What Are Good Sources of Vitamin D?

You have a variety of options to choose from if you want to get enough vitamin D.

Young woman at the window enjoying the sunshine. sun-window-vitamin-d
Photo: Getty Images

Calcium gets most of the credit for maintaining strong, healthy bones, but vitamin D is also a key player in bone health.

"You can have all the calcium in the world, [but] it doesn't get absorbed into your bones" without vitamin D, Donald Ford, MD, a family medicine physician at Cleveland Clinic, told Health. That's vitamin D's job—without it, the calcium you get from yogurt, cheese, and even vegetables like broccoli wouldn't get absorbed and ultimately wouldn't do much to keep your bones strong.

Vitamin D can also help prevent osteoporosis, which makes your bones brittle, and a vitamin D deficiency can contribute to a "gradual loss of strength of bones over time," Dr. Ford said.

As far as a daily dosage of vitamin D goes, "the Institute of Medicine recommends 600-1000 IU of Vitamin D daily to meet 95% of the population's needs," said Tania Elliott, MD, an instructor of clinical medicine at NYU Langone. (IU stands for international units, which is what vitamin D is measured in, rather than grams or milligrams, according to the National Institutes of Health [NIH].)

Fortunately, there are plenty of ways to get the recommended daily amount—here's how.

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Sunlight

Sunlight spurs the body to make vitamin D, but it's important to remember that exposure to the sun increases the risk of developing skin cancer. A small amount of sunlight during the day can help vitamin D levels.

"If you're going to get it from the sun, about 20 to 25 minutes of exposure is helpful," said Stephen Honig, MD, director of the Osteoporosis Center at the Hospital for Joint Diseases in New York City. You'll also want to ensure that you protect your skin from harmful rays when you get your daily vitamin D intake.

The sun is less likely to provide your daily needs at higher latitudes, in the winter, or if you're older or have a darker skin tone, according to the NIH. Additionally, light through a window won't work, though you should still wear sunscreen inside due to exposure to UVA rays.

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Fresh Fatty Fish

Dr. Ford said that different types of fish are excellent sources of vitamin D. You should look to fattier fishes, specifically, if you're trying to work more vitamin D into your diet, Dr. Ford added. "Vitamin D is present in the ones we think of as oily [or] fatty."

Three ounces of cooked rainbow trout have 645 IUs of vitamin D, per the NIH; the same amount of cooked salmon has 570 IUs. Sardines, tuna fish, and cod liver oil also have vitamin D. According to a February 2021 study published in Environment International, Atlantic mackerel and herring were great sources of vitamin D.

Finally, when you add more fish to your diet, you also get an extra dose of heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids.

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Canned Fish

Fresh fish isn't the only way to boost your vitamin D intake—you can also get vitamin D from canned fish. Researchers of a January 2022 Journal of Nutritional Medicine and Diet Care study found that tuna and sardines canned in oil were great sources of vitamin D.

In general, canned light tuna has the most vitamin D—about 150 IUs per 4 ounces—while canned albacore tuna has about 50 IUs per 4 ounces, and canned sardines have a little more than 40 IUs per two sardines.

Also, canned tuna fish and canned sardines are usually less expensive than fresh fish, and a longer shelf life makes the canned products easy to stock up on and use at leisure.

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Certain Mushrooms

Like humans, mushrooms also can produce vitamin D.

"Believe it or not, mushrooms can be treated with UV light which fortifies them with Vitamin D," Dr. Elliott said. An October 2018 study published in Nutrients found that, with exposure to UV radiation, mushrooms could "generate nutritionally useful amounts of vitamin [D2]." (Mushrooms are usually grown in dark environments, which is why they must be treated with UV light for exposure.)

Still, certain mushrooms can be a beneficial source of vitamin D. Check to see if vitamin D–rich mushrooms, like portobello mushrooms, are available at your local store. They're perfect for vegetarians looking for plant-based foods that contain the vitamin.

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Fortified Milk

According to the NIH, almost all types of cow's milk in the U.S. are fortified with vitamin D, but dairy products like ice cream and cheese are not.

Generally, an 8-ounce glass of milk contains at least 100 IUs of vitamin D, and a 6-ounce serving of yogurt contains 80 IUs, but the amount can be higher (or lower) depending on how much is added.

Some soy and rice milks are fortified with about the same amount, but check the label since not all contain vitamin D.

