REAL vitamin A foods, please stand up!
When you hear think about vitamin A foods, what sources come to mind? Most nutrition books and internet sources list the following as excellent sources of vitamin A:
- Sweet potatoes
- Dark leafy greens
- Bell peppers
Although taken for granted as ideal vitamin A foods, these plants provide only the precursor to vitamin A, carotenoids. Interestingly, we need to be consuming true vitamin A foods, foods containing retinol, to meet our vitamin A requirements.
Retinoids vs. Carotenoids
The most important fact about vitamin A is the difference between retinoids and cartenoids. The vitamin A from animal sources is retinoids, also called retinol, while plant source vitamin A is carotenoids, such as beta carotene.
Animal sources of retinol is bio-available, which means the body can utilize it. The vitamin A from plant sources, in contrast, must first be converted to retinol to be useful in the body. This poses two big problems.
First, when we are in pristine health, it requires at least six units of carotenes to convert into 1 unit of retinol (source). To put this in perspective, that means one must eat 4 1/2 pounds of carrots to potentially get the amount of useable A as in 3 oz. of beef liver (source). What happens if we have digestive issues, hormone imbalances, or other health problems? It requires even more units of carotene in the ratio.
Second, the carotene-to-retinol conversion is HIGHLY compromised. As a matter of fact, this conversion is negligible for many individuals. This conversion is virtually insignificant:
- In infants
- In those with poor thyroid function (hypothyroidism)
- In those with diabetes
- In those who are on a low fat diet or have a history of low fat dieting
- In those who have compromised bile production (think: gallbladder and digestive issues) (source and source)
So, do you still think carrots are a vitamin A food? As with other orange veggies, sweet potatoes provide carotenes. Although beta carotene is an antioxidant, it is not true vitamin A. We must eat true vitamin A foods on a daily basis to meet our requirements for this essential nutritient.
True Vitamin A Foods
What are true vitamin A foods – the foods that give the body retinol, not carotenes?
- Liver from any animal, enjoy pasture-raised liver 2-3 times per week or take desiccated liver capsules daily
- Fermented Cod Liver Oil, which is higher in vitamins (I recommend the Cinnamon Tingle flavor)
- Regular Cod Liver Oil, the Weston A Price Foundation suggests this specific brand of cod liver oil capsules if the fermented option cannot be purchased. (However, there is some controversy that this cod liver oil is now stripped of the naturally-occurring vitamins during processing.)
- Egg yolks from hens foraging in pasture, ideally enjoy 2-4 egg yolks per day (Don’t worry about the cholesterol)
- Butter from grassfed cows
- Heavy cream from grassfed cows
Without a doubt, regular consumption of pasture-rasied liver is the most effective way to consume optimal levels of this vitamin. Men, women, children, and infants should consume liver on a bi-weekly basis. (This book explains how and why to feed liver to your baby). If you don’t enjoy eating liver or liver pate, I believe desiccated liver capsules are a nonnegotiable supplement for overall health and hormone balance.
Vitamin A Foods for Vegetarians and Vegans
As you can see, true vitamin A foods come from animal sources. A vegan diet simply does not provide the body with adequate vitamin A for optimal health. A vegan diet also reduces thyroid function and bile release, which drastically compromises the already poor carotene-to-cartenoid conversion.
From the Inuit in Alaska to the Maori in New Zealand, traditional cultures inherently understood the importance of consuming animal products. That’s why all “primitive peoples” (as Dr. Price called them) from across the globe without exception ate some form of animal products. For more information on the unbreakable dietary laws of traditional peoples, read Dr. Price’s recorded research in his life-changing book.
A vegetarian may be able to meet daily vitamin A requirements by emphasizing pastured egg yolks and grassfed dairy products. If I could suggest one meat-based product for a vegetarian to consume, it would be desiccated liver capsules. Liver is the best source of vitamin A and, gram-for-gram, the most nutrient-dense food.
