Do you think your diet is healthy? It probably isn’t if you eat a typical American diet. In fact, a new study shows the American diet is low in seven nutrients that are vital for good health. Let’s see how the typical American diet falls short.
Nutrients and Deficiencies in the American Diet
Researchers at the University of Illinois analyzed the diets of almost 12,000 adults in the U.S. They drew data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys from for 2007 and 2009. They also looked at supplement use among these adults. About a third of the participants were disabled.
Not surprisingly, the disabled people they polled were deficient in key nutrients, likely because they had problems preparing healthy meals. What’s more surprising is many of the healthy adults they surveyed were nutrient deficient. Many healthy adults in this study didn’t get enough of three essential vitamins: vitamin A, vitamin C, and vitamin D. Plus, a significant number consumed too little calcium, potassium and iron. Not surprisingly, fiber intake was also too low.
What are Americans getting too much of based on this study? Saturated fat, cholesterol, and sodium. No surprises there. The question is why are so many Americans deficient in key, essential vitamins and minerals?
As this study shows, not all Americans are getting enough vitamin A, C and D. Based on prior research, vitamin D deficiency is the most common vitamin deficiency. No wonder! Most people depend on sun exposure to get their vitamin D. Your body has the amazing ability to convert compounds on your skin to vitamin D precursors. With the exception of foods fortified with vitamin D, there are few natural food sources of vitamin D.
What are the health consequences of too little vitamin D? If you have a low vitamin D level, you may experience symptoms like fatigue, weakness and muscle aches. In addition, some research shows inadequate vitamin D increases the risk for health problems including autoimmune diseases, high blood pressure, and metabolic syndrome. Vitamin D is also important for maintaining healthy bones as you age.
How do you know if you’re deficient? As your doctor to check your vitamin D level with a blood test.
Vitamin C deficiency isn’t uncommon. A prior study showed 5 – 17% of people are depleted of vitamin C and 13 -23% of adults are vitamin C deficient. You’re more likely to be deficient in vitamin C if you’re diabetic, over the age of 65, a smoker or are under physical or mental stress. As you might expect, dietary habits play a role. Fruit and veggie eaters have few problems meeting their vitamin C requirements since fruits and vegetables are a rich source of vitamin C.
Why do you need vitamin C? It’s an antioxidant vitamin important for immune health and for protecting cells against oxidative stress. In its most extreme form, vitamin C deficiency leads to scurvy, a disease characterized by bleeding gums, easy bruising, dry skin, and loose teeth. While vitamin C may not cure the common cold, not getting enough of it may increase your risk of falling victim to one due to vitamin C’s role in keeping your immune system healthy. You also need vitamin C for healthy connective tissue, the tissue that makes up your bones, teeth, tendons, ligament, and cartilage.
The take-home message? Eat more fruits and vegetables.
Contrary to the results of this study, vitamin A deficiency isn’t common except in the elderly and people who have chronic medical problems. If you’re deficient in vitamin A you might have difficulty seeing in the dark, experience frequent infections and have dry skin, hair and nails.
Vitamin A comes in more than one form. The retinoid form is found in animal products including eggs, liver, and salmon. Another form of vitamin A called carotenoids comes from plant sources, especially orange fruits and vegetables like pumpkin, carrots and sweet potatoes. The carotenoid form has to be converted to the retinoid form to offer vitamin A activity. Not all the carotenoids you eat make this conversion successfully. Still, carotenoids, even without conversion, are good antioxidants and help reduce inflammation.
Mineral Deficiencies in Adults
This study showed a significant number of people don’t get enough calcium, iron, and potassium. Calcium deficiency is fairly common, especially among vegans. Dairy foods are the best source of calcium. Plus, they offer calcium in a form your body can easily use. Trying to avoid dairy? Green, leafy vegetables and tofu are the best non-dairy sources of calcium. Calcium is important for healthy teeth and bones but also essential for healthy heart, nerve, and muscle function. If possible, get your calcium from natural sources like dairy foods rather than a supplement.
Iron deficiency is most common in pre-menopausal women due to iron loss from menstrual flow. A blood test can tell you whether you have low iron stores so you can correct a deficiency. Don’t take an iron supplement unless your irons stores are too low. At higher levels, iron is a pro-oxidant that can cause tissue damage.
Potassium is an electrolyte abundant in a variety of foods, particularly fruits and vegetables. Despite its availability in whole foods, most people still don’t get enough of it. Blame it on the average American’s penchant for processed foods. Processed and packaged foods are often low in potassium and high in sodium. Potassium is important for blood pressure regulation. Not surprisingly, low potassium intake is linked with high blood pressure.
Some prescription medications, including blood pressure pills, can alter your body’s potassium stores. Unless you have kidney disease or are taking a blood pressure medication that causes you to hold on to potassium, you’re not at risk for getting too much. So, munch on more fruits and veggies!
Fiber: Are You Getting Enough?
How does your fiber intake stack up? Women need 25 grams of fiber daily while men need 35 grams. Unfortunately, the average American only gets around 15 grams of fiber daily. The best way to remedy this problem is to include fiber-rich foods at every meal. The best sources? Fruits, veggies, legumes, whole grains and nuts are all rich in fiber. Start the morning with a whole-grain cereal like oatmeal or quinoa and stir in other fiber sources like ground flaxseed, chopped nuts, and berries. Later in the day, choose more vegetable side dishes and fiber-rich beans. A half-cup of black beans has an impressive amount of fiber – a full 15 grams.
The Bottom Line?
Eating a typical American diet of processed foods and not getting enough sunlight can lead to a nutritional shortfall. Make sure you’re getting enough of these essential nutrients for your health.
Food Product Design. “U.S. Adults Deficient in 7 Key Nutrients” October 2014.
Am J Clin Nutr April 2008 vol. 87 no. 4 1080S-1086S.
Am J Public Health. 2004 July; 94(7): 1078.
Colorado State University. “Potassium and the Diet”
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