Eat These Foods If You Need More Vitamin A

Vitamin A may not get as much attention as its sexier cousins B, C, and D, but it's nevertheless an essential micronutrient. If vitamin A is on your radar at all, it's probably because you know how important it is when it comes to eye health. But this fat-soluble vitamin plays many other critical roles in the body, including assisting your immune system and regulating cell division.

The recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for vitamin A varies by age and gender. Infants six months and younger need 400 micrograms (mcg), while those 7 to 12 months need 500 micrograms. Children age 1 to 3 should get 300 micrograms; those 4 to 8 should get 400 micrograms, and tweens age 9 to 13 need 600 micrograms. At puberty, vitamin A requirements change based on sex. Boys and men age 14 and up should get 900 micrograms daily, while nonpregnant females 14 and older need 700 micrograms. Most Americans, however, fall short of the RDA. According to national survey data, adult men on average consume just 649 micrograms of vitamin A daily and adult women get 580 micrograms (via the National Institutes of Health).

Although vitamin A can also be obtained from supplements, whole-food sources are usually the best option. Fortunately, vitamin A can be found in a wide variety of foods, so you'll have plenty of options. But it's important to remember that overdoing it on certain types of vitamin A can be just as dangerous as not getting enough.

Carrots

Carrots have become the poster child for vitamin A, and for good reason. A half-cup serving of raw carrots contains 459 micrograms of vitamin A. But there are actually two types of vitamin A and they aren't created equal. Preformed vitamin A (retinol) is found only in dairy, meat, and eggs. Provitamin A carotenoids are substances found in plants that your body can convert to retinol, though not with 100% efficiency. Beta-carotene is the most abundant form of provitamin A, but others include alpha-carotene and beta-cryptoxanthin. The chemical reactions don't stop there. Retinol (whether obtained directly from animal foods or converted from plant foods containing provitamin A) must then be turned into retinal and retinoic acid, the active forms of vitamin A.

Because of the two different forms it takes, it's unfair to directly compare the vitamin A content of animal versus plant foods. To standardize things, scientists express the recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for vitamin A in retinol activity equivalents (RAE). One international unit (IU) of dietary retinol is equivalent to 0.3 micrograms RAE, while one IU of dietary beta-carotene equates to only 0.05 micrograms RAE. Dietary alpha-carotene and beta-cryptoxanthin are the least potent; one IU equals just 0.025 micrograms RAE. In other words, the preformed vitamin A from animal foods is much more easily used by your body than provitamin A from plants and therefore "counts" toward the RDA more (via the National Institutes of Health).

Sweet potatoes

Vitamin A is best known as the micronutrient that protects your peepers. According to Healthline, vitamin A is needed to produce rhodopsin, a protein that allows the eyes to function in low light. Vitamin A is also important for maintaining a clear cornea (the outside covering of the eye) and may reduce your risk for cataracts.

Vitamin A is required for the normal eye development in all mammals. A form of vitamin A called all-trans-retinol accumulates in the retina, the light-sensitive area at the back of the eye. Thanks to a complex chain of chemical reactions, it's this vitamin A in the retina that allows visual signals to reach the brain via the optic nerve. In addition to making vision in low light possible, vitamin A is also needed for the proper functioning of the eyes' cone cells, which perceive color (via the Linus Pauling Institute).

Carrots may be the obvious choice when you're searching for foods to protect your eyes, but sweet potatoes actually offer more vitamin A per serving. A medium sweet potato baked in the skin contains a whopping 1,403 micrograms — 156% of the DV (via the National Institutes of Health).

Butter

According to Healthline, a tablespoon of butter contains 97 micrograms of vitamin A — 11% of the daily value (DV). So opting for butter over other oils and spreads is an easy (and delicious) way to sneak in a bit more of this micronutrient into your diet.

We've already established how important vitamin A is for your vision, and one eye condition in which it may play a particularly important part is age-related macular degeneration (AMD). As the National Eye Institute explained, AMD is a disease in which central vision becomes blurry because of damage to the macula — a part of the retina that controls "sharp, straight-ahead vision." AMD is a common cause of vision loss in older adults, though it doesn't lead to total blindness. AMD comes in two forms: the more common dry form and the more severe wet form. In dry AMD, the macula thins gradually over time. In wet AMD, abnormal blood vessels develop in the retina, damaging the macula.

