Oily Fish: Your Route to Vitamin D

Because vitamin D is vital to good health, many foods have been enriched with the vitamin. However, it is naturally present in very few foods, and vitamin D supplements may be necessary to ensure adequate intake. But an excellent natural source of vitamin D does exist: oily fish.

What Are Oily Fish?

Oily, or fatty fish, contain about 15 percent healthy fat, whereas white, or non-oily, fish contain less than two percent. Which oily fish are at the head of the class? A 3.5-ounce fillet of cooked salmon contains 360 International Units (IUs) of vitamin D, essentially a full day's adequate intake (AI) for anyone under age 70; the same amount of mackerel has 345 IUs; and 1.75 ounces of sardines contain 250 IUs. For a full list of oily fish, see below.

These oily fish are a rich source of vitamin D:

  • Salmon
  • Trout
  • Mackerel*
  • Herring
  • Sardines
  • Pilchards
  • Kipper
  • Eel
  • Whitebait
  • Tuna (fresh)*
  • Anchovies
  • Swordfish*
  • Bloater
  • Cacha
  • Carp
  • Hilsa
  • Jack fish
  • Katla
  • Orange roughy
  • Pangras
  • Sprats

*High in mercury.

Danger: Mercury

Unfortunately, not all fish are safe to eat. Mercury, a naturally occurring metal, is also released into the air by pollution. When it reaches water, bacteria transform mercury into soluble, toxic methylmercury, which fish absorb. When we eat fish high in methylmercury, the toxin accumulates in the bloodstream and can endanger the nervous systems of unborn babies and young children as well as the cardiovascular and neurological systems of adults. Nearly all fish contain trace amounts of methylmercury.

Which Fish Are High in Mercury?

The FDA and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommend that pregnant women, those who may become pregnant, nursing mothers, and young children completely avoid the large, predatory, oily king mackerel and swordfish, and the non-oily shark and tilefish. These long-lived fish have had time to accumulate high levels of methylmercury in their bloodstreams.Women not of childbearing age and men should also limit their consumption of these fish to no more than eight ounces per month.

There is some concern about the safety of tuna. If you are pregnant, you may want to avoid both canned and fresh tuna; otherwise, consume no more than six ounces per week. Bluefin, yellowfin (ahi), and albacore ("white") tuna have higher levels of mercury than skipjack.

What Are Some Low-Mercury, Oily Fish?

The FDA and EPA advise at-risk populations to eat up to 12 ounces a week of low-mercury fish. Many oily fish are safe to eat, including salmon, sardines, herring, and Atlantic mackerel. Wild or canned salmon from Alaska are best, since they have lower levels of pollutants like PCBs and dioxins. Finally, if you're planning to eat locally caught fish, check the EPA's fish advisories page to make sure your fish are safe to eat: www.epa.gov/waterscience/fish/states.htm

Food for Thought

One serving of the following recipe provides over 90 percent of the AI for vitamin D. Enjoy!

Vitamin D-Rich Salmon (Serves Four)
You'll need:

Four salmon fillets, or about 1 pound
1 cup plain, Vitamin-D fortified yogurt
1/2 cup mayonnaise
1/2 cup mustard
1/3 tsp dried (or 1 tsp fresh) thyme
1 tsp dried (or 1 tbsp fresh) oregano
1/3 tsp dried (or 1 tsp fresh) basil
2 tsp dried (or 2 tbsp fresh) dill

Preheat oven to 375. Mix yogurt, mayonnaise and mustard in a bowl, then add thyme, oregano and basil. Arrange salmon on a baking sheet, top with yogurt, mayonnaise and mustard mixture, then sprinkle with dill. Bake for 30?40 minutes.

The Skin Cancer Foundation supports The Institute of Medicine of the National Academies’ Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for vitamin D, which is 600 IU (International Units) a day for people between the ages of 1 and 70, and 800 IU a day for people ages 70 and older. For children under 1 year, adequate intake (AI) is 400 IU a day.


2012, The Skin Cancer Foundation