Vitamin D: Count on Sunshine and Milk

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Vitamin D: Count on Sunshine and Milk

MilkNews about vitamin D is everywhere. If you’re having trouble sorting it out, read on. We’ve pulled together the most current research about this important vitamin.

Vitamin D allows us to absorb more calcium. Prior to the fortification of milk products with vitamin D, rickets, a disease causing the softening and weakening of bones, was a major public health problem. Since the 1930s, all milk produced in the United States is fortified with 10 micrograms (400 IU) of vitamin D per quart which dramatically reduced the number of rickets cases.

New research has linked vitamin D deficiency with many diseases, including high blood pressure, coronary heart disease, diabetes, cancer, multiple sclerosis and rheumatoid arthritis.

It is currently estimated that 30 percent of adolescents nationwide may have vitamin D deficiency. Why aren't kids getting enough vitamin D?

Experts believe it's caused by many factors, some dietary and some related to sun exposure -- vitamin D is made in the skin in the presence of ultraviolet rays.

  • Children are spending more time indoors, favoring television and video games to outdoor play.
  • Liberal use of sunscreen reduces skin damage but also minimizes vitamin D production in the skin.
  • Living among tall buildings in urban environments means less sun exposure.
  • ŸYoung children and adolescents are consuming less vitamin D fortified milk.
  • ŸDark-skinned individuals don't absorb sunlight as easily as Caucasians and are more prone to vitamin D deficiency.

How to Safely Get Vitamin D – From the Sun

sun and vitamin DVitamin D is often referred to as the “sunshine” vitamin because our skin can make it when we are out in the sun. About 5 to 30 minutes of sun (without using sun screen) during peak hours (10 a.m. to 3 p.m.) twice a week on our face, hands and arms is enough to meet our needs. Sunscreen with SPF of 30 can block 95 to 99 percent of vitamin D production. After your 5 to 30 minutes, however, be sure to put on some sun block or a cover-up to prevent skin damage. In winter months, it may be necessary to get more of your vitamin D from foods.

Although most of us get enough vitamin D from food and sun exposure, some people may need more, including those who live in northern states, are not outside often, are older or have dark skin.

How to Get Vitamin D – From Food

  • Aim for 3 cups of vitamin D-fortified milk a day.
  • Use milk instead of water in making hot chocolate, soups and sauces.
  • Choose vitamin D-fortified yogurts, cheese and orange juice whenever possible.
  • Check labels and choose breakfast cereals that are fortified with vitamin D.
  • Include tuna on a regular basis, in sandwiches, casseroles or salads
  • Grill or bake salmon for a vitamin D-rich meal, once a week if possible.

How Much Do I Need?

Our consumer tip sheet, Vitamin D: What You Need to Know About the Sunshine Vitamin is a great resource. It outlines the current recommendations: children and adults aim for 600 IU of vitamin D per day, while those over 70 should get 800 IU.1 One cup of milk contains 100 IU, so three cups over the course of the day will get most people halfway to the recommended amount.2 Other dairy products, like yogurt and cheese, often contain vitamin D, but aren't required to, so always check the label.

Milk is an important source of vitamin D, and people who drink it tend to get 180 percent more vitamin D than those who don't.3 Other good sources, like salmon, contain 100 to 250 IU for a serving of farmed salmon and as much as 500 IU for wild.

There are plenty of vitamin D supplements on the market, but the Institute of Medicine encourages people to get vitamin D from foods. Very high doses of vitamin D (above 10,000 IU per day) can cause kidney and tissue damage. Always check with your doctor before taking supplements.


  1. Institute of Medicine, Food and Nutrition Board. Dietary Reference Intakes for Calcium and Vitamin D. Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 2010.
  2. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service. 2014. USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference, Release 27. Nutrient Data Laboratory Home Page,
  3. Fluid Milk Consumption in the United States. Food Surveys Research Group: What We Eat in America, NHANES 2005-06, Dietary Data Brief #3, ERS, Oct 2010. - first paragraph, top of pg 6.
  4. Bendik I, Friedel A, Roos FF, Weber P, Eggersdorfer M. Vitamin D: A critical and essential micronutrient for human health. Front Physiol. 2014 Jul 11;5:248. 
  5. Ross A. Modern nutrition in health and disease (11th ed.). 2014. Philadelphia: Wolters Kluwer Health/Lippincott Williams & Wilkins