Am I getting enough Vitamin D?

Are your ‘sunshine vitamin’ levels low? Discover why you need vitamin D, how to get more and what to do if you're concerned about your levels...

Am I getting enough Vitamin D?

Why do we need Vitamin D?

Vitamin D is made in our skin via direct exposure to sunlight. Our liver and kidneys then convert it into a form we can use. Vitamin D is extremely important for strong bones and teeth, as it helps us absorb the calcium we eat and it also controls the amount of calcium in our blood.  It’s really important that our vitamin D levels aren’t low or our body won’t absorb the calcium we eat.  
 
There aren't any visual signs of vitamin D deficiency. If our levels are very low and we are severely deficient, we are at risk of developing weaker bones which is a condition known as osteomalacia. Severe deficiency in children may result in soft skull or leg bones and their legs may look curved or bow-legged, which is a condition called rickets.  As low levels are common in the UK, it's worth getting tested if you're concerned. Ask your GP for a blood test.

 

Vitamin D levels explained

Vitamin D blood rangesClassification
Under 25nmol/LDeficient
25 - 50nmol/LInsufficient
50-75nmol/LSufficient
Over 75nmol/LOptimal

How much sun do we need? 

It is difficult to give a one-size-fits-all recommendation for sunlight exposure during the summer months. This is because so many other factors affect the amount of vitamin D that's made in the skin, including your skin colour and age, the strength of the sun, the time of day and where you live. Guidelines regarding this are under review and more information is anticipated later in 2016. The recent SACN report suggests that everyone over the age of one needs to consume 10mcg of vitamin D daily in order to protect bone and muscle health. In addition, public health officials say that in the winter months people should consider getting this from vitamin D supplements, if their diet is unlikely to provide it. See the NHS website for current advice.

A word of caution though, too much sun exposure can be damaging due to the risk of developing skin cancer. Only spend a small amount of time in the sun without sunscreen either early in the morning or late in the afternoon and the rest of the time be sure to cover up and avoid any chance of sunburn. 

 

Amount of sun required to compensate for 49 days of no exposure

Skin typeMinutes of July sun required
Fair10 - 12 mins
Asian30 mins
African/ Afro-Caribbean120 mins

What affects our Vitamin D levels?

Several different factors can affect our vitamin D levels such as skin pigmentation, age, season, clothing and use of high factor sunscreens. As elderly people have thinner skin they are unable to make as much of the vitamin as younger people. Also, the position of the UK means that 90% of it lies above the latitude that permits exposure to the sun rays necessary for vitamin D synthesis. The southern part of the country is marginally better positioned for vitamin D synthesis (the closer you are to the equator the better). All of these factors will have an effect on our levels.

Approximately 60–70% of the UK adult population have insufficient levels of vitamin D in winter and spring and 16% are considered deficient. At present, there are recommendations for daily intakes for just a few specific groups, including 7mcg for babies from seven months to three years, and 10mcg for pregnant and breastfeeding women and over-65s. Whilst UK recommendations have not been set for the general population, some groups are considered to be at higher risk for developing deficiencies.  These include:

  • Pregnant and breastfeeding women
  • People who have darker skin, such as those of South Asian, African or Afro-Caribbean descent
  • Men and women who are over 65 years of age
  • Babies and children aged six months to five years 
  • Adults who stay out of the sun or cover up when outside 

 Vitamin D in our diet

Sardines with chickpeas, lemon & parsleyFoods that naturally contain vitamin D include oily fish such as mackerel, sardines, tinned salmon, herring and kippers.  Some foods are fortified with small amounts of vitamin D, including breakfast cereals, infant formula and margarine. There are smaller amounts found in eggs and some red meats, such as duck, goose, pheasant and venison however, the exact amount is unknown. Breast milk also contains vitamin D and mums should make sure they aren’t deficient as this will affect the levels in their milk.  

Vitamin D-rich foods
Food per portionVitamin D content
Kipper (grilled, 140g)14µg
Herring (grilled, 140g)22.5µg
Mackerel (grilled, 140g)11.9µg
Tinned salmon (140g)19µg
Sardines (grilled, 140g)7µg
Branflakes (fortified, 30g)1.4µg
Hen eggs (poached, 2)2.9µg

 

Recipes containing Vitamin D-rich foods:

Spiced rice with kippers & poached eggs

Herrings rolled with mushrooms & pancetta
Grilled herrings with mustard & basil dressing
Spaghetti with sardines
Sardines with Sicilian fennel salad
Sardines with chickpeas, lemon & parsley
Spiced rice with kippers & poached eggs

Also containing vitamin D:

One-pan summer eggs
Spanish omelette
Warm salad of asparagus, bacon, duck and hazelnuts
Soft-boiled duck egg with bacon & asparagus soldiers

 

Emer Delaney BSc (Hons), RD has an honours degree in Human Nutrition and Dietetics from the University of Ulster. She has worked as a dietitian in some of London's top teaching hospitals and is currently based in Chelsea. 

 

This article was last reviewed on 10 May 2016 by nutritional therapist Kerry Torrens.

A registered Nutritional Therapist, Kerry Torrens is a contributing author to a number of nutritional and cookery publications including BBC Good Food magazine. Kerry is a member of the The Royal Society of Medicine, Complementary and Natural Healthcare Council (CNHC), British Association for Applied Nutrition and Nutritional Therapy (BANT).

All health content on bbcgoodfood.com is provided for general information only, and should not be treated as a substitute for the medical advice of your own doctor or any other health care professional. If you have any concerns about your general health, you should contact  your local health care provider. See our website terms and conditions for more information.

 

Comments, questions and tips

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anthony.dhanendran
21st Apr, 2015
Fascinating - didn't know much of this before. 
ajctracey
14th Apr, 2015
Although there are no official recommendations for daily intake, surely the medical profession and nutritionists must have some idea? Both my (late teenage) sons have had to take vitamin D supplements (prescribed by a doctor) because their levels were catastrophically low - the symptoms were a weakened immune system and constant tiredness. Could they have avoided this simply by eating oily fish? Or should they have spent much more time in their summer holidays out of doors?
goodfoodteam's picture
goodfoodteam
21st Apr, 2015
Thanks for your question. Unfortunately the only recommendations in the UK are for the groups mentioned above; pregnant and breastfeeding women, people who have darker skin, men and women who are over 65 years of age, babies and children aged six months to five years and adults who stay out of the sun or cover up when outside. The poor weather in the UK is a contributing factor to our low levels as we get most of our vitamin D from sunlight on our skin. The best advice is to ensure a varied healthy diet including the foods above and keeping active outside with suitable sun protection as much as possible.Many thanks,Emer
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