Let’s be honest: There are a number of nutrients we know we need but, when pressed, we’re unable to really say why (as well as what foods provide them).
Sure, we know about the immune-boosting benefits of vitamin C. We’ve been made well aware of the fact that probiotics are found in fermented foods, blueberries contain antioxidants and, yes, there is plenty of protein in eggs and pulses. But what about vitamin A? If you’ve ever wondered what it is and where you can find it, you’ve come to the right place.
What is vitamin A, exactly?
“Vitamin A is a fat-soluble vitamin that is involved in many functions,” explains Brittany Moriarty, RD, LDN, a nutrition partner at Stop & Shop. “While its role in promoting vision is often what first comes to mind, it also affects growth and development, helps maintain healthy bones and skin, and helps support the immune system.”
How much vitamin A should you be getting per day?
According to Moriarty, the amount needed each day depends on an individual’s age and sex. “However, the recommendation for adult women is 700 mcg retinol activity equivalents (RAE), and adult men is 900 mcg RAE. The needs increase for women who are pregnant or breastfeeding.”
Also, Moriarty adds that it is found in food as both preformed vitamin A and provitamin A. “This is why the vitamin A content of foods and recommended amounts are measured as micrograms of RAE, and this accounts for the different types and amounts available in food,” she explains. She also adds that most people can get plenty of vitamin A each day through food, meaning supplements are generally unnecessary (and can even be harmful).
What are the best vitamin A-rich foods?
Vitamin A is naturally present in many foods, and it is also added to foods such as milk, nondairy beverages and cereals. There are two types of vitamin A in the diet, one from animal sources and one from plants, Moriarty explains: “Animal sources—meat, poultry, fish and dairy—provide the active form, preformed vitamin A, that the body can use right away. Plant sources provide provitamin A that the body converts to the active form of vitamin A.”
Beta carotene is the most common form of provitamin A found in fruits and vegetables, and it also acts as an antioxidant to protect cells from damage caused by free radicals. Provitamin A is abundant in produce items, especially red, orange and yellow fruits and vegetables, along with dark, leafy greens. Read on for the most vitamin A-rich food sources.
- Sweet Potatoes. Sweet potatoes are one of the highest sources of vitamin A—in fact, one medium baked sweet potato can provide more than a day’s worth. “These tasty spuds are also packed with fiber and other vitamins and minerals. Just be sure to eat the skin to get the most out of each bite,” Moriarty says. “Some of my favorite ways to use sweet potatoes are to top them with black beans, salsa and guacamole, or dice them up for heartier salads and grain bowls.”
- Whether you like them cooked or raw, carrots are an excellent source of vitamin A. “When making vegetable soups, I always double up on carrots since they add great color and texture,” Moriarty says.
- Mangos are a great way to add some vitamin A to your day. Keep frozen mango on hand to blend into smoothies—it adds just the right amount of natural sweetness. Carrots and mango actually taste great together, so blend them together to pack even more vitamin A into each sip.
- Eggs are an excellent (and affordable) nutrient-dense food and are a good source of quick- cooking protein. According to Moriarty, we should eat the whole egg to get the vitamin A, as it is found in the yolk.
- Leafy Greens. While orange foods may first come to mind when discussing vitamin A, dark leafy greens are excellent sources Switch up your salad greens with spinach and kale, and serve collard greens or Swiss chard with dinner.
- Fortified Milk and Nondairy Beverages. According to Moriarty, products fortified with vitamin A can also help you reach daily targets. “In the U.S., milk is often fortified with vitamin A, and many nondairy alternatives are as well. While it is often called out on the front of beverage cartons, you can always double-check the ingredients statement—it’s typically towards the end,” she recommends.
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