When it comes to bone health, calcium is typically the first word that comes to mind. But, with so much emphasis placed on this vital mineral, there’s often very little discussion of vitamin D, which is by far the most important nutrient for the proper absorption and metabolism of calcium. Unfortunately, vitamin D deficiency is very common in both children and adults alike.

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This is not a good thing as prolonged deficiency can lead to a host of health problems including bone disease, muscle weakness, metabolic disorders, heart disease and even cancer. To avoid such problems, here’s how to ensure your vitamin D levels are adequate.

Expose Your Skin to Direct Sunlight

Vitamin D synthesis is triggered when the skin is exposed to ultraviolet rays from direct sunlight. This is the primary means by which the body acquires vitamin D. You can obtain adequate amounts by exposing your face, back, legs, arms or hands for 5-30 minutes each day when the sun reaches its highest point in the sky (between the hours of 10am and 3pm).

This should be done at least 2-3 days per week in the absence of sunscreen. Outdoor exercise is a great way to obtain an ample supply of vitamin D so make an effort to walk regularly, go for an occasional bike ride, or engage in leisure time outdoor sports.

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Consume a Variety of Oily Fish

Oily (cold-water) fish is the most potent natural source of vitamin D. In fact, just one 3.5-ounce serving of cooked salmon or mackerel provides 55-60% of the recommended daily intake. In addition, both are rich sources of omega-3 fatty acids, which have been shown to promote heart health by reducing triglycerides (fat in the blood) and increasing HDL (“good”) cholesterol.

Other rich sources of vitamin D (and omega-3 fatty acids) include sardines and tuna, which each supply at least 30% of a day’s worth of vitamin D.

RECIPE: Herb-Crusted Wild Salmon with Sautéed Bok Choy and Mushrooms

Enjoy Egg Yolks in Moderation

In spite of the constant shunning of egg yolks, they’re actually a good natural food source of vitamin D. While the amount of vitamin D in yolks is relatively small, eggs are extremely versatile and easy to include in your diet. In addition to vitamin D, eggs are also a good source of essential vitamins and minerals including selenium, which has been shown to protect against cancer, heart disease and arthritis.

Since egg yolks do contain large amounts of saturated fat, it’s best to limit your consumption to no more than 3-4 per week.

RECIPE: Hearty Chicken Cobb Salad

Consider Eating Fortified Foods

In the event that you don’t consume adequate amounts of natural food sources of Vitamin D, you may want to consider eating fortified foods, as they can conveniently be included in your daily diet. Such foods come in the forms of cow’s milk, soy or rice milk, orange juice, and cereals.

An 8-ounce cup of fortified milk or orange juice provides over 60% of a day’s worth of vitamin D. In addition, these products are typically fortified with calcium, which enhances their nutritional value. Be careful though. Fortified milks and orange juice are high in sugar so do limit your consumption to no more than eight ounces per day.

When it comes to vitamin D-fortified cereals, whole grain products like oatmeal are best as they are relatively low in sugar and rich in fiber.

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Vitamin D plays a major role in bone health from childhood through adulthood. Without this essential vitamin, the body cannot properly absorb and metabolize calcium. Since vitamin deficiency is associated with losses in bone density and fractures in adults and bone deformities (rickets) in children, it’s important to obtain adequate doses of this vitamin on a regular basis.

If you’re not getting adequate amounts of vitamin D from the sun and other sources, you may want to consider dietary supplements. However, it’s important to check with your health care provider before starting any vitamin D regimen.

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