As a vegan, you’ve probably heard about the importance of vitamin B12, but what about vitamin A? Vegans need to know the basics!
That’s because it can be easy to get less than optimal amounts without some planning.
Keep reading to learn what one vegan dietitian wants you to know about this essential nutrient!
This post was originally published on 1/28/22. The updated date is listed above.
Disclaimer: This article is just providing education and is not a substitute for medical or personal dietary advice. Always talk to your doctor about any health concerns, if you want to make major dietary changes, or take a supplement. See our Disclaimers for more details.
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What Is Vitamin A?
Those carrots aren’t just good for your eyes! Vitamin A is important several reasons including:
- Immune system health
- Proper cell functioning(1)
Vitamin A is an essential nutrient – meaning, we must consume an adequate amount as our bodies do not make enough on its own. If we don’t consume the right amount via diet or supplements, adverse side effects may occur-we’ll get to that later.
Interestingly, “Vitamin A” is actually an umbrella term for a several types of fat soluble retinoids, such as retinol.
To make it a even a bit more complicated, we essentially get vitamin A primarily via two sources in our diet: preformed vitamin A, and provitamin A carotenoids(1).
In order to understand what challenges vegans may have with vitamin A, we need to have a basic understanding of these two dietary forms, so lets attempt to understand them better!
Preformed Vitamin A
Preformed vitamin A includes retinol and retinyl esters. They can also be thought of as the active form vitamin A.
This type of vitamin A is only found in animal sources, but is also in some supplements and fortified foods with vitamin A. For example, it may be listed as retinyl palmitate or retinyl acetate.
Research suggests the body absorbs retinol better than pro-vitamin A (1).
Provitamin A (example: Beta Carotene)
Provitamin A is found in whole plant foods, like fruits and vegetables. It can also be found in supplements, typically listed as beta carotene.
Beta carotene is probably the most well known provitamin A. It gives fruits or vegetables a red to orange hue, and also happens to be an antioxidant!
Beta carotene can be converted to vitamin A, but is much more variable in the amount absorbed, with some sources suggesting 10-30% is typically absorbed (with a wider variation of 3-80%) (2).
The RAE, known as retinol activity equivalents is a measurement takes many factors involved in the conversion process into account.
Here’s the conversion for beta-carotene:
“1 IU (international unit) dietary beta-carotene = 0.05 mcg (micrograms) RAE
1 IU supplemental beta-carotene = 0.3 mcg RAE”Source: https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/VitaminA-HealthProfessional/
The RAE helps us understand how much how much of this nutrient people need.
Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) For Vitamin A
The RDA for vitamin A is measured in RAE as listed below:
Adult males (those aged 19 years and older) need 900 mcg RAE per day.
Adult females (19 years and older, not pregnant or lactating) need 700 mcg RAE per day.
Find more Vitamin A RDAs for other life stages here.
Is there any risk getting getting too much vitamin A? Lets talk about that next.
Vitamin A Toxicity
Adults aged 19 years and older should not consume at/over 3,000 mcg of preformed vitamin A (this is the the UL (Upper Limit)(1) .
Getting too much preformed vitamin A can result in many adverse effects including (Disclaimer: this is not a comprehensive list):
- Poor bone health (such as contributing to osteoporosis and hip fractures)
- Certain birth defects (in babies of pregnant women who consumed too much preformed vitamin A(3)
Its important to note that beta carotene (the plant based precursor to vitamin A) is less likely to cause toxicity than preformed vitamin A(4). Talk to your doctor before staring any supplement, including those that include vitamin A!
Do Vegans Get Too Much Vitamin A?
At this time, we are not aware of large studies looking at specifically at vegans and vitamin A toxicity.
As noted already, vegan vitamin A primarily come from beta carotene which is less likely to cause toxicity than preformed vitamin A. Still, vegans can certainly be at risk for vitamin A toxicity, especially if they take too much in supplements or other vegan forms of preformed vitamin A.
Vitamin A Deficiency
While rare in the US, vitamin A deficiency is more common in developing countries(1).
This deficiency can result in the loss of vision, that may begin with difficulty seeing in the dark or night blindness. The eyes may become dry, and sores can appear(5).
Lacking vitamin A can result in health problems for infants and children as well.
Are Vegans Deficient in Vitamin A?
At this time, there is a limited amount of research on the subject of vitamin A deficiency in vegans specifically.
