think of as coming from animal foods (insert eyeroll here). One key nutrient that might not come up in conversation as often but that's still important for vegan eaters—and non-vegan eaters, alike—is vitamin D.
Use this breakdown of vegan vitamin D food sources, vitamin D supplement options, and how much of this important vitamin we need to ensure your diet and supplement routine provides ample amounts for optimal lifelong health.*
The benefits of vitamin D.
Vitamin D, which is both a vitamin and a preprohormone (and full-on hormone in its active form in the body), is essential for healthy bodily function for a number of reasons. The "sunshine vitamin" interacts with a slew of different systems throughout the body—including our musculoskeletal system, gastrointestinal system, and immune system—so its impacts are pretty darn far-reaching.*
A few specific benefits worth noting:
- It's a must for regulating mineral balance and promoting bone density, strength, and health1 for life.*
- It supports thyroid health by helping to regulate the production of thyroid hormones2, which influence everything from metabolism to reproductive health.*
- It promotes beneficial gut bacteria, which is good news for overall gut function and health.*
- It's important for bone density, immune function, fetal growth, and maternal metabolic health during pregnancy3.*
- It promotes a healthy immune system by supporting white blood cell function4, among other things.*
Vegan food sources of vitamin D.
An unfortunate truth about getting vitamin D from food? It's a flawed strategy to rely on even when you do eat animal products. "When we practice 'food first' for vitamin D, 100% of Americans5 over the age of 2 fail to consume just 400 I.U. of vitamin D per day from naturally occurring vitamin D food sources," explains mbg director of scientific affairs and in-house dietitian Ashley Jordan Ferira, Ph.D., RDN. "You can't eat your way to daily vitamin D sufficiency."
And since the richest food sources of vitamin D out there are animal-based (cod liver oil, trout, and salmon6), vegan eaters don't have many options for getting the sunshine vitamin from their plate. Here are your best (though really not so great) options:
Half a cup of UV-exposed mushrooms provides 366 I.U. of vitamin D, which isn't a whole lot considering you need 3,000 IU per day just to avoid insufficiency, a 25(OH)D less than 30 ng/ml. (More on that later.) The other important caveat here: UV-treated mushrooms contain vitamin D2, but the body clearly prefers vitamin D3.* In fact, D3 has been shown in landmark research to raise serum levels of vitamin D in the body more effectively.* Some research even suggests that the potency of D3 is a whopping 87% higher than that of D27.*
Fortified milk alternatives
Fortified almond, soy, and oat milks may provide up to 100 to 144 I.U. of vitamin D per 1-cup serving. Be sure to double-check product labels to confirm the source of that vitamin D, if avoiding animal-derived sources is important to you.
Fortified breakfast cereals
Breakfast cereals are often commonly fortified with vitamin D. (Notice how two out of the three options on this foods list only contain D because they're fortified with it?) Of course, not all breakfast cereals are vegan, so don't sleep on those ingredient lists when trying to sneak a little extra vitamin D into your morning meal. Still, options typically only contain 80 I.U., so you're not getting much for your efforts.
About vegan vitamin D supplements.
The consensus among the scientific and medical communities is that if you're going to supplement with vitamin D, make it vitamin D3.
Something vegans need to consider, though: Most vitamin D3 supplements are made from lanolin, which is a yellow fat that comes from sheep's wool8 that is UV irradiated to create a concentrated D3 (aka cholecalciferol) source. While it's certainly an A-OK source for vitamin D3, it's obviously not vegan.
Luckily, there are two plant-based sources of vitamin D3 available in supplements these days: algae and lichen.
The downside to lichen is that it takes years to grow and is removed from its natural ecosystem in order to be utilized for supplements, according to Ferira. Plus, the concentration of D3 lichen offers depends on the type and when it's harvested—and the lichen itself is susceptible to environmental contaminants.
