We know that walking the dog, gardening and other outdoor activities are good for you, but did you know that spending time outside gives you a dose of Vitamin D, too? It’s true! Sometimes called the “sunshine vitamin,” vitamin D is produced in our skin with exposure to the sun, but you also can get it from various foods and beverages.
And it’s one of those nutrients that we need to pay particular attention to as we get older to prevent vitamin D deficiency.
Why is Vitamin D Important?
This powerhouse nutrient serves many roles in the body – with its main purpose helping the body absorb calcium.
Vitamin D works together with calcium to help keep teeth and bones strong and prevent osteoporosis, a disease that weakens the bones and makes them more likely to break. It also helps make the muscles move, gets signals from the body to the brain, and helps enable the immune system to fight off infection from bacteria and viruses.
How Much Do I Need?
Almost all of us need more vitamin D – more than 90% of Americans aren’t getting enough. And as we get older, we need even more of this important nutrient.
Vitamin D can be measured in two ways: in micrograms (mcg) or international units (IU). And no matter how it’s measured, we all need more as we get older. Starting at age 71, our needs increase from 15 mcg (600 IU) to 20 mcg (800 IU) per day.
Luckily, as of 2020 all food labels must list vitamin D content (typically shown in micrograms) on the Nutrition Facts label making it easier to track your intake and avoid vitamin D deficiency.
What Causes Vitamin D Deficiency?
As we age, low vitamin D can also become more common because we lose the ability to harness the sun’s rays to create it.
And there are lots of other common reasons for low vitamin D, too:
- Lack of sun exposure. If you live far from the equator where the sun is less strong, you may be at higher risk of deficiency, especially during the winter months when we tend to hibernate indoors.
- Sunscreen. Although sunscreen is important to protect against sunburn and skin cancer-causing rays, it also limits our ability to absorb the vitamin from the sun by about 90%. If you have darker skin, the pigment in your skin known as melanin also acts as a natural sunblock and can increase your risk of deficiency.
- Obesity. Believe it or not, vitamin D can actually get ”stuck” in body fat, making it harder for the body to use.
Vegetarian or vegan diets. It can be tough to find foods that are naturally high in vitamin D, and the ones that do tend to be animal products like fish, liver, and eggs. But if you’re avoiding these kinds of foods, getting enough Vitamin D can be especially challenging.
- Inflammatory bowel disease. If you have Crohn’s, celiac disease or other gut disorders, you may have a hard time absorbing this vitamin.
- History of bariatric surgery. Gastric bypass and other surgeries can limit the body’s ability to absorb nutrients and increase the chances of vitamin D deficiency.
So what happens if you do develop a deficiency? You may be more likely to break a bone or even develop osteomalacia, an often-painful condition caused by weak bones that can lead to bone deformities, spasms and dental issues.
But not to worry! Simply making room for some Vitamin D-rich foods and drinks can make all the difference.
How to Get the Vitamin D You Need
To prevent a deficiency, including good sources of this vitamin in your regular diet is key.
Fish, especially fatty fish, and liver tend to be the richest natural sources of vitamin D – though admittedly, these may not be every-day foods for many of us. Although the list of foods naturally high in vitamin D is a short one, there are foods and beverages – like milk, orange juice, nutritional shakes and breakfast cereals fortified with the nutrient to help make life a little easier!
Your best bet for foods and drinks with vitamin D are:
- Salmon, trout and other fatty fish
- Beef liver and cod liver oil
- Egg yolks
- Fortified foods and drinks, like cereals and nutritional shakes
And just remember: check those Nutrition Facts labels, and if you can, find an excuse to soak up some sun!
Talk to your healthcare provider for questions or concerns about any diet or lifestyle changes and to find a plan that's right for you.