Vitamin D and winter: How Canadians can get the nutrient without sunshine

Canadians don’t get a lot of sunshine in the winter months. Most wake up while it’s still dark out, and come back home after night falls.

The result of the shorter days is less natural vitamin D, explained Nazima Qureshi, a Toronto-based registered dietitian.

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“Sun is where people get most of their vitamin D,” Qureshi told Global News. “What happens in the winter is that it’s obviously not as sunny. Even on the sunny days, we’re all covered up because it’s winter time.”

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Less vitamin D can have adverse effects on health. Health Canada explains on its website that the nutrient helps bodies break down and use calcium and phosphorous, which maintains stronger bones and teeth.

“Too little vitamin D can cause calcium and phosphorus levels in the blood to decrease, leading to calcium being pulled out of the bones to help maintain stable blood levels,” the health agency explains.

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But, it also cautions that too much of the vitamin can lead to calcium deposits, which can lead to problems for kidneys, the heart, lungs and blood vessels.

Qureshi explains that there are a lot of studies still ongoing about the vitamin’s benefits and risks, with some conflicting research.

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Some studies suggest the nutrient’s supplements provide no benefit at all, while others say it can lower the chances of certain cancers and improve mental health.

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Here’s the intake Health Canada recommends:

How much vitamin D is too much?

According to Health Canada, the recommended daily allowance for vitamin D differs based on age, and for pregnant or lactating individuals.

Children under one should have 10 micrograms (mcg). Children older than one year of age and adults up to 70 years of age should have 15 mcg.

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Adults that are 70 or older should have 20 mcg. Pregnant or lactating people should consume 15 mcg.

The health agency explains the recommendations are based on the assumption that everyone will have minimal sun exposure.

Full details on the recommended allowance can be found here. 

Which foods contain vitamin D?

“Our foods don’t naturally have vitamin D, there are very few foods that do. So, you can have fortified foods in your diet,” Qureshi explains.

The good news is foods fortified with the nutrient, meaning products with added vitamins, are often household staples.

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In Canada, cow’s milk and margarine must be fortified with vitamin D. Goat’s milk, certain soy beverages, cheese, yogurt and orange juice are also often fortified.

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Foods that naturally contain the nutrient are limited to fatty fish, such as salmon or tuna, and egg yolks.

The Dietitians of Canada association lists on its website exactly how much vitamin D each food contains.

Are supplements a good idea?

With minimal sunshine, and not too many foods with vitamin D, supplements can be a smart option, Quershi says.

The dietitian recommends vitamin D drops for young children, because they’re easy to consume, and says pills are a common form of supplements for adults.

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“You want to make sure it says vitamin D3,” Qureshi explains. “That is the one that’s more bioavailable for your body. Most vitamin supplements will be D3.”

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Individuals who are already taking multivitamins should check the contents — most will include the nutrient.

“If you have vitamin D in that supplement, then you’re covered,” Qureshi said.

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