Can You Get Vitamin D From Vegetables? Uh, That's Kind Of A Trick Question
Just eating your vegetables won't do when it comes to consuming more vitamin D. It turns out that the only vegetable that contains this bone health and immune-system-supporting vitamin is the mushroom.* (And the funny thing is, it really isn't even a vegetable. It's a fungi!) Keep reading to find out why vitamin D is so important and how you can use mushrooms as part of a nutrient-dense diet to up your D status and aid all sorts of systems in your body.
What is vitamin D, and how much do I need?
Vitamin D is one of the many essential vitamins needed daily for your body to function and thrive. Commonly known as the sunshine vitamin, this nutrient can be made in your skin through exposure to sunlight. Humans' own sort of photosynthesis, the vitamin D synthesis process is intriguing, to say the least, but it poses one big problem. In these days, none of us spend enough time outside to receive enough sunlight to produce an adequate amount of vitamin D.
Location, time of day, age, and skin tone all affect the body's ability to produce the vitamin in the skin (not to mention the fact that many of us slather on sunscreen to protect us from sun damage and signs of aging). What that leaves us with is an epidemic of vitamin D deficiency. And given the numerous functions of D in the body, this is for sure not a good thing.
Involved in an array of physiological processes, vitamin D is not only essential for your body to function properly but is a key component of a thriving body. So, what does vitamin D do?
"The classical function of vitamin D is maintaining blood calcium levels, which play a role in bone health. Although, over the past 20 to 30 years we have started to understand that vitamin D may have non-bone-health functions. It plays a role in regulating blood pressure and glucose levels and is linked with muscle function,"* says Sina Gallo, Ph.D., RDN, a nutritional sciences professor at the University of Georgia.
Approximately 93% of Americans1 consume less than 400 I.U. a day, and as it turns out, we need much more than that to positively affect vitamin D status and health.* When it comes to vitamin D levels, 41% of American adults meet the criteria for clinical insufficiency, and around 30% of American adults are straight-up deficient2. That means you or one of your closest friends or family members could use some help with their D intake.
With research suggesting a baseline of 3,000 I.U. of vitamin D33 per day to achieve the minimum cutoff for vitamin D sufficiency (30 ng/mL—though the science indicates the goal is 50 ng/ml or higher), you can see why our nation's current vitamin D consumption (or lack thereof) is a cause for concern.
Signs you aren't getting enough vitamin D.
Given the importance of vitamin D, you may be wondering if you can notice any signs of insufficiency yourself. While deficiency can lead to larger health concerns, simply not getting adequate vitamin D on the daily can manifest as:
Experiencing any number of these could be a sign to head to the doc to get that D status checked. And regardless, having a baseline vitamin D status is useful information for everyone. That blood biomarker is serum total 25-hydroxyvitamin D, aka 25(OH)D.
The "vegetable" that has vitamin D: mushrooms.
Usually when people talk about getting all of the essential vitamins and nutrients, they simply advise you to eat more veggies! And while vegetables are potent with micronutrients, adding more greens to your diet won't do you any good when it comes to this particular fat-soluble micronutrient: vitamin D.
The only vegetable that contains the all-important vitamin D is irradiated mushrooms (and they really aren't even a vegetable, but a fungus). "Mushrooms produce vitamin D2 by converting ergosterol in their membranes via a photochemical reaction in the same way that UV from the sun converts cholesterol to vitamin D3," says Robert Bruce Beelman, Ph.D., an expert on the effects of UV light on mushrooms.
Mushrooms contain a different type of D than what's formed as a result of sun exposure in our bodies (or what we consume from fatty fish or eggs). When hit with adequate and sustained UV light, mushrooms produce D2, while our bodies produce D3. Vitamin D2 usually comes from plant sources like mushrooms and D3 from animal sources like salmon.
Another cool thing about mushrooms is that you can expose them to more UV light to increase the amount of D2 in them. Beelman used pulsed light emitted from a Xenon lamp on mushrooms in his research8, but even placing your shrooms outdoors will do the trick to boost their D supply, according to famous mycologist Paul Stamets.
The only other plants containing vitamin D are algae and phytoplankton, which actually contain D3 rather than D2. Though often put in the "sea vegetables" category, algae isn't actually a vegetable. Nonetheless, this marine botanical provides a potent—and highly sustainable—source of plant-based D3.*
While our bodies can still use D2 (ergocalciferol), a large body of science underscores its inferiority to vitamin D3 (cholecalciferol). Indeed, D3 is far superior for human consumption based on its bioactivity, stability, and bioefficacy.*
Case in point: You would have to eat a lot of D2-rich mushrooms daily, approximately seven cups, to consume about 5,000 I.U. (i.e., the amount to achieve vitamin D sufficiency in normal-weight adults). But since vitamin D2 is two to three times less effective than vitamin D3, you actually need 14 to 21 cups of mushrooms. Who's ready for that fungi challenge?
5 mushroom recipes.
Since vitamin D is scarce in natural and fortified foods, mushrooms are a fine way to increase your overall vitamin D intake (since vitamin D2 plus vitamin D3 inputs equal total vitamin D) with your diet. Try adding these recipes to your next meal planning sesh:
The bottom line.
Not that mushrooms needed another reason (OK, fiber, minerals, B vitamins, antioxidants, etc.) to prove their hype, but their reign as the only veggie (fungus if you want to get technical) that contains vitamin D is a huge reason to add more of them to your diet.
As an essential component to whole-body health, vitamin D is always important to talk about. Whether you can't figure out how to get your vitamin D levels up, need more info about what this deficiency looks like for your body, or are ready to commit to a primo, organic vitamin D3 supplement that promotes healthy vitamin D levels in the body, mbg has you covered for all things D.*
Josey Murray is a freelance writer focused on inclusive wellness, joyful movement, mental health, and the like. A graduate of Wellesley College, where she studied English and Creative Writing, her work appears in Women’s Health, Cook & Culture, and more. By expressing her own vulnerability, she writes with warmth and empathy to help readers find self-compassion and true wellness that’s sustainable for body, mind, and planet.