In Australia, vitamin D fortified food is limited, leaving sun exposure and supplementation as the main sources of vitamin D. Findings from recent surveys conducted in Australia suggest that the general population has limited awareness and understanding about vitamin D.
We see headlines regularly calling attention to the widespread vitamin D deficiency of the Australian population, something that is quite surprising given that some parts of the country get up to 300 sunny days per year.
Experts in Australia are currently trying to spread what they call the balance message. “The balance message suggests some sunlight exposure each day for adequate vitamin D production, but not so much that would lead to increased skin cancer risk,” explains Dr Billie Bonevski from the Priority Research Centre for Translational Neuroscience and Mental Health in New South Wales, Australia.
Dr Bonevski and colleagues conducted a qualitative study aimed to explore vitamin D and sun exposure understanding, attitudes and practices of groups at risk of vitamin D deficiency. They also included people teaching children about healthy sun exposure.
The researchers included 52 adults participating in 6 different focus groups. The focus groups consisted of teachers, office workers, and community dwelling elderly. It was similarly designed to a study that looked at the attitudes of African immigrants. Moderators leading the focus groups asked participants about their knowledge of vitamin D, seasons and sun exposure, groups at high risk of D deficiency, and testing.
Here’s what they found:
- Most people felt they knew less about the benefits or the function of vitamin D compared to other vitamins. The participants attributed this to limited media attention given to vitamin D, in contrast to other vitamins (ie, vitamins C or B).
- Participants thought vitamin D was necessary and offers important health benefits, although few could explain what these benefits were.
- Few people knew whether they had been tested, and those who had been tested and found to be deficient didn’t remember being told by their doctor why it was important. Most reported they were simply instructed to get more sun or take a supplement.
- Many were unclear on how much sun exposure was needed to produce vitamin D. Discussions about sun exposure raised questions about the role of clothing and sunscreen.
- Participants were aware of who is at highest risk of deficiency including: elderly, indoor workers, and those who cover their skin for religious reasons.
- They were almost unanimously more worried about preventing skin cancer than whether they were getting enough vitamin D. Many participants stated that the anti-sun message and the vitamin D messages seem contradictory.
The focus group participants did offer insight into how we could improve our vitamin D levels. The participants’ main recommendation for increasing D production was to increase incidental sun exposure, “such as by parking the car further away from their destination, a brief walk at lunchtime…” One participant suggested fortifying food or supplementing. Some recommended creating a combined sun and vitamin D awareness campaign, while others thought this would create more confusion than understanding.
The authors weren’t surprised by the lack of knowledge about the vitamin D message, as previous surveys in Australia have found similar results. The interesting thing about this study is the authors focused mainly on populations at increased risk of deficiency, and unfortunately noticed no difference in vitamin D knowledge.
As we ask many times, what are your ideas to increase awareness? What would be some effective ways to increase vitamin D and sun exposure awareness?