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Some Types of Orange Juice

If you don't like milk and dairy, per the NIH, you can still get vitamin D from fortified orange juice. One 8-ounce glass of fortified juice usually has around 100 IUs of vitamin D, but the amount varies from brand to brand. Not all brands are fortified, so check the label.

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Egg Yolks

Eggs are a convenient way to get vitamin D. They're popular in many breakfast, lunch, dinner, and dessert recipes.

Since the vitamin D in an egg comes from its yolk, it's important to use the whole egg—not just the whites. One yolk will give you about 40 IUs, but don't try to get your daily vitamin D just from eggs.

One egg contains about 200 milligrams of cholesterol. According to a March 2019 JAMA study, having too much dietary cholesterol—including that from eating eggs—was correlated with a higher risk of cardiovascular disease.

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Fortified Cereal

Choosing a low-calorie fortified cereal can help you get part of your daily fill of vitamin D. You can pair it with fortified milk and a glass of fortified OJ.

A 1-cup (29 gram) serving of that cereal with one-half cup of fortified milk could be around 140 IUs based on the food chart provided by the NIH. If you added an 8-ounce glass of fortified orange juice, your total could be over 200 IUs of vitamin D.

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Beef Liver

Although it might not be the most appealing source, a 3.5-ounce serving of cooked beef liver contains about 50 IUs of vitamin D, per the NIH, and several other nutrients—vitamin A, iron, and protein. However, beef liver is also high in cholesterol, so you might need to eat it moderately or opt for an oily fish instead.

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Cod Liver Oil

While its name might suggest a less-than-savory flavor, cod liver oil is often flavored with mint or citrus or comes in capsule form.

According to the NIH, one tablespoon contains about 1,300 IUs of vitamin D, which is more than twice the recommended dietary allowance of 600 IUs per day.

That amount doesn't exceed the maximum upper-level intake of 4,000 IUs for people over 8 years old, but it exceeds the daily maximum for infants (1,000 IUs).

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Ultraviolet Lamps and Bulbs

People at high risk of vitamin D deficiency may resort to UV-emitting lamps and bulbs. This includes people unable to absorb the vitamin (malabsorption) or those who can't get enough in the winter months, said Michael F. Holick, MD, a professor of medicine, sociology, and biophysics at Boston University Medical Center.

These are similar to tanning beds but smaller. "The lamp is only about 24 inches by about 16 inches," Dr. Holick said.

These lamps carry the same skin-cancer risks and need for protective eyewear, so they're best for those with a healthcare provider's recommendation—per the FDA.

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Other Vitamin D Considerations

Some people also turn to supplements to increase their vitamin D intake, but whether that's necessary for most people "is a big area of controversy in medicine," Dr. Ford said.

Many people get their blood tested for vitamin D deficiency, but that's not always necessary. "Unless there are specific reasons for concern, there's no general recommendation for testing and screening," Dr. Ford said.

Even if you do get tested, the results might not be accurate. "Vitamin D testing is not necessary for most people, and that's because there isn't a reliable test or acceptable reference range—that's why it seems like everyone these days has a low vitamin D level," Dr. Elliott explained.

Additionally, it's possible to get too much vitamin D as well. "While acknowledging that signs and symptoms of toxicity are unlikely at daily intakes below 250 mcg (10,000 IU), the [Food and Nutrition Board] noted that even vitamin D intakes lower than the [tolerable upper intake levels] might have adverse health effects over time," the NIH stated. These effects could include dehydration, nausea, vomiting, appetite loss, serious issues such as cardiac arrhythmias, soft tissue calcification (hardening), or even death.

In short, if you're worried about your vitamin D levels, you might want to consider spending the recommended amount of time in the sun or adding more vitamin D-rich foods to your diet before adding another supplement to your daily medicine routine.

But, as always, if you're concerned about your bone health, check in with your healthcare provider to make sure you're doing everything possible to stay healthy and to see if vitamin D supplements—or other ways to get vitamin D—could help.

Updated by
Maggie O'Neill
Maggie O’Neill

Maggie O’Neill is a health writer and reporter based in New York who specializes in covering medical research and emerging wellness trends, with a focus on cancer and addiction. Prior to her time at Health, her work appeared in the Observer, Good Housekeeping, CNN, and Vice. She was a fellow of the Association of Health Care Journalists’ 2020 class on Women’s Health Journalism and 2021 class on Cancer Reporting. In her spare time, she likes meditating, watching TikToks, and playing fetch with her dog, Finnegan.

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