Ask the Dietician: Vitamin A

Q: Is Vitamin A from Plant Foods as Good as Vitamin A from Meat and Milk?

Ginny Messina, R.D.: While plant foods don’t contain active vitamin A, it’s easy to get plenty of this nutrient on a vegan diet. Fruits and vegetables provide compounds called carotenoids that the body turns into vitamin A. These carotenoids are pigments that contribute bright yellow, orange and red colors to foods like carrots, pumpkin (such as the Pumpkin Crumble Stacks above; recipe courtesy of Lauren Toyota and John Diemer), and sweet potatoes. Leafy green vegetables are packed with carotenoids, too, but their yellow and orange colors are masked by the presence of the bright green pigment chlorophyll.

Although there are more than 50 carotenoids that can be converted into vitamin A, only a handful of them play a significant role in diets. The most important one is beta-carotene. Like other carotenoids, beta-carotene is an antioxidant that can reduce the risk for chronic diseases like heart disease and cancer. Since the vitamin A in meat and dairy foods doesn’t have any antioxidant properties, it’s better to look toward plants for meeting vitamin A needs.

To make sure you’re getting plenty of these pro-vitamin A carotenoids, aim to include a variety of brightly colored vegetables in your diet every day. The best sources are carrots, sweet potatoes, kale, pumpkin, spinach, and deep yellow winter squashes like butternut.

Beta-carotene and other carotenoids need a little bit of fat for absorption, so be sure to include nuts or a fat-rich sauce or dressing in your meals. Since cooking also improves absorption, sautéing vegetables in a little bit of olive oil can help make the most of their vitamin A content.

The vitamin A content of food is measured as retinol activity equivalents (retinol is the scientific name for vitamin A) or RAE. Women need 700 RAEs per day and men require 900 RAEs. Here are RAE contents of some of the best sources of vitamin A:

Carrot juice, ½ cup: 1128
Sweet potatoes, ½ cup cooked: 961
Canned pumpkin, ½ cup: 953
Carrots, ½ cup cooked: 665
Butternut squash, ½ cup cooked: 572
Spinach, ½ cup cooked: 472
Kale, ½ cup cooked: 443
Hubbard squash, ½ cup cooked: 382
Cantaloupe, 1 cup chunks: 270

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