Widespread Vitamin A Deficiency
The Weston A. Price Foundation offers a uniquely informed recommendation on vitamin A intake:
From the work of Weston Price, we can assume that the amount in primitive diets was about 50,000 IU per day, which could be achieved in a modern diet by consuming generous amounts of whole milk, cream, butter and eggs from pastured animals; beef or duck liver several times per week; and 1 tablespoon regular cod liver oil or 1/2 tablespoon high-vitamin cod liver oil per day. (Source).
50,000 IU of vitamin A per day? You may wonder. Is that for real?
Yes, yes it is. Consuming plenty of true vitamin A foods contributed to the flourishing vitality of traditional cultures, discussed in Dr. Price’s landmark book Nutrition and Physical Degeneration.
Due to the lack of true vitamin A foods in our modern diet, we face an epidemic of vitamin A deficiency. This contributes to the widespread health issues in our culture including:
- Hormonal imbalances
- Mood disorders
- Skin problems including eczema and acne
- Poor immune system
- Thyroid disorders like hypothyroidism
Vitamin A Toxicity: Should you be concerned?
Reports of vitamin toxicity or birth defects with moderate vitamin A supplementation led to a society traumatized by vitamin A toxicity. The studies that link moderate doses of vitamin A to health problems and birth defects use synthetic vitamin A. As with all synthetic vitamins, synthetic A lacks the complex cofactors and “living” integrity of natural A that allows the body to actually utilize the vitamin.
Since the body doesn’t really know how to use the fake vitamin, it collects in the body and can become toxic at moderate levels. In this way, synthetic vitamin A is more of a toxin than a nutrient. Steer clear of multivitamins and fortified grain products to reduce exposure to synthetic A. (Source)
Popping multivitamins won’t address vitamin A deficiency because your body simply cannot utilize the isolated, synthetic vitamin A. Technically, however, there is a pill that will give your body useable vitamin A… and that is desiccated liver pills!
Non-isolated, natural vitamin A in a whole-food source does not cause problems except in extremely high amounts. Dr. Weston Price studied the diets of traditional cultures around the globe and it is surmised from his work that these diets contained about 50,000 IU of natural vitamin A per day. This dose of vitamin A did not cause health problems but contributed to the glowing vitality of what he described as “primitive cultures.”
It all comes down to one nonnegotiable fact: we must consume true vitamin A foods to meet our vitamin A requirements!
Pair Vitamin A Foods with Vitamin D
An essential puzzle piece of the vitamin A story is vitamin D. Vitamins A and D work hand-in-hand: D helps the body utilize vitamin A and prevents toxicity of the natural vitamin A. Dr. Price’s traditional cultures thrived on high doses of natural A because they were also receiving adequate levels of vitamin D through sun exposure and the proper diet.
Cod liver oil, a historically sacred food, offers the unique balance of vitamin A and vitamin D, both in highly bio-available forms. Everyone from babies to pregnant mothers to the elderly can benefit by taking a top quality cod liver product daily.
For those who do not receive 10-20 minutes of daily mid-day sun exposure, I recommend this uniquely absorbable vitamin D supplement taken daily. I never skip my drop a day of this stuff! Experts advise a regular vitamin D serum test if you are taking any type of vitamin D supplement. Learn more from Dr. Mercola about vitamin D serum tests.
Want to absorb vitamin A? Don’t forget the fat!
Vitamin A is a fat-soluble vitamin. So, we can neither consume adequate vitamin A or absorb this vitamin A if we are on a low fat diet. (Period.) Adequate fat is also increases the poor conversion of carotenoids to useable A. Fortunately, Mother Nature, in all of her wisdom, designed the foods rich in true vitamin A to contain the fat we need to utilize the vitamin.
In particular, butter and animal fats such as lard and tallow stimulate bile release and therefore aid in A absorption and the conversion of carotenoids to useable A. Although these fats nourished our ancestors, animal fats were shunned by recent generations due to poor science. Fortunately, the low fat era is coming to an end as we shed light on the fact that old fashioned fats are good for us!
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