A 2019 paper published in Antioxidants noted that several studies have shown a link between diets high in vitamin A, particularly provitamin A from fruits and vegetables, and decreased risk for AMD. The authors cautioned, however, that other studies have found no link between the two. Vitamin A, in the form of beta-carotene, is also present in AREDS, a multivitamin/multimineral supplement clinically formulated to slow the progression of AMD (via the National Eye Institute).

Spinach

Considering the many important roles vitamin A plays in the eye, it's not surprising that not getting enough of this micronutrient can cause a host of vision problems. Deficiency can lead to night blindness, which begins as difficulty seeing clearly in low light and can progress to total blindness at night. Xerophthalmia is another ocular manifestation of vitamin A deficiency. In this condition, the eyes become very dry and crusted, which damages the cornea and retina. Similarly, keratomalacia is another complication of vitamin A deficiency and involves the drying and clouding of the cornea. Bitot spots — an accumulation of keratin in the eyes — can also occur, causing hazy vision (via WebMD). 

Although vitamin A deficiency are rare in the United States and other developed countries, it's a major public health concern worldwide, particularly among children. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), an estimated 250,000 to 500,000 vitamin A-deficient children become blind every year. In fact, vitamin A deficiency is the leading cause of preventable childhood blindness globally.

In addition to its many other beneficial micronutrients, spinach is an excellent way to get the vitamin A you need and prevent deficiency. A half-cup serving of boiled frozen spinach contains 573 micrograms of vitamin A — 64% of your daily needs (via the National Institutes of Health).

Mango

If you'd prefer to get your vitamin A with something a bit more tropical, you'll be happy to hear that one medium mango contains 181 micrograms — 20% of your daily needs (via Healthline). Vitamin A, particularly beta-carotene is a powerful antioxidant. Choosing mango and other vitamin A-rich foods over supplements is best, since it's unclear if supplements can provide the same antioxidant benefits that whole foods offer (via the Mayo Clinic).

But what exactly do antioxidants do and why are they so important for good health? Antioxidants are chemicals that protect the body against damage from free radicals. Free radicals are highly unstable atoms of oxygen that try to "steal" electrons from other molecules in the body. This destabilizes the molecules and creates a chain reaction that leads to damage throughout the body, a process known as oxidative damage or oxidative stress. Substances that produce free radicals can be found in food and in our environment, and free radicals are also created as the byproduct of natural chemical processes in the body. Antioxidants are able to give free radicals the electrons they want "without becoming destabilized themselves" (via Livescience).

Squash

You already know vitamin C is important for fighting off viral and bacterial infections, but did you know vitamin A also plays an integral role? A 2018 paper published in the Journal of Clinical Medicine noted that vitamin A is essential for the development and functioning of the immune system. It's particularly important for "protecting epithelium and mucus integrity," which means it helps to maintain the mucus membranes that serve as your first line of defense against invading germs. Vitamin A helps B cells — a type of specialized white blood cell — create antibodies to specific pathogens the body has encountered in the past. Adequate amounts of vitamin A are also necessary for proper functioning of T cells, another component of the immune system that helps neutralize viral threats.

To keep your immune system in fighting shape, chow down on vitamin A-rich winter squashes. The average winter squash contains 59% of the daily value (DV) for vitamin A in just one cup. Some varieties pack even more punch. A cup of butternut squash, for instance, contains 127% of the DV, while the same size serving of hubbard squash contains 76% of the DV. Acorn squash, another popular choice, comes in a bit lower but still offers a respectable 11% of the DV per cup (via MyFoodData).

Pumpkin pie a la mode

You don't even have to eat particularly healthy to get the vitamin A you need. Pumpkin is as rich in vitamin A as many of its gourd cousins, and a single slice of commercially-produced pumpkin pie boasts and impressive 488 micrograms of vitamin A — 54% of the daily value (DV). Top that pumpkin pie with a one-cup scoop of French vanilla ice cream and you'll add another 278 micrograms (31% DV) of vitamin A to your dessert plate (via the National Institutes of Health).

Given the many important roles vitamin A plays in the immune system, it's not surprising that a deficiency can lead to more frequent infections (via WebMD). Individuals — especially children — who don't get enough vitamin A also tend to have more serious complications from infectious diseases and are more likely to die from these conditions. For example, since the 1970s, doctors have noted that children low on vitamin A are much more likely to have serious complications from or die of measles, a childhood disease that was common before the development of an effective vaccine. One doctor said: "adequate vitamin A intake can mitigate the effects of common diseases such as measles and [infectious] diarrhea [and] reduce child mortality in at-risk populations by 23% to 34% to avert up to one million deaths a year" (via The History of Vaccines).

