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It can be normal to feel tired and worn out during cold winter months. Current safety measures of staying indoors more often, coupled with increased stress and dreary weather can cause fatigue, low immunity, muscle pain, and feelings of depression or exhaustion.  These can all be symptoms of seasonal affective disorder, or “SAD.” But for some, they could simply be an indication of a Vitamin D deficiency. We sat down with GHC-SCW Dietitian Julie McLaughlin, MS, RD, CD, CDE to get the facts on the importance of Vitamin D.

Why do we need Vitamin D?

Vitamin D is necessary for many key functions of a healthy body. Your immune system needs it to fight off bacteria and viruses and to help your body absorb calcium. Your muscles need it to move, and to help your nerves carry messages between your brain and body.

How much Vitamin D should we get every day?

The amount of Vitamin D you need depends on your age. For children ages 1-13, teens 14-18, and adults up to the age of 70 the recommendation is 15 mcg (600 IU). For adults aged 71 and older, 20 mcg (800 IU) is recommended. It’s important to note that some people need more or less depending on their medical history.

What foods contain Vitamin D?

Very few foods naturally contain Vitamin D.  Almost all of the United States milk supply is fortified with about 3 mcg (120 IU) of Vitamin D for each 8 oz. glass.  Many plant-based alternatives such as soy milk, almond milk, and oat milk are fortified as well.  Vitamin D is added to many breakfast cereals and to some brands of orange juice, yogurt, and other food products. Fatty fish (trout, salmon, tuna) are among the best natural sources of Vitamin D.  A 3 oz. portion of salmon contains 11 mcg (450 IU) and 3 oz. of canned tuna contains 4 mcg (150 IU) of Vitamin D. While they are not naturally high in Vitamin D, some farmers expose their mushrooms to UV light which increases the Vitamin D content.

Are there other ways to increase my exposure to Vitamin D?

Your body makes Vitamin D when bare skin, with no sunscreen applied, is exposed to the sun.  However, clouds, old age, skin with increased melanin, and Wisconsin weather reduces the amounts your body can naturally make.  While sunscreen limits Vitamin D production, it’s important to use sunscreen with an SPF of 15 or more when you’re outside for more than a few minutes. Unfortunately, sunlight through a window does not result in Vitamin D production.

Should I take a Vitamin D supplement?

You should always check with your primary care provider or pharmacist before starting any supplements as some of them may interact with certain medications.  Keep in mind, the supplement industry is not regulated by the FDA which means there isn’t a standard check on most vitamin contents or amounts.  If you are interested in taking vitamin supplements, make sure to only use brands that have the USP Seal on the label. These are certified by a third-party lab to verify they contain what the label claims.

What happens if you are Vitamin D deficient?

It’s very common for people to be Vitamin D deficient year-round in Midwestern states like Wisconsin.  In children, Vitamin D deficiency can cause bones to become weak and soft. In teens and adults, it can lead to a disorder that results in bone pain and muscle weakness.  Long term shortages of Vitamin D and calcium can lead to osteoporosis.  Some studies have shown a link between low blood levels and an increased risk of depression. Vitamin D is important for a healthy heart, blood vessels, and for normal blood pressure.

How do I know if I am Vitamin D deficient?

There is a blood test that your provider can prescribe that measures the amount of Vitamin D in your blood.  About 25% of Americans have low Vitamin D levels. That number is most likely higher during winters in Wisconsin.  If you suspect your level may be low, talk to your provider about testing your blood.

Meal prepping is the perfect way to keep cooking hassle free while also prioritizing balanced meals. Distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic, can make it harder to get to the grocery store regularly. Families may be placing larger orders once a month, resorting to prepackaged meals or struggling to make favorite recipes without fresh fruits and vegetables.  Fortunately, there are ways to effectively plan for fewer shopping trips. GHC-SCW Dietitian Julie McLaughlin, MS, RD, CD, CDE has some tips and tricks to help stretch grocery shopping trips while still making nutritious and yummy meals.

What are some healthy staple pantry items to stock up on at home?

Frozen or canned vegetables and fruits are cost effective and nutritious. You can also find fresh vegetables and fruit options that have a longer shelf life and buy in bulk. Some favorites are apples, onions, carrots, oranges, cabbage, acorn or butternut squash, and potatoes (regular and sweet). For whole grains, try filling your pantry with brown rice, oats, flour, bread, cereal, quinoa, and barley. These base grains can be cooked in many ways and are very versatile!

You can extend the life of your protein options with canned chicken or tuna or eggs.  Fresh salmon, lean meats, poultry and other fish can be stored in the freezer and thawed to be used as needed. If you aren’t a meat eater, you still need protein. Canned and dried beans as well as lentils and split peas can also be great protein options for you to try.

We haven’t forgotten about good, old fashioned Wisconsin Dairy! Save room in your refrigerator for lower fat and unsweetened yogurt, milk and cheese. You can have skim milk powder in your pantry as a substitute in a pinch. Mix up a bland recipe with a little yummy crunch and extra flavor with nuts, seeds, nut butters, dried herbs and spices.

A pro tip for pandemic grocery shopping is to make sure you check the expiration date on all your packaged items. Buy the items suggested above with the longest shelf life possible. Also, if you are worried about your salt intake due to canned items you can rinse canned vegetables and beans to remove about 60% of sodium. You can lower sugar on canned fruits by pouring off the syrup if the fruit isn’t packed in water.

How can members use one protein source for many meals?

A great strategy is to focus on cooking a larger amount of one protein and then finding a variety of recipes to use it in. For example, you can cook a beef roast and eat it plain with some veggies and rice. Then save some of the meat to make beef stroganoff with noodles and use the rest for a beef-barley soup. If you cook chicken breasts in a crock pot you will have cooked chicken that you can use in an array of recipes.  Freezing it in usable amounts saves meal prep time.

How can members make sure they are getting balanced meals if they aren’t regularly visiting the grocery store?

If you think of the food groups (protein, whole grains/starchy vegetables, vegetables and fruit) try to include foods from at least 3 of the groups in each meal.  You can search for new recipes online by typing in 2 or 3 ingredients in your pantry to use up what you already have.  You might just stumble upon some new favorites!

Is there a nutritional difference between canned fruits and vegetables or fresh?

Nutrition-wise, there isn’t much difference between fresh, canned, or frozen vegetables and fruit.  Canned vegetables do have added sodium so rinsing them can usually reduce sodium by 60%. There are also canned low or no sodium versions available in most grocery stores. Canned fruit often doesn’t include skin on things like peaches or pears so there is just less fiber in those cases. If canned fruit comes in syrup, drain it and just use the fruit. Also, most frozen fruit doesn’t contain any added sugar so that is another great option.

Any advice for large families that may be struggling to make healthy meals for many people?

Protein is usually the most expensive part of a meal.  To make it stretch it farther use less of it in recipes and increase the vegetable and whole grain portions.  Stick with a 3 oz cooked portion of protein (computer mouse size) on a plate with a starch and a vegetable.  Consider meatless meals with beans, lentils or even split peas.  There are plenty of online recipes using inexpensive sources of protein. Check out the links below for some other helpful meal planning resources: