Question: Monique, I am 29 years old (female), and I have eaten a vegan diet for a little over two years (lacto-ovo vegetarian from about age 12-13 on). I recently underwent a bone density scan due to a previous fracture, etc. The results showed osteopenia (precursor to osteoperosis), which I understand may be caused by a vitamin D deficiency, or my body's inability to synthesize the vitamin D it gets (all blood tests were very normal, including thyroid, calcium, etc.). My doctor has recommended vitamin D supplementation. First of all, are there any non-animal derived sources of vitamin D? Secondly, are there any supplements available that are derived from non-animal sources? Thanks, Janice
Answer: Yes, vegans can get non-animal derived sources of vitamin D. The first source is sunlight. The second source is from foods fortified with vitamin D derived from torula yeast (a vegetative microorganism).
Vitamin D is often called the sunshine vitamin. Our bodies manufacture it when we expose our skin to sunlight. According to the National Academy of Sciences, "Women who have regular sunlight exposure do not require vitamin D supplements; However, adequate exposure is difficult to define; If there is a question as to adequacy, dietary or supplemental vitamin D is needed to achieve an intake of 5 micrograms (200 IU) daily." Several factors determine how much sunlight we require to adequately synthesize vitamin D: where we live, the season of the year, our skin type, and sunscreen usage.
Most adults need about 10-15 minutes of sun on their skin, 2 to 3 times a week. The American Dietetics Association (ADA) states that "Sun exposure to hands, arms, and face for 5 to 15 minutes per day is believed to be adequate to provide sufficient amounts of vitamin D." However, more sun exposure may be needed during the winter months, especially in northern latitudes and places with a lot of smog.
Skin type and color can also determine how much sun exposure we need. Studies have shown that people with dark skin need as much as six times more sunlight than those with light skin to reach the same blood level of vitamin D.
When we use sunscreen, we greatly reduce the amount of vitamin D our skin synthesizes from sunlight. Sunscreens block vitamin D production. Because of this, we should apply sunscreen to the skin after it has been in the sun long enough to promote vitamin D synthesization.
According to the ADA, "findings indicate that sunlight exposure is a major factor affecting vitamin D status and that dietary intake is important only when sun exposure is inadequate." When this occurs, the most reliable way to get vitamin D is from fortified foods or supplements. This is especially true for older people who may have less sun exposure and synthesize vitamin D less efficiently.
Vegan and vegetarian sources of vitamin D include fortified soymilk, fortified rice milk, and some fortified breakfast cereals. Many non-dairy beverage makers add vitamin D as well as calcium, vitamin B12, and riboflavin to their products to make them more closely resemble the nutritional makeup of cow's milk. However, make sure the plant-based milks have vegan vitamin D (derived from torula yeast and not from lanolin from sheep's wool).
For more information read...
"Guide to Non-Dairy "Milks"", by Reed Mangels, Vegetarian Journal Jan/Feb 2001, at http://www.vrg.org/journal/vj2001jan/2001janmilk.htm
"Vitamin D" at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vitamin_D
and the books...
• The Mediterranean Vegan Kitchen
by Donna Klein
• Vegan with a Vengeance : Over 150 Delicious, Cheap, Animal-Free Recipes That Rock
by Isa Chandra Moskowitz
• Becoming Vegan: The Complete Guide to Adopting a Healthy Plant-Based Diet
by Brenda Davis & Vesanto Melina
• Vegan Freak: Being Vegan in a Non-Vegan World
by Bob Torres, Jenna Torres
• Plant Based Nutrition and Health by Stephen Walsh
• Veganomicon: The Ultimate Vegan Cookbook
by Isa Chandra Moskowitz
• The Complete Idiot's Guide to Vegan Cooking
by Beverly Lynn Bennett and Ray Sammartano
You may also want to visit the Virtues of Soy website.
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Monique N. Gilbert, BSc. has offered guidance in health, nutrition, fitness and stress management since 1989. Through her writings, Monique motivates and teaches how to improve your well-being, vitality and longevity with balanced nutrition, physical activity and healthy stress-free living.