Vitamin D deficiency can be traced back to our (not-so-great) diet, explains Dr. Bazilian. "We really are a nation that's overweight but undernourished," she says, adding that according to the 2010 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee report, many Americans fall short on key nutrients in their diets – and the four most likely to be missing are vitamin D, potassium, calcium and fiber.
It's this shortage of vitamin D that has Dr. Bazilian most concerned – its role as an apparent super-nutrient is becoming more and more evident. "In addition to supporting bone health, new and emerging research continues to support that vitamin D also helps support normal muscle function and a healthy immune system, in addition to working with calcium to help build strong bones and healthy teeth."
If you're wondering how the sunshine vitamin got its name, the sun's energy turns a chemical in your skin into vitamin D3, which is carried to your liver, then your kidneys, where it's transformed into active vitamin D. But even if you spend hours working, playing or lounging in the sun, which Dr. Bazilian says in an ideal way to get the nutrient, you still may not be getting enough because sunscreen blocks those beneficial rays. We also tend to make very little vitamin D during the winter months – especially people living in the northern half of the United States. So unless you live in the Caribbean (and don't wear sunscreen) you have to increase your intake by other means.
Milk is the single greatest contributor of vitamin D in the American diet, advises Dr. Bazilian, adding that no other food contributes more of this essential nutrient. She refers to it as "liquid sunshine" because the recommended three servings of low-fat and fat-free milk provide 75 percent of the daily value of vitamin D, along with eight other essential nutrients, including calcium, potassium and vitamin A.
Getting more milk – and vitamin D – in your diet is easy. Have whole grain cereal or oatmeal with low-fat milk as part of your morning routine, drink a latte with your breakfast, snack on low-fat yogurt with granola and fresh fruit or make a smoothie with frozen berries, or snack on a banana with a glass of low-fat milk. For more ideas you can check out Why Milk?
Things tend to get a little trickier if you don't or can't drink milk due to an allergy or lactose intolerance, but there are other ways to satisfy your body's need for the sunshine vitamin. Though very few foods naturally contain vitamin D, the highest amounts per serving are found in cod liver oil and fatty fish such as canned salmon and sardines, Dr. Bazilian says. Egg yolks also contain vitamin D, and you can up your intake by buying beverages fortified with the nutrient, including some soy milk, rice milk and orange juice. Even some breakfast cereals are fortified with vitamin D.
If you are considering taking a supplement, Dr. Bazilian encourages people to "supplement selectively" and speak to a qualified health professional, preferably a registered dietitian, before making a purchase. As with any nutrient, the best source is always from food and the best way to get all the nutrients your body needs is to eat a varied diet made up mostly of fresh (rather than packaged) foods.
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