Choosing to adhere to a vegan diet is now widely accepted as coming with extensive health benefits, along with being an environmentally responsible choice given the staggeringly harmful effects of large scale livestock agriculture in the world today. Even if it’s not for you, we’d all do well to understand that you can get nearly all of the same necessary nutritional value from a vegan diet that you’d get from a standard one.
Most notable is protein, with many people still continuing to believe that they must eat animal products to get it. That’s not the case at all, you can get all of your protein needs within a vegan diet too. However, one area where vegans will struggle to meet their recommended dietary intake is with Vitamin D. Of all the vitamins between A and K, D is the one that’s most limited in regard to getting it from food sources.
Ideally, we get it from regular exposure to natural sunlight, but of course the nature of life here in the 21st century means we’re getting less of that than ever before. Most people will make up for the deficiency by taking Vitamin D capsules, and that’s perfectly advisable but there are some who wish to get the bulk of – if not the entirety – of their vitamins and nutrients from food.
With vitamin D, that will be a challenge, but let’s at least discuss some of your options with plant-based sources of Vitamin D.
A Very Necessary Nutrient
Vitamin D is necessary for bone health, digestive health, and overall metabolic health. Whether ingested via sunlight, supplements, diet, or a combination of any of the three, vitamin D is then converted into 25-hydroxy vitamin D3 which is the form of vitamin D stored in the body and the one that is measured by blood tests. It is then converted into calcitriol, whose primary role in regulating blood calcium level. It regulates calcium absorption from the gut, calcium excretion by the kidneys and bone formation/breakdown.
This is why we constantly hear that Vitamin D is as important for bone health as calcium. The two work together very closely in the body.
Vitamin D is also a fat-soluble vitamin, making getting sufficient dietary fats important for the synthesis of vitamin D. It’s synthesized in the liver and promotes healthy mood, gut function, calcium absorption and bone mineralization, and colon health, and Vitamin D deficiency linked to increased risk of cancer, multiple sclerosis, muscle weakness, and depression.
It’s also interesting to note that a whole foods plant-based diet can prevent, slow, or even reverse most chronic diseases associated with low vitamin D levels. As for intake recommendation guidelines, they are as follows: 0 – 12 month: 400IU (10mcg) / 1 -13 years: 600IU (15mcg) / 14-50 years: 600IU (15mcg) / 51-70 years: 600IU (15mcg) / over 70: 800I (20mcg)
Right then, on to vegan-friendly food sources of Vitamin D
Most standard mushroom varieties you’ll find in the supermarket are actually poor sources of dietary Vitamin D. For example, I’ve seen a number of instances where people recommend portabella mushrooms as a quality vitamin D source, but in fact 1 cup of them only provides you with 9IU of Vitamin D. White button mushrooms will give you 5IU, and Crimini mushrooms only 2IU
The best mushrooms for Vitamin D are Maitake (1 cup = 786IU of Vitamin D2), Chantrelle (114IU), and Morel (136IU)
Tofu is a very versatile soy-derived food that can be incorporated into a variety of dishes and 1/5 of the average block of tofu you can buy in the grocery store will have 120IU of Vitamin D on average.
Alfalfa gets a lesser mention here, both for the fact it’s somewhat impractical to consume larger volumes of it, and for some specific concerns. When irradiated with UV light it stimulates increased production of Vitamin D in the leaf
Be careful however, alfalfa seeds contain large amounts of canavanine, a toxic amino acid that endangers blood platelets via a condition called pancytopenia
Certain breakfast cereals are Vitamin D fortified, and while you certainly won’t be eating them with dairy milk you can eat them with soy milk in the morning, provided you’re a breakfast cereal person.
As some examples, General Mills’ Cheerios provides 60IU per serving, Kellogg’s Rice Krispies provides 900IU, and Kellogg’s Raisin Bran provides 60IU. There is a consideration to keep in mind for certain vegans adhering to more strict definitions of their diet, and that being that most of these cereals use bone-charred sugar.
Lichens are a combination of a fungi and a plant. They are often found growing on rocks, trees, and wood. Now of course you shouldn’t even consider randomly craping them up and takin them home (it’s estimated that 94% of fungi are toxic to varying degrees) but you can inquire regarding their availability (most commonly in a powdered form) at any health store. The most common one available is reindeer moss, which is a lichen even though it’s named as a moss.
As a last consideration, some people have been known to ask does Vitamin D cause constipation. The answer is that yes it can, and the reason is that there is a relationship between magnesium and Vitamin D as it relates to your digestion. Magnesium is a co-factor for Vitamin D to effectively serve the purposes it does in the body.
A magnesium deficiency in itself can cause constipation, but what happens in instances where individuals are supplementing with Vitamin D extensively is that the increased levels of the vitamin being introduced to the body will take up more of your body’s magnesium stores, and if a deficiency already exists it will be exacerbated by the Vitamin D’s using more of the magnesium as a cofactor.
If you’ve begun to supplement with Vitamin D and find yourself becoming constipated, you’ll likely find that supplementing with additional magnesiumdoes the trick to make your bowel movements more regular.
To conclude, the ideal scenario here is to be a vegan that spends plenty of time on the beach soaking up the sunrays. Right, that’s entirely impossible for most working people, so you should focus on using a quality vitamin D supplement AND incorporating some of the food choices we’ve listed above.