Tuna and other fatty fish

Tuna is another excellent source of highly bioavailable preformed vitamin A. A 3.5–ounce serving contains 757 micrograms, which is 84% of the daily value (DV). Other great fish options include salmon (3.5 ounces contains 149 micrograms) and king mackerel (252 micrograms per 3.5-ounce serving). And, if you can stomach it, a single teaspoon of cod liver oil offers up a whopping 1,350 micrograms (via Healthline).

Vitamin A is particularly important during fetal development. According to the Linus Pauling Institute, it's critical for proper development of numerous organs, including the heart, eyes, ears, and lungs. A lack of vitamin A during gestation can cause defects in the structure and function of these organs. Without adequate vitamin A, a fetus's lungs won't mature sufficiently to function outside the womb. In fact, supplementation with vitamin A may prevent chronic lung diseases and death in preterm infants. It's not surprising then, that vitamin A requirements change during pregnancy. Women 18 and younger should get 750 micrograms of vitamin A daily while pregnant, while those over 19 who are expecting should get 770 micrograms. And, because breastfed infants get vitamin A from their mother's milk, lactating women also have substantially-elevated needs for this micronutrient. Breastfeeding mothers 18 and younger need 1,200 micrograms daily, while those 19 and older should get 1,300 micrograms.

Bell peppers

Bell peppers are a great option for provitamin A carotenoids. One cup of cooked red bell pepper contains 198 micrograms — 22% of your daily needs (via MyFoodData). The active forms of vitamin A play a major role in regulating gene expression, which in turn controls how cells divide and differentiate. Because of vitamin A's impact on whether or not a particular cell will divide, researchers have been investigating how this micronutrient might increase or decrease cancer risk (since cancer is essentially uncontrolled cell division). The results, however, have been mixed. Studies using animals or cells in petri dishes have shown that vitamin A prevents the development and proliferation of cancer cells in skin, breast, liver, colon, and prostate tissue. Human studies, however, seem to suggest that consuming more than the recommended dietary allowance (RDA) of vitamin A doesn't confer any additional anti-cancer benefits. In fact, in the case of those at high risk for lung cancer, consuming large quantities of preformed vitamin A and beta-carotene appears to actually increase the relative risk of getting lung cancer by as much as 28% (via the Linus Pauling Institute).

It's important to note, however, that most studies examining a link between vitamin A and cancer are looking specifically at high-dose supplements, not dietary intake. No matter how many bell peppers you eat, you're unlikely to reach the amounts of vitamin A used in cancer research.

Eggs

Eggs are another great food option for getting a bit more preformed vitamin A. A single large hard-boiled egg contains 74 micrograms of retinol — 8% of your daily needs (via Healthline). You probably already know that many skincare treatments contain vitamin A, but did you know that the vitamin A you get from eggs and other dietary sources can affect your skin from the inside out? Vitamin A is an antioxidant, which means it may offer some protection from skin-damaging UV rays. It also appears to reduce sun damage by preventing the breakdown of collagen. If your skin is marred by scrapes or cuts, vitamin A is a necessary component for successful and speedy wound healing (via WebMD).

Eating a diet high in vitamin A can also help fight blemishes. After all, a form of vitamin A — called retinoids — is the main ingredient in the prescription acne treatment Accutane. Getting vitamin A from foods, however, is much safer than using this highly controversial drug. As dermatologist Dr. Ellen Marmur explained in an interview with WebMD, "Vitamin A helps regulate the skin cycle, so no acne-causing protein and oil get trapped."

Given the role it plays in skin health, it's not surprising that a lack of vitamin A can lead to skin issues. According to WebMD, "People experiencing vitamin A deficiency could have problems with their skin, such as dryness, itching, and scaling."

Cheese

It's possible for anyone to be deficient in vitamin A, but some groups are more at risk than others. Globally, infants and young children in developing nations are at greatest risk. If a new mother is low on vitamin A, her breastmilk won't contain enough of this important micronutrient for her infant. The prevalence of vitamin A deficiency in developing countries increases immediately after weaning, as these babies may not get enough vitamin A-rich foods. Even in developed nations, premature babies are at high risk for low blood levels of vitamin A. Their livers didn't have enough time in utero to build up adequate vitamin A stores. Pregnant and lactating women in developing countries are also more likely to be vitamin A deficient. As many as 15% to 40% of individuals with cystic fibrosis have vitamin A deficiency because they have difficulty absorbing fat and fat-soluble vitamins like vitamin A due to decreased levels of digestive enzymes produced in the pancreas (via the National Institutes of Health).

