Vitamin A: A Neglected Nutrient by Many Vegans?
Vitamin A is found only in animal products, but the body can create it out of carotenoids, like beta-carotene.
When I first got involved in vegan nutrition, vitamin A was considered a non-issue because we assumed most vegans would easily get enough beta-carotene with any sort of varied diet to cover our needs.
But in 2001, the Food and Nutrition Board (FNB) doubled the amount of beta-carotene they said was enough to meet vitamin A needs. According to the FNB, this change was based on “data demonstrating that the vitamin A activity of dietary β-carotene is one-sixth, rather than one-third, the vitamin activity of purified β-carotene in oil (1).”
They go on to say:
“This change in bioconversion means that a larger amount of provitamin A carotenoids, and therefore darkly colored, carotene-rich fruits and vegetables, is needed to meet the vitamin A requirement. It also means that in the past, vitamin A intake has been overestimated.”
This change mostly flew under the radar, but it made a significant difference in how easy it would be to get enough beta-carotene.
I recently became more concerned about vitamin A, quite literally, by accident. Early last Fall, I twice got up in the middle of the night and walked straight into my bedroom door that was halfway open, face-first!
Over the previous year or so, I had slacked off on vitamin A, relying only on a bit of shredded carrots on salad and mangoes on most days. In mid-November, I decided I needed to make a real effort to add more yellow vegetables to my diet and started eating sweet potatoes every day. A few weeks later, I realized that I had been having no trouble seeing the bedroom door at night. I wondered if there was a connection to what seemed to be my improved night vision.
In checking out whether it was likely that my apparent change in night vision was possibly caused by eating more beta-carotene, I was reminded that vitamin A metabolism is involved with immune function. When vegans get sick easily, I tell them to think about more zinc or protein, neglecting any concern about vitamin A. (Interestingly, vitamin A metabolism appears to rely on zinc.)
Vitamin A deficiency symptoms begin with night blindness, and if it progresses, can lead to the more severe eye problems of corneal ulcers, scarring, and blindness (2). Vitamin A is also important for growth and development in infants and children, and for red blood cell formation (2).
Because I suspect that many vegans might not be giving vitamin A any thought, I decided to make this post and add some information to Vitamin A at VeganHealth.org. That link has a chart showing which foods are high in carotenoids. I would encourage everyone to check the chart to make sure they are getting enough. And you might save yourself a few bumps on the noggin!
1. Dietary Reference Intakes for Vitamin A, Vitamin K, Arsenic, Boron, Chromium, Copper, Iodine, Iron, Manganese, Molybdenum, Nickel, Silicon, Vanadium, and Zinc. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press, 2001. | link
2. Vitamin A. Linus Pauling Institute. Accessed 1/25/2013. | link