Vitamin D: Best Foods and Supplement Basics

Last Updated: September 22, 2023

A bowel of vitamin D supplements on a white table

Are You Getting Enough Vitamin D – And the Right Type?

Vitamin D – which is actually a steroidal hormone, and not a vitamin – is an essential nutrient that plays many important roles in the body. It helps regulate calcium and phosphate absorption and supports bone health, immune function, cell growth, and overall health.

While vitamin D is made in the skin when exposed to sunlight, many people do not get enough from the sun alone and require dietary sources and/or supplementation as well.

Despite the important role vitamin D plays in the body, many people are unfortunately deficient, especially those living in more northern areas of the US, or who otherwise don’t get sufficient amounts of sunlight to naturally produce enough vitamin D. This ends up being a major cause for concern, since getting vitamin D from your diet is not that easy.

Low levels of vitamin D have been associated with a whole host of health problems, such as heart disease, depression, and dementia. And according to recent research, people who are vitamin D deficient are around 20% more likely to suffer a serious heart-related episode, like cardiac arrest or heart failure.

Many researchers believe that chronic vitamin D deficiency could lead to a cumulative effect. This means that the longer you continue with deficient levels, the greater your chances for significant health risks. This article will discuss the various food sources of vitamin D and provide tips on meeting daily needs through diet, as well as information about using nutritional supplements.

Dietary Sources of Vitamin D

The RDA for vitamin D is 600 IU per day for adults up to age 70, and 800 IU for those over 70. While it’s challenging to meet needs from food sources alone, consuming vitamin D rich foods along with sensible sun exposure can help avoid deficiency. The top dietary sources include:

Fatty Fish

Fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, sardines, and tuna are among the best natural sources of vitamin D. A 3-ounce cooked salmon fillet provides about 450 IU vitamin D, while canned salmon provides about 300 IU per serving. Fatty fish are rich in vitamin D because they store it in their flesh and fat. Consume fatty fish at least twice a week to reap the benefits.

Fish Liver Oils

Fish liver oils like cod liver oil also pack high amounts with around 1,300 IU vitamin D per tablespoon. Look for a quality supplement free of contaminants like mercury. Keep in mind fish liver oils also provide vitamin A, so avoid extremely high doses to prevent toxicity.

Egg Yolks & Egg Yolk Oil

While not as potent as fatty fish and fish oils, pasture-raised egg yolks also provide vitamin D. On average, one yolk contains about 40 IU. So consuming around 3-4 yolks per day would provide a meaningful amount. The vitamin D content depends on the chicken’s diet and sunlight exposure, so pasture-raised eggs pack the most.

Egg yolk oil (also called phospholipid oil) is extracted from egg yolks and concentrated into oil. It provides about 3,000 IU vitamin D per teaspoon, though it’s not as widely available as fish liver oils. Look for egg yolk oil supplement capsules to easily increase vitamin D intake.

Mushrooms & Mushroom Powder

Exposing mushrooms like shiitake, maitake, and portobello to ultraviolet light significantly boosts their vitamin D content. For example, a 3-ounce serving of UV-treated portobello mushrooms may provide around 400 IU.

While regular mushrooms provide minimal vitamin D, shops are increasingly selling UV-enhanced varieties high in this nutrient. Expose fresh mushrooms to sunlight at home to enhance the content yourself.

Dried mushroom powder (like shiitake and maitake) also provide vitamin D. Look for brands exposed to UV light to maximize the content. Mushroom powder contains around 130 IU per ounce. Add to soups, sauces, dressings and sprinkled on foods for an easy way to increase intake.

Fortified Foods

Many common foods are fortified with vitamin D like milk, yogurt, orange juice, soy milk, cereals, and oatmeal. Check the label and aim for products with at least 30% DV of vitamin D per serving. Two 8-ounce glasses of fortified milk provide about 240 IU vitamin D. While not naturally high in vitamin D, fortified foods make it easier to meet needs without much effort.

Beef Liver

While fatty fish are the best animal source, beef liver also provides a meaningful amount of vitamin D. A 3-ounce serving of cooked beef liver contains about 50 IU. Moderate portions a few times per month can boost intake along with other organ meats like kidney and heart. Choose grass-fed whenever possible.

Animal Fats

Animal fats like lard and tallow contain traces of vitamin D, with around 10-20 IU per tablespoon. While not a significant source, using animal fats for cooking rather than vegetable oils provides a small boost. Quality sources like grass-fed beef tallow and pastured lard are best.

Cod Liver Oil

Derived from cod fish livers, cod liver oil provides around 1,300 IU vitamin D per tablespoon. It also contains healthy omega-3 fatty acids. Look for a reputable brand that filters out contaminants like mercury. Cod liver oil makes it easy to increase vitamin D intake in a convenient supplement form.

Ricotta Cheese

Full-fat ricotta cheese contains a modest 10-25 IU of vitamin D per serving. While not extremely high, it can contribute to daily needs when incorporated into recipes like lasagna and pancakes. Opt for whole milk ricotta rather than part skim for the most vitamin D.


