food

The foods you can eat to boost your levels of essential vitamin D without risking sun damage.

It’s well known that the sun is a source of vitamin D, but we also know that the sun is the major cause of skin cancer.

We need to carefully balance the skin cancer risk from too much sun exposure to maintaining our required vitamin D levels – so we wondered if its possible to get enough of it from foods alone.

Mamamia spoke to accredited practising dietitian and spokesperson for the Dietitian’s Association of Australia Lisa Renn to find out more about what foods are high in vitamin D and how you can ensure you’re getting enough.

What is vitamin D?

Lisa says vitamin D has been called the ‘bone vitamin’ because it works to keep our bones strong and healthy.

“It works with other minerals in our body, calcium and phosphorus, to strengthen our bones.

On top of improving calcium and phosphorus absorption, vitamin D helps to keep our nerves and muscles functioning normally.”

She said it’s very important to get enough vitamin D, but unlike other vitamins like vitamin A and vitamin C, vitamin D is difficult to come by in foods.

How do we get vitamin D from the sun?

Vitamin D is absorbed when our skin is exposed to ultraviolet B (UVB) light from the sun.

The Cancer Council says adequate vitamin D levels are reached through regular incidental exposure to the sun for most of us.

When the UV Index is 3 or above (such as during summer), most people maintain adequate vitamin D levels just by spending a few minutes outdoors on most days of the week. Of course, it is important to always use sun protection when the UV levels are above 3.

In late autumn and winter in some southern parts of Australia, when the UV Index falls below 3, you can absorb sufficient vitamin D by spending time outdoors in the middle of the day with some skin uncovered.

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Being physically active outdoors – such as by gardening or going for a walk – also helps boost vitamin D levels.

Can you get enough vitamin D from foods alone?

The short answer to this is no, we can’t, but Lisa says foods can provide a “little boost” to our stores.

“Even though we’re living in sunny Australia, many of us aren’t getting enough sunshine, and Osteoporosis Australia estimate more than 30 percent of Aussie adults are vitamin D deficient,” she says.

What foods are high in vitamin D?

If you’re after a bit of a boost, there are limited foods you can eat to absorb vitamin D.

Lisa suggests:

  • Fortified foods such as margarine, milk products and soy milks
  • Eggs
  • Oily fish inclding salmon, herring and mackeral
  • Vitamin D mushrooms (mushrooms that have been exposed to UV rays during the growing process)

What does a vitamin D deficiency look like and who is the most risk?

Vitamin D deficiency doesn’t always have obvious symptoms,” Lisa says.

“However, without treatment, deficiency can lead to bone and joint pain, a greater risk of falls and bone fracture in older people due to soft, weakened bones and vitamin D deficiency in children is known as rickets.”

Vitamin D deficiency can also increase the long term risk of conditions like cardiovascular disease, certain types of cancers, and type 2 diabetes.

People at greater risk include:

  • Elderly and those that are housebound or in residential care
  • Those with naturally darker skin (which reduces the penetration of UV light)
  • Officer workers or those working only indoors
  • Those with other medical conditions that impact on the ability to process vitamin D
  • Veiled women
  • Pregnant women

Lisa says it’s important to note that overexposure to sunlight to increase your vitamin D levels is not a “magic fix” – instead, it’ll just leave you with a sunburn and an increased risk of skin cancer.

“Like many things in nutrition, it’s what you do over the long term, there is no quick fix… Small amounts of sun exposure each day will maintain adequate vitamin D levels.”

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