Vegans: Vitamin A Needs To Be On Your Radar

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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.

What Is Vitamin A?

Those carrots aren’t just good for your eyes! Vitamin A is important for several reasons including:

  • Immune system health
  • Eyesight
  • Reproduction
  • Proper cell functioning(1)

Vitamin A is an essential nutrient – meaning, we must consume an adequate amount as our bodies do not make it. 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

Graphic showing examples of preformed vitamin A food sources.
Graphic shows examples of preformed vitamin A food sources including (not a comprehensive list): beef liver, part skim ricotta cheese, fat free/skim milk with added preformed vitamin A, Atlantic herring, cereal fortified with 10% the daily value of preformed vitamin A.
Source: https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/VitaminA-HealthProfessional/#h3

Preformed vitamin A includes retinol and retinyl esters. You may have heard of retinol as the active form of 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).

Is Retinyl Palmitate Vegan?

Retinyl palmitate can be vegan, but is not always vegan friendly, as it could be made synthetically or contain animal components.

You can check the label to see if it is vegan or contact the company.

Provitamin A (example: Beta Carotene)

Picture of a Sweet Potato with Black Beans

Provitamin A is found in specific fruits and vegetables, like sweet potatoes and mangos.

Pro vitamin A can also be extracted and found in supplements, typically listed as beta carotene.

Beta carotene is probably the most well known provitamin A. It gives fruits or veggies 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(retinol activity equivalents) is measurement that takes the various forms of vitamin A’s conversion to retinol 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.

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):

  • Headache
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • 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 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 also 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.

One systematic review suggests that vegan diets are not related to vitamin A deficiency(6). However, another European study suggests some vegans may not be meeting the recommended amount(7).

It’s important to look at what individuals were actually eating on a vegan diet in these studies. For example, one review study suggests that a case report of a child who developed a condition related to vitamin A deficiency was refusing several foods, including food groups (8).

It is important to have a healthy, varied, and nutritionally adequate diet, whether it is vegan or omnivores.

Now, 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(9). This can pose a problem to vegans who may not consume enough or the getting appropriate sources.

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: variable (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

One study suggests cooking your carrots could increase the absorption of beta carotene (10).

And some research suggests adding some fat rich foods in the same meal with beta carotene could also boost absorption as well (10, 11).

Some examples of healthier vegan fats you could add to your beta carotene rich item include:

  • Avocado
  • Nuts
  • Seeds
  • Tahini
  • Olives
  • 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, have a deficiency, or just want to chat about vitamin A as a vegan, talk to your doctor. He/she can help you determine if you need to consume a supplement with 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 vitamin A fortified plant based milks, it might be more difficult to be consistent. And again, be mindful that you do not consume dangerous amounts of preformed vitamin A.

Vegan Recipes Featuring Plant Sources of Beta Carotene

Picture of Butternut Squash Fries

Now that you know it is possible to get vitamin A on a vegan diet, how can you incorporate beta 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! Here’s a handy list.

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
-vegan sources of biotin,
iodine, and
vitamin B12

Going Vegan? You should check out the replay of a talk I gave on ‘3 Common Mistakes New Vegans Make!’

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1 thought on “Vegans: Vitamin A Needs To Be On Your Radar”

  1. Thank you for the great info. I feel like I learned a lot without feeling overwhelmed. You did a great job of mixing facts in with info that just feels like friendly advice.

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