Vitamin D is an essential vitamin. Since it can be produced by the body itself under the influence of sunlight on the skin, it is also known as the sunshine vitamin. The vitamin helps, for example, in the absorption of calcium and phosphate from food, which in turn are needed as minerals for the construction and maintenance of healthy bones and teeth. Vitamin D is also important for the functioning of the immune system, which protects us from diseases, as well as for the regulation of cell growth and division.

There are two main forms of vitamin D:

  1. Vitamin D2 (ergocalciferol), which is found in plant sources
  2. Vitamin D3 (cholecalciferol), which can be synthesized by the body from sunlight and is found in animal sources

Vegans can meet their vitamin D requirement through sun exposure, consuming fortified plant-based foods, or taking vitamin D supplements. If possible, also make use of the vitamin D-rich foods listed in the table, which can contain D2 or D3.

Vitamin D Requirement

Certain groups are at higher risk of vitamin D deficiency. They should ensure adequate intake to avoid symptoms such as muscle weakness, bone pain, and fractures:

  • Vitamin D is primarily produced through sunlight. People who spend a lot of time indoors, rarely expose themselves to sunshine outdoors, or cover their skin with clothing, therefore, are at a higher risk of vitamin D deficiency. They should particularly look for vitamin D-rich foods.
  • As we age, the body's ability to produce vitamin D from sunlight decreases. Older people also often have a sedentary lifestyle and are less active, which means they spend less time outdoors. Deficiency can especially lead to reduced muscle strength and mass in this group and increase the risk of falls and fractures, as bones and muscles become more vulnerable.
  • The pigment melanin, responsible for darker skin tones, reduces the skin's ability to produce vitamin D. To produce enough vitamin D, individuals with darker skin should spend longer periods of time in the sun.
  • Malabsorption diseases such as celiac disease, Crohn's disease, or chronic pancreatitis can decrease the absorption of vitamin D from food.
  • Vitamin D is particularly important during pregnancy and lactation for the bone and health development of the fetus and infant.
  • Individuals with a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or higher may have an increased need for vitamin D.
  • Since vitamin D is mainly found in animal products, vegetarian and vegan diets may not fully meet the vitamin D requirements. Consider supplementation, especially during the winter months.
  • Medications such as antiepileptics and corticosteroids can impair the absorption of vitamin D and increase the risk of deficiency.

Severe deficiency in children can lead to rickets, which causes bone deformities and growth disorders.

Plant-Based Vitamin D-Rich Foods

There is only a limited number of plant-based vitamin D foods. Some mushroom species like shiitake mushrooms and champignons can produce vitamin D2 when exposed to UV light. Generally, mushrooms grown outdoors have higher vitamin D2 levels. Consequently, mushrooms grown in darkness contain little to no vitamin D. Vegans can increase their vitamin D intake at least partially by consuming mushrooms. Some supermarkets also offer special vitamin D mushrooms for purchase.

In addition, numerous vegan food products are now fortified with vitamin D:

  • Plant-based drinks like soy milk, almond milk, and oat milk
  • Breakfast cereals
  • Juices
  • Margarine
  • Cereal products
  • Vegan yogurt alternatives

To find out exactly which foods these are, you can check the product labels.

During the winter months, vitamin D supplements are an effective method to increase vitamin D levels. These supplements are derived from mushrooms or yeasts treated with UV light to produce vitamin D2. Vitamin D3 is typically obtained from lanolin (wool wax) from sheep. However, there are also vegan-friendly vitamin D3 supplements extracted from lichens. Lichens are a symbiotic relationship between fungi and algae. When buying vitamin D3 supplements, especially, make sure the product is vegan. Furthermore, scientific evidence suggests that the body can absorb vitamin D3 better than vitamin D2.

Improving Vitamin D Absorption?

Since vitamin D is fat-soluble, it is best absorbed when consumed with fatty foods. To enhance the absorption of vitamin D, you can eat fatty foods like avocados and nuts before or while consuming vitamin D-rich foods or taking supplements.

Increasing Vitamin D Levels With Sun Exposure

As mentioned earlier, the skin can produce vitamin D when exposed to UVB rays. It is recommended to expose yourself to direct sunlight (preferably during midday) for 10 to 20 minutes daily to produce sufficient vitamin D. Sunscreen should not be applied beforehand. Be careful not to overheat or burn your skin. Additionally, vitamin D production depends on various factors such as the season, latitude of your location, and your skin type. In some latitudes, vitamin D cannot be synthesized through the skin during the winter months.

Vitamin D And Muscle Building

Vitamin D plays a crucial role in maintaining muscle functions. It promotes calcium absorption and its incorporation into bones, which in turn increases the stability of skeletal muscles. Through calcium absorption, it also indirectly affects muscle function by stabilizing muscle cell membranes and improving contraction ability. A higher concentration of vitamin D in the blood is associated with greater muscle mass and strength. However, it is important to note that vitamin D alone cannot build muscles. Proper training and a muscle-building diet are more important.

What Does A Vegan Vitamin D Diet Look Like?

Here are some examples of a vegan diet that includes mushrooms and possibly vitamin D-enriched foods:

  • Vegan muesli with oat milk or fortified soy yogurt
  • Vegan scrambled tofu with mushrooms and vegetable oil
  • Mashed potatoes with almond milk and vegetables
  • Mushroom stir-fry with whole wheat noodles and margarine
  • Spinach and chickpea curry with coconut milk and brown rice
  • Tomato soup with oat milk and whole grain bread
  • Vegan Chana Masala with coconut milk and brown rice
  • Gnocchi with margarine and tomato sauce
  • Carrot ginger soup with oat milk and whole grain bread
  • Vegan Shepherd's Pie with almond milk and mashed potatoes
  • Vegan pancakes with soy milk or fruit juice and fresh fruits
  • Baked potato wedges with vegan yogurt dip
  • Vegan avocado smoothie bowl with vegan yogurt alternative
  • Vegan spinach lasagna with vegan cheese substitute
  • Mushroom risotto with plant-based cream
  • Vegan rice pudding with plant-based milk, vanilla, and coconut flakes
  • Vegan pizza with vegan mozzarella and vegan cheese substitute
  • Vegan quinoa tabbouleh with vegan yogurt dressing
  • Vegan Chana Masala with vegan yogurt dip
  • Vegan chili sin carne with vegan cheese substitute
  • Vegan mac and cheese with vegan cheese substitute