You might think that you'd be able to get enough vitamin D by eating animals and plants that are rich food sources of vitamin D; however, it’s not that simple. With rare exceptions, the vast majority of foods don’t have enough concentrated vitamin D to get you to 600 or 800 IU per day.

Scientists have tried to “fortify” certain foods by adding more vitamin D. But because of limits that the Food and Drug Administration has placed on the amount of supplemental vitamin D that can be added to foods, even that practice doesn’t produce a food that can supply your daily needs for vitamin D by itself.

So enjoy some foods with vitamin D in them. Many are D-licious foods that you want in your diet anyway. But depending on your vitamin D needs and your skin production of vitamin D, you may need more than your food will give you.

Vitamin D is a substance that dissolves in oil and not in water (nutritionists call it a fat-soluble vitamin). This means that oily foods like wild salmon or animal blubber are the best sources of vitamin D. The following table lists the richest sources of vitamin D, from highest to lowest.

Richest Food Sources of Vitamin D
Food IU per Serving
Cod liver oil, 1 tablespoon 1,360
Salmon (sockeye), cooked, 3 ounces 794
Mushrooms exposed to UV light, 3 ounces 400
Mackerel, cooked, 3 ounces 388
Tuna fish, in water, 3 ounces 154
Milk, nonfat, reduced fat, and whole
Vitamin D fortified, 1 cup
Orange juice, fortified, 8 ounces 100
Yogurt, fortified, 6 ounces 80
Margarine, fortified, 1 tablespoon 60
Sardines, in oil, 2 sardines 46
Liver, beef, cooked, 3.5 ounces 46
Ready-to-eat cereal, fortified, 1 cup 40
Egg, 1 whole, vitamin D in yolk 26
Cheese, Swiss, 1 ounce 6

Although several of these foods have quite a lot of vitamin D, not many people eat fatty fish every day, and few consume the traditional vitamin D–rich diet of animal blubber seen in the far north of Canada. Many people know that milk is fortified with vitamin D, but few people drink the 5 to 6 cups of milk a day that would be needed to get all your vitamin D from milk.

You might have noticed that even though cheese is made from milk, it isn’t a great source of vitamin D because vitamin D is added only to fluid milk that’s going to consumers, and not to the milk being used for cheese.

It’s also important to realize that food fortification practices differ between the United States and Canada. For example, fortification of milk and margarine is optional in the United States but mandatory in Canada.

Breakfast cereals can be fortified with vitamin D in the United States but not in Canada. The labeling of breakfast cereals will indicate whether vitamin D is added, but be careful of what it is telling you. In Canada it means that if the cereal is consumed with a cup of milk, you will obtain the specified amount of vitamin D, but not if you eat the cereal dry.

The recommended level of 25-hydroxyvitamin D in your blood is 20 ng/ml (50 nmol/L), and the new recommended dietary allowances say most healthy adults need 600 IU of vitamin D per day to reach this if you are getting no vitamin D from the sun.