Given that, "organic algal-sourced vitamin D3 is the cream of the crop for vitamin D," says Ferira. Algae sources of D3 (such as VegD3®, the specific D3 source used in mbg's vitamin D3 potency+) can be produced sustainably without any impact on the local environment, a perk for many conscious consumers.
Ultimately, though, lichen- and algal-sourced vitamin D3 can be packaged up in vegan capsules or tablets (for tablets, Ferira says these can sometimes involve unsavory "other ingredients") to create a fully vegan product. (They're few and far between, but they do exist.)
Still, there are caveats to keep in mind here—and caveats significant enough that they dissuaded mbg from packaging up our unique vitamin D3 potency+ formula in a fully plant-based option. "We didn't encapsulate in a vegan gelcap because after heavily researching them, we found their porosity [read: pores or small holes] leads to leaks, reduced stability, increased oxidation, and rancidity of ingredients, which was unacceptable for us, this formula, and our quality standards," explains Ferira.
She goes on to say that, "because we include three organic virgin oils in our formula to promote absorption, tablets or capsules weren't an option, because capsules and tablets are only useful when all your ingredients are in powder format." So while the gelatin gelcap (albeit, from high-quality bovine gelatin) means that vitamin D3 potency+ as a whole isn't vegan, it was a necessary move that ensured the formula could include both an organic, sustainable plant-derived vitamin D3 source and the organic virgin oils needed to ensure proper absorption, plus the incremental benefit of healthy omega-3 and omega-9 fatty acids.*
Ultimately, finding a vegan vitamin D3 supplement requires doing your homework to ensure you're aligned with the process through which that D3 is produced—and getting mighty comfortable reading product packaging and ingredient lists.
How much vitamin D we need.
Though you've probably heard that a serum vitamin D, or 25(OH)D, level of 30 ng/ml is "sufficient," that's not really the case. "I prefer to think of 30 as the risk or warning zone," says Ferira. "It's the cutoff for inadequacy, so you don't strive for it, you avoid it with intention."
What should you aim for, then? "As an endocrinologist, I know that achieving optimal serum 25(OH)D levels in the 50+ ng/ml range is imperative for immune health, bone health, and more,"* shares board-certified endocrinologist Brittany Henderson, M.D., who specializes in hormones. "This is the average or median level at which most association studies show various benefits, including immune health, balanced mood, and more."*
To get there (and stay there!) requires supplementing with vitamin D, specifically 5,000 IU of vitamin D3, Ferira says. After all, you'd have to eat a pretty absurd number of mushrooms and down a sickening amount of fortified milk alternatives to come anywhere close...
Vitamin D is a nutrient of concern for vegans just as it is for pretty much all Americans. (Research suggests up to 93% of us consume less than 400 I.U. of vitamin D per day.) And since no one can truly rely on food alone to get their fill, it's safe to assume that's true for vegan eaters.
Since supplementation is a necessary tactic for the vast majority of people, vegans should seek out plant-derived sources of vitamin D3—though algal-based D3 is the ideal option. While mbg's vitamin D3 potency+ is not technically a vegan product because it utilizes a gelatin softgel package to maintain optimal quality, it does feature a unique plant-based source of algal vitamin D3 (at a clinically meaningful dose: 5,000 I.U.) that is organic, sustainable, and pure, along with built-in absorption technology from a trio of organic, virgin oils from plants (avocado, flaxseed, and olives).*
If you are pregnant, breastfeeding, or taking medications, consult with your doctor before starting a supplement routine. It is always optimal to consult with a health care provider when considering what supplements are right for you.
Lauren Del Turco, CPT is a freelance health and wellness writer, editor, and content strategist who covers everything from nutrition to mental health to spirituality. Del Turco is also an ACE-certified personal trainer. She graduated from The College of New Jersey with a Bachelor of Arts in English and Creative Writing. When she’s not on deadline, you’ll find Del Turco hiking with her dogs, experimenting with new plant-based recipes, or curled up with a book and tea.