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The scoop on vitamin D

Emma Stirling
Emma Stirling APD

There’s been hot debate lately about the pros and cons of getting your little ray of sunshine. Nutritionists have long understood the importance of sunlight in helping people meet their vitamin D requirements. And we are learning more and more about the role of vitamin D in good bone health and beyond. However, that gorgeous, sun-bronzed image simply doesn’t fit with today’s knowledge on sun exposure and skin cancer risk. So how do you get the balance right?

D for deficiency? According to worldwide reports, including the Medical Journal of Australia, a significant number of people may be marginally vitamin D deficient. Plus there’s evidence that the incidence of vitamin D deficiency is increasing. Those at most risk of vitamin D deficiency include people confined indoors, especially the elderly in residential care and people who cover their skin for cultural or religious reasons. However, as more people work indoors, cover up and slather on sunscreen to avoid sun exposure, Vitamin D disorders may become more common again.

A major role of vitamin D is to assist calcium absorption from the foods you eat and build strong, healthy bones. However vitamin D may also play a role in immunity, cardiovascular health, insulin responsiveness and diabetes. And according to a recent review in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, good cohort studies in Scandinavia have shown a link between vitamin D supplementation in infancy and reduced risk of type I diabetes 30 years later.

Getting your daily dose – food sources Very few foods in nature contain vitamin D and dietary sources can help boost your status. Good sources in Australia include oily fish like sardines, mackerel, salmon and tuna, eggs, fortified margarines and milks, plus red meat. Wild mushrooms and those pulsed with UV light are also a good source. In other countries, more foods are fortified with vitamin D such as breakfast cereals. Recipes like this Fusilli with Salmon and Baby Spinach (from Catherine Saxelby's Zest cookbook) is a great place to start and will be a winner with the whole family.

Canned salmon

Getting your daily dose – sunlight Regular, indirect sun exposure remains the best way to get your vitamin D. Generally, experts suggest that 1015 minutes of exposure on most days on the hands, face and arms should be enough. Specific recommendations differ by country and season, time of day, cloud coverage and the environment. Jump over to the Scoop on Nutrition to read the guidelines for Australians and the International Osteoporosis Foundation position statement on vitamin D for older adults.

Move it outdoors So, make a point to move it outdoors a few times each week, as part of your recipe for healthy living. See your doctor if you are concerned about your vitamin D levels. Vitamin D levels can be checked with a simple blood test and your doctor will advise if a vitamin D supplement is necessary.

Emma Stirling is an Accredited Practising Dietitian and health writer with over ten years experience writing for major publications. She is editor of The Scoop on Nutrition – a blog by expert dietitians. Check it out for hot news bites and a healthy serve of what’s in flavour.