By Erik Marcus
Let’s explore whether vegans ought to take a vitamin D supplement. This is a relatively straightforward topic with a few interesting twists. The information covered here can protect your health.
Only a few foods naturally contain vitamin D. So, as we’ll see, the only practical way to meet your needs is through supplements, fortified foods, or exposure to sunlight.
Vegan Vitamin D Brands
Unfortunately, most vitamin D supplements are not vegan. Until recently, nearly every brand was produced from lanolin, a non-vegan byproduct of the wool industry. When exposed to ultraviolet light, lanolin’s oils transform into a type of vitamin D called cholecalciferol. This molecule is better known as vitamin D3. Vegans were stuck taking an expensive and much less potent supplement containing ergocalciferol, commonly called Vitamin D2.
Sometime around 2010, supplement companies started producing vegan vitamin D3 from a type of algae called lichen. There are now several vegan vitamin D3 brands on the market:
- Deva: Vegan Vitamin D3 (5000 IU)
- Doctor’s Best: Vegan D3 Veggie Caps (2500 IU)
- Naturelo: Vitamin D3 Capsules (2500 IU)
- Pure & Essential: Vegan Vitamin D3 (1000 IU)
- Revly: Vegan Vitamin D3 (2000 IU)
- SR: Plant-Based Vegan Vitamin D3 (5000 IU)
Of the above products, Pure & Essential’s Vegan Vitamin D3 delivers the best bang for the buck. For most people, one tablet daily should provide a sufficient dose. The 365 tablets per bottle give you a year’s supply at a very reasonable price.
Who is at Risk of Deficiency?
Inadequate vitamin D is relatively common among both vegans and omnivores.
Vegans in the United States may be more likely to develop deficiency than omnivores. That’s because cow’s milk is typically fortified at a level of 400 IU per quart (385 IU per liter). People who go dairy-free can therefore lose their primary source of vitamin D. Fortunately, most vegan milks are fortified with vitamin D at the same level as cow’s milk. In fact, in order to qualify for the USDA’s Child and Adult Care Food Program:
Non-dairy beverages must be nutritionally equivalent to milk and meet the nutritional standards for fortification of calcium, protein, vitamin A, vitamin D, and other nutrients to levels found in cow’s milk…
But keep in mind that many dairy alternatives, like vegan cheese and sour cream, receive no vitamin D fortification.
Vitamin D is being studied in relation to a number of chronic diseases including cancer, heart disease, and depression, although the research isn’t conclusive. Its most important role relates to calcium balance and protection of bone health. Over time insufficient vitamin D levels can cause poor bone health, greater risk of fracture, and contribute to the risk for osteoporosis.
Vitamin D and Sunlight
Just as you can make vitamin D by exposing oily substances like lanolin to ultraviolet light, strong summer sunlight will also cause your skin to produce vitamin D. But most people can’t get all the vitamin D they need through exposure to sunlight, especially in the winter. What’s more, the same sunlight that boosts your vitamin D levels also damages your skin. And if you apply sunscreen to protect your skin, that will decrease the formation of vitamin D.
In winter months, the sun is typically so low in the sky that your skin won’t produce any vitamin D. If on top of this, y0u’re wearing thick layers of winter clothing when outdoors your vitamin D production is probably essentially zero.
Depending on your lifestyle, you may be able to get away with not taking vitamin D during the summer months. But apart from outliers who spend 12 months a year surfing in Hawaii, very few people get sufficient sunlight exposure year-round to meet their vitamin D needs. This is especially the case for people with darker skin, since this heavy pigmentation reduces the formation of vitamin D. As a result, people of color may face greater risk of vitamin D deficiency. Older people also require more sunlight exposure to make vitamin D and are therefore at greater risk for deficiency.
Should Vegans Take a Vitamin D Supplement?
Blood work offers the only reliable way to find your vitamin D status. Fortunately, this test is included in nearly every inexpensive basic diagnostic panel. In the absence of blood work, you’re likely to undershoot or overshoot the mark when it comes to taking in an optimum amount of vitamin D.
Various health authorities have reached different conclusions about what constitutes an adequate level of vitamin D, but it’s widely agreed that levels below 20 ng/ml constitute inadequate vitamin D. And the Endocrine Society contends that levels under 30 ng/ml are insufficient. Ask your doctor or registered dietitian what level you should strive to maintain. This Mayo Clinic article on vitamin D deficiency in adults doesn’t get too technical, and is likely the most helpful source of basic information on the topic.
If you spend time outdoors, your summer and winter vitamin D levels are likely to differ by quite a bit. So it makes sense to get your blood work done in mid-summer and in mid-winter to see how the seasons affect your vitamin D levels.
How Much Vitamin D Should Vegans Take?
Vitamins take two forms: water soluble like vitamin C and the B vitamins, and fat soluble nutrients like vitamins A and D.
Unless taken in grossly excessive amounts, water soluble vitamins seldom pose a hazard, since they’re constantly flushed from the body. But taking too much of a fat-soluble vitamin is riskier, since they can accumulate in your body over time, and potentially reach toxic levels.
You might be tempted to take a multivitamin in order to meet your vitamin D needs. The trouble is the setting of Recommended Dietary Allowances is notoriously imprecise. And even though multivitamins tend to contain 100 percent of the RDA for vitamin D, that may fall well short of your body’s actual needs. For many vegans, a higher dose vitamin D supplement is advisable, but you don’t want to overdo it. Excessive dosages can cause any number of problems. Blood work can give you the information required to keep your vitamin D levels in a healthy range. Your doctor can order a basic blood work panel, enabling you to learn your vitamin D status within a week.
If you come in at much under 29 ng/ml, your doctor will most likely recommend a vitamin D supplement. A vegan vitamin D3 supplement is the best choice, especially if your vitamin D levels are low. While vitamin D2 can maintain adequate levels in people with sufficient levels, it’s less effective for reversing deficiency.