A few years ago during an annual check-up, when my doctor suggested that I be tested for vitamin D, I was a little shocked and scared. First, because in my 31 years, not one doctor had mentioned vitamin D to me. And second, because I am lactose intolerant I had stopped drinking milk eight years ago. Milk is a major source of vitamin D.
Basically, I was out of luck.
When the results came back a few days later, my suspicions were right. He told me that I had one of the lowest vitamin D deficiencies he had seen. I was instructed to start supplements ASAP. But he also said that because I am African-American, this is to be expected.
I've come to learn that 97 percent of African-Americans are vitamin D deficient. Usually Blacks have naturally lower vitamin D levels because of the high melanin (a pigment) content in darker skin. This pigment in dark-skinned people restricts the quantity of vitamin D produced by the sunlight that penetrates the skin. In order to be able to reap the benefits of the sun, we have to be outdoors six times as long as white people.
Who has that kind of time?
In addition, African-Americans generally consume less calcium than whites because they eat less dairy products, a common source of the vitamin.
And even though my doctor assured me that I would be fine, the reality is that vitamin D is important—and not just to help build strong bones: vitamin D helps the body absorb calcium. Low levels of vitamin D are linked to many health issues, especially heart disease. And given how we disproportionately suffer from heart disease, stroke and diabetes, this is something that we should be paying attention to. Recently, researchers found that African-Americans who increased their vitamin D consumption by taking supplements reduced their risk of developing heart disease.
Low vitamin D levels have been linked to asthma, flu, bacterial vaginosis, osteoporosis, rickets (insufficient bone development in children), glucose intolerance and multiple sclerosis. It's also believed that low vitamin D levels play a role in why we develop more prostate cancer, breast cancer and colon cancer and get more aggressive forms of those cancers.
How to increase your vitamin D intake:
Supplements: Vitamin D supplements come in two forms, vitamin D2 and vitamin D3. Go for D3, the more active form. Experts suggest that African-Americans get about 1,500 to 2,000 IUs (International Units) a day. FYI: Before you start taking supplements, speak with your doctor because in some cases vitamin D may interact with medications that you might be taking for another ailment.
Foods: The following foods (and their quantities) can help:
— Fortified milk (1 cup): 98 IUs
— Egg (1): 100 IUs
— Cod liver oil (1 tbsp): 1,360 IUs
— Salmon (3 1/2 oz): 360 IUs
— Orange juice fortified with vitamin D, 1 cup: 100 IUs
— Yogurt, fortified with 20% of the DV for vitamin D (6 ounces): 80
— Mackerel (3 1/2oz): 345 IUs
— Tuna fish, canned in water (3 oz): 200 IUs
— Sardines, canned in water (1 1/2 oz): 250 IUs
(Photo: TODD SUMLIN/MCT/Landov)