If you're at risk for vitamin A deficiency, eating more cheese could be a delicious way to get more vitamin A. A 3.5-ounce serving of goat cheese has 407 micrograms, while the same size serving of cheddar has 330 micrograms and feta has 125 micrograms. If you like your cheeses on the stinkier side, you'll be happy to know that limburger contains 340 micrograms per 3.5-ounce serving, camembert has 241 micrograms, and blue cheese packs a respectable 198 micrograms (via Healthline).

Liver

While not getting enough vitamin A can cause a host of problems, you can also get too much of a good thing. Hypervitaminosis A is a condition in which vitamin A builds up to toxic levels in the body. It can be either acute, from an extremely high dose ingested over a short period of time, or chronic, from high doses consumed over an extended period of time. Toxicity can only happen with preformed vitamin A, which is absorbed quickly and leaves the body slowly; overdoing it on beta-carotene and other forms of provitamin A isn't an issue.

Acute hypervitaminosis A is rare. Symptoms include nausea, loss of appetite, fatigue, headache, dizziness, dry and peeling skin, and cerebral edema (brain swelling). These symptoms are also seen in chronic hypervitaminosis. Chronic toxicity can also cause weight loss, enlarged liver or spleen, anemia, and joint pain. Severe cases of both acute and chronic hypervitaminosis A can cause liver damage, internal bleeding, and coma. Over an extended period of time, intakes of approximately 8,000 to 10,000 micrograms will lead to chronic toxicity (via the Linus Pauling Institute).

Liver is the richest source of preformed vitamin A. Three ounces of beef liver contains 6,582 micrograms. Even so, you'd have to eat a hefty serving every day for weeks or months before experiencing chronic hypervitaminosis A. Chronic toxicity is usually caused by taking too many vitamin A supplements (via the National Institutes of Health).

Breakfast cereal with milk

Foods don't even need to naturally contain vitamin A to give you a valuable dose of this micronutrient. A number of foods are fortified with preformed vitamin A (retinol). These include many breakfast cereals, juices, and dairy products (via the Harvard School of Public Health). One serving of fortified cereal can contain as much as 90 micrograms of vitamin A — 10% of the daily value (DV). In fact, fortified cereals are one of the top sources of vitamin A in the average American diet. If you're like most people and eat your cereal in a bowl of milk, you'll get even more vitamin A. A one-cup serving of fortified milk, fat free or skim, contains 149 micrograms (17% DV) of vitamin A (via the National Institutes of Health).

But not everyone agrees that vitamin A fortification adds much value. In a 2019 paper published in The Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, researchers set out to assess whether fortifying staple foods such as rice, wheat flour, corn flour, cooking oils, and milk was effective at reducing rates of vitamin A deficiency and improving health-related outcomes. After reviewing 10 previously published randomized controlled trials involving more than 4,000 participants, the authors concluded that fortification with vitamin A alone made "little or no difference" when it came to raising levels of retinol in the blood. Fortification may, however, help reduce the likelihood of subclinical (asymptomatic) vitamin A deficiency.

Broccoli

According to MyFoodData, one cup of cooked broccoli contains 120 micrograms of vitamin A, which is 13% of your daily needs. But if you prefer your broccoli raw, or you've let it sit around for a while before eating it, you could be getting more or less vitamin A than you expect. As with all other vitamins, vitamin A levels can be affected by cooking methods, storage time and temperature, and exposure to light.

Along with vitamins B2 (riboflavin), B6, B12, and folic acid, vitamin A is among the vitamins most sensitive to UV light (via Nutraceutical Business Review). So be sure to store vitamin A-rich produce either in a dark pantry or inside the fridge, rather than leaving it out on the counter. When it comes to cooking options, stir-frying may actually improve the absorption of vitamin A and other fat-soluble vitamins (via Healthline). In fact, a 2012 study published in the British Journal of Nutrition found that stir-frying enhanced the bioavailability of beta-carotene from carrots by 75%. A 2006 paper published in the Journal of Food Composition and Analysis noted that vitamin A was among the vitamins most easily degraded by boiling; vegetables retain only about a third of their original vitamin A content after boiling.