Furthermore, some research suggests that about 45% of the certain individuals may not absorb as much beta carotene or convert it efficiently to active vitamin A(8). This can certainly pose a problem to vegans who may not consume preformed vitamin A.
So what are some strategies vegans can take to boost their vitamin A absorption? What foods can help us meet those vitamin A targets?
That’s what the next section is all about!
Vitamin A Vegan Style: Tips To Increase Your Daily Intake
1. Vegan Sources of Vitamin A (Beta Carotene): Get Familiar With Them!
Here’s a list of beta carotene rich foods (with amounts listed in Vitamin A RAE and rounded up (Disclaimer: this is not a comprehensive list of all vegan whole food sources of beta carotene):
- Sweet Potatoes (1 small, cooked: 577 mcg (micrograms))
- Carrots (1 small, raw: 418 mcg)
- Winter Squash (ie: pumpkin, , kabocha, acorn , delicata, and butternut squash, etc.)
- Mango (1 cup, raw pieces: 89 mcg)
- Cantaloupe (1 cup, raw cubes: 270 mcg)
- Spinach (1 cup, raw: 141 mcg)
- Kale (1 cup, raw: 50 mcg)
- Collards (1 cup, raw: 90 mcg)
Additionally, here’s what the Position of the American Dietetic Association and Dietitians of Canada: Vegetarian Diets (Year: 2003) paper has to say:
“Vitamin A requirements can be met with the inclusion of three servings per day of deeply yellow or orange vegetables, leafy green vegetables, or fruits that are rich in beta carotene (apricots, cantaloupe, mango, pumpkin). “Source: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/12778049/
2. Cook Your Beta Carotene Rich Veggies and/or Eat them Fat Rich Foods
Cooking your carrots could increase the absorption of beta carotene (9).
Some examples of healthier fats you could add to your beta carotene rich item include:
- Seed oils (such as canola oil)
- Olive oil
For example, you could have sauté cooked carrots with some olive oil and garlic, or drizzle tahini over baked sweet potatoes!
3. If You are Concerned Talk To Your Doctor About Vitamin A Fortified Supplements or Foods
If you are concerned you are not getting enough, absorbing enough, converting provitamin A sufficiently, or have a deficiency, talk to your doctor. He/she can help you determine if you need to consume a supplement with preformed vitamin A.
Remember, taking too much preformed vitamin A can be dangerous, so it is extremely important to get your doctors approval before taking supplements.
While you could discuss using retinyl fortified vegan foods, like some plant based milks, it might be more difficult to be consistent.
Vegan Recipes Featuring Plant Sources of Beta Carotene
Now that you know it is possible to get vitamin A on a vegan diet, how can you incorporate beat carotene rich sources in your diet?
Never fear, Registered Dietitian written recipes are here! Get inspired by some beta carotene rich meals, sides, or snacks!
- Sweet Potato Vegan Buddha Bowl from Alexandra Caspero, MA, RD at Delish Knowledge
- Vegan Stuffed Acorn Squash from Nicole Stevens, MScFN, RD at Lettuce Veg Out
- Vegan Sweet Potato Kale Hash from Sarah Schlichter, MPH, RD at Bucket List Tummy
- Roasted Sweet Potato Hummus from Cara Harbstreet, MS, RD, LD from Street Smart Nutrition
- Vegan Butternut Squash & Leek Soup from Plant – forward sports dietitian Kelly Jones MS, RD, CSSD at Kelly Jones Nutrition
- Arugula Sweet Potato Salad with Cumin Lime Dressing from Lizzie Streit, MS, RDN at It’s a Veg World After All
- Low Sodium Enchiladas with Black Beans and Sweet Potatoes from Laura Yautz, RDN, LDN, NBC-HWC at Being Nutritious
- Sesame Sweet Potatoes with Green Onions from Melissa Altman-Traub MS, RDN, LDN
- Seasonal Butternut Squash Hash Browns from Jackie Newgent, RDN, CDN, plant-forward culinary nutritionist
- Ginger Sweet Potato Soup from Jeanette Kimszal, RDN at The Radiant Root
- Sweet Potato Bruschetta from Sarah Koszyk, MA, RDN, Registered Dietitian and Sports Nutritionist
Did this post help you feel more confident about vegan nutrition? Do you have any other questions about vegan food rich in beta carotene? Leave us a comment below!
And while you are here, why not poke around on our blog? We go over topics like plant based diet books, and vegan sources of biotin and iodine.
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