Caviar is fish roe or eggs from the sturgeon fish, well-known for its high omega-3 content. It also contains a decent amount of vitamin D, with about 100 IU per ounce. Caviar makes for a luxurious appetizer or snack that simultaneously boosts vitamin D intake. Look for sustainably sourced caviar.

Raw Milk

Unpasteurized raw milk from grass-fed cows contains vitamin D formed from sunlight exposure. The content varies based on diet and sun exposure but can be around 100 IU per 8-ounce glass. However, raw milk is not widely available and may carry risks like bacterial contamination. Pasteurized fortified milk is a safer alternative.

Tips to Meet Vitamin D Needs Through Diet

Consuming a varied diet with foods from the sources listed above can help meet vitamin D needs and prevent deficiency. Here are some tips to get enough through diet:

  • Eat fatty fish like salmon twice per week. Canned fish works too.
  • Choose UV-enhanced mushrooms and vitamin D fortified foods.
  • Cook with animal fats over vegetable oils.
  • Add cod liver oil, fish liver oil, or egg yolk oil to smoothies or drizzled over foods.
  • Check labels and aim for at least 30% DV of vitamin D per serving.
  • Take a vitamin D supplement if diet alone can’t meet needs.
  • Get moderate sun exposure for skin synthesis.
  • If vegan, look for plant-based food and supplements fortified with vitamin D.

While it’s challenging to get enough vitamin D from food sources alone, a combination of UV-exposed mushrooms, fatty fish, fortified foods, and modest sun exposure can help avoid a deficiency. Also consider taking a quality vitamin D supplement, especially during the winter months when sunlight exposure is minimal.

Consuming sufficient vitamin D is important for maintaining strong bones and reducing risk of osteoporosis, autoimmune diseases, cancer, and other health conditions.

Vitamin D Supplements: Not All Are Created Equal

Besides getting vitamin D through foods, vitamin D supplementation is a great option – but don’t just start taking any old supplements! As it turns out, not all forms of vitamin D are the same.

According to research published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, there’s a big difference between the two common types of vitamin D – ergocalciferol (D2) and cholecalciferol (D3).

The study was conducted during the winter among 355 subjects who were divided into five groups. Two groups were supplemented with 600 daily IU’s of D3 – one group was given fortified juice, and one group was given fortified biscuits. Two more groups were given d2-fortified biscuits and juice (also at 600 IU’s per day), and the last group received non-fortified biscuits and juice (the control group).

After 3 months, the control group participants showed a 25% decrease in their vitamin D levels, which was not surprising since D levels normally drop during wintertime. However, those who received the daily doses of vitamin D showed no decrease – to the contrary, their levels actually increased.

But it gets more interesting. As it turns out, those participants who received vitamin D2 showed increases of approximately 34%, but those taking D3 showed increases of a whopping 75% – more than twice the levels of those taking D2.

That’s a big difference. Surprisingly (or maybe not surprisingly, depending on how you look at it), the NIH (National Institutes of Health) maintain that D2 and D3 are nutritionally equivalent.

Obviously, the latest research shows that this may not be entirely accurate. Those taking D3 supplements (or who get it from a diet including things like eggs and fish) might actually be doing a much better job at increasing D levels than those taking D2 supplements or eating foods high in D2.

Researchers believe that the way the two types of vitamin D bind to the molecules in the body is the reason for the different levels of effectiveness. D2 also has a shorter half-life compared to D3, so it may not retain it’s effectiveness as long.

It should be pointed out that the research subjects in this study were all women, so there’s no guarantee that men would experience the same benefits. Even so, the evidence strongly suggests that if you’re currently supplementing with D2, or not supplementing with vitamin D at all, you may very well be short-changing yourself.

See Also: Can Vitamin D Boost Your Testosterone Levels?

So How Much Should You Take?

How much vitamin D you should be taking is a matter up for debate. For example, the Endocrine Society recommends high doses of up to 2,000 IU per day, while the NIH suggests taking only 600 IU’s daily.

According to the IOM (Institute of Medicine) 4,000 IU daily would be the safe upper limit for vitamin D intake. Therefore, taking somewhere between 1,000 and 4,000 IU will be enough to maintain optimal D levels in most people.

The best way to determine how much to supplement with is to get your blood tested for D levels, before and after supplementation. This will give you a good idea of how much to start with, and allows you to adjust your dosage over time to reach optimal levels.

While there’s definitely room for further research, you can raise your D3 levels now by taking a supplement that contains D3 – I recommend¬† Solgar Vitamin D3 capsules (600 IU), or Nordic Naturals Vitamin D3 Gummies¬†(1,000 IU). Both are a great options.

And you might also want to aim for a diet in D3-rich (and omega-3 rich) foods like eggs and fish.

See Also: Best Multivitamins For Men 2024

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