The ABCs of Vitamin A

The term “vitamin A” is more complicated than you think. There are two dietary forms:

Preformed vitamin A, found in fish, eggs, dairy, and meat, doesn’t require conversion and is readily available and usable by the body.

Provitamin A carotenoids, found in plant foods, are converted by the body into retinol, the active form of vitamin A.

Beta-carotene is the primary provitamin A carotenoid. Unfortunately, the conversion process is highly inefficient, and only a small percentage of beta-carotene gets transformed into vitamin A. The process depends on a number of factors, especially healthy gut function and the presence of other nutrients including riboflavin, niacin, iron, zinc, and protein.

Not to say that’s entirely bad. Beta-carotene that’s not converted into vitamin A circulates through the body and acts as an antioxidant, protecting the cells from free radical damage, lowering inflammation, and reducing the risk of cancer, heart disease, and other diseases.

Are You Getting Enough Vitamin A?

Unless you’re a vegan, focus on getting preformed vitamin A in your diet from organ meats, beef, chicken, turkey, cheese, egg yolks, fish, and cod liver oil.

If you don’t eat animal products, make sure you’re getting plenty of beta-carotene in your diet. Focus on orange/red fruits and vegetables, such as sweet potatoes, carrots, acorn squash, butternut squash, pumpkin, apricots, cantaloupe, and red peppers. Leafy greens such as kale, spinach, and chard are also rich in beta-carotene. Eat them with fat to enhance absorption, and include cooked varieties—some research suggests that cooking fruits and vegetables increases their content of beta carotene. Try these tricks for getting more carotenoids in your diet:

Carrots. Cook finely shredded carrots, onions, and garlic in tomato sauce with olive oil, then purée for a carotenoid-packed pasta sauce. Thinly slice carrots on the diagonal, toss with melted coconut oil and coarse salt, and roast until crispy. Drizzle baby carrots with olive oil, sprinkle with minced rosemary and black pepper, and bake until tender.

Spinach. Sauté chopped spinach, onion, garam masala, and cumin in coconut oil, then stir in cream and cubes of paneer cheese and warm through (use coconut milk and cubes of tofu for a vegan option). Purée steamed spinach with avocado and artichoke hearts for a cream dip. Toss baby spinach leaves with thinly sliced red onions, sautéed mushrooms, and sliced hard-boiled egg, then drizzle with a warm mustard vinaigrette.

Butternut squash. Toss butternut squash cubes with maple syrup, coconut oil, cinnamon, and cayenne, and roast until tender. Purée thawed frozen butternut squash with garlic and cream, then warm through for an easy sauce. Halve a butternut squash, roast until tender, then stuff with quinoa, chickpeas, and minced sautéed greens.

Cantaloupe. Toss diced cantaloupe, red pepper, cucumbers, onion, and jalapeño pepper with lime juice and olive oil for a simple salsa. Sprinkle cantaloupe cubes with chili powder and lime, then toss with arugula, spinach, fresh basil, and olive oil. Purée cantaloupe with coconut milk and fresh mint leaves, then freeze in an ice cream maker.

Sweet potatoes. Sauté diced sweet potato and onions until tender; stir in black beans, thawed frozen corn, avocado cubes, and minced cilantro, and serve in taco shells. Use a spiralizer to make sweet potato noodles, then sauté in olive oil with minced onions, sage leaves, and Parmesan cheese.

Apricots. Toss sliced apricots with vanilla extract and honey, top with ground almonds and oats, and bake until bubbly. Halve apricots, remove pits, add a dollop of vanilla yogurt, and sprinkle with minced basil. Toss quartered apricots with baby spinach leaves, pistachios, and crumbled goat cheese, and drizzle with vinaigrette.

Watercress. Sauté watercress, leeks, garlic, and minced red chili peppers in sesame oil, then stir in water chestnuts and tamari. Wrap watercress, avocado slices, red bell pepper, and hummus in a whole-wheat tortilla. Toss watercress, orange segments, and jicama cubes with olive oil and lime juice.