Essential for healthy skin and eyes, especially for vision in dim light, vitamin A also helps to keep the linings of certain parts of the body, such as the nose, in good condition.
Plus it’s vital for keeping our immune system strong to protect us from infection. Our bodies make vitamin A from the antioxidant beta-carotene, naturally present in food.
What happens if I don’t get enough?
A full-blown vitamin A deficiency is rare in developed countries, usually only seen in people with chronic liver disease or other health conditions that involve a problem absorbing nutrients from food. In severe cases, it causes night blindness, poor growth and an increased susceptibility to infection.
Less rare, however, are low intakes: 7% of one to three- year-olds, 6% of four to 10- year-olds, 13% of teenagers, 11% of men and 6% of women have really low intakes. The Department of Health (DH) recommends all children from six months to five years are given drops containing vitamin A (as well as vitamins C and D).
Too much can be a problem, too
While it’s important to make sure we have enough vitamin A, we shouldn’t have too much of it. This fat-soluble vitamin is stored in the body and excess amounts can have a toxic effect, damaging the liver, bones and eyes.
Too much vitamin A in the body also has the potential to cause birth defects during pregnancy. So even though needs for vitamin A increase slightly during pregnancy, the DH recommends pregnant women and those planning to have a baby avoid taking supplements containing it (including fish liver oil), unless their GP has advised otherwise. To be on the safe side, they should also avoid eating liver and liver products, such as liver pâté, as these are exceptionally high in vitamin A.
If you’re not pregnant or thinking of having a baby in the near future, you can still enjoy liver or liver products, but don’t have them more than once a week.
High intakes of vitamin A over many years may increase the risk of osteoporosis, so the DH also recommends that combined daily intakes of vitamin A from food and supplements don’t go beyond 1.5mg (1,500mcg), especially in post-menopausal women and men over the age of 65, who are at a greater risk of this condition. This usually means not taking supplements if you eat liver once a week and being mindful of the amount of vitamin A contained in any supplements you do take and the food you eat.
The Nutrient Reference Value (NRV) for vitamin A, which you’ll see on food labels, is 800mcg. But there are more detailed guidelines in the UK for vitamin A needs at specific ages and stages in life:
Get your vitamin A from natural sources. A typical meal plan could be:
- Breakfast: 2 slices wholegrain toast with 2tsp low-fat spread (84mcg) and 1 boiled egg (76mcg). Plus 1 small glass orange juice
- Morning snack: Cappuccino made from 200ml semi-skimmed milk (41mcg)
- Lunch: Salad made from ½ ball mozzarella (177mcg), 1 tomato (49mcg), ½ small avocado and a drizzle of low-fat balsamic dressing
- Afternoon snack: 4tbsp tzatziki and ½ red pepper (77mcg)
- Dinner: 140g grilled salmon (69mcg) with 1 jacket potato topped with 1tsp low-fat spread (42mcg) and steamed baby spinach (208mcg)
*We have only given amounts for the main sources – other foods in our daily menu may also contain some vitamin A.
Read more, find out why we need vitamin B1