How Does Your Diet Stack Up?

Many of us are short on important nutrients, survey shows

From the WebMD Archives

According to the latest comprehensive government report, the American diet just doesn't measure up. Despite good intentions, our food choices aren't meeting our bodies' needs for four important nutrients: vitamin E, magnesium, vitamin A, and vitamin C.

Many of us - especially older adults -- should be concerned about other dietary components as well.

So what can we do about this? Below, we'll give you some great tips, recipes, and hints to make sure your diet stacks up. But first, here's a little background on the government findings.

About the Report

Each year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Surveys Research Group surveys what Americans are eating, using a random sample of 9,000 people across the country. Each participant completes a 24-hour dietary recall, which includes foods and beverages but not dietary supplements. Then, there's a follow-up phone interview. Most participants (80%) also undergo a physical exam.

The results are then compiled for a two-year period. The latest findings have been published in a document called What We Eat in America, National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey 2001-2002: Usual Nutrient Intakes from Food Compared to Dietary Reference Intake. (There's a delay in publishing the conclusions because it takes so long to collect and analyze the volumes of data.)

The report, often called simply NHANES, compares the survey results to the Institute of Medicine's Dietary Reference Intakes (DRIs), the most recent recommendations for the nutrients we need for good health. The evaluation includes 24 different nutrients and dietary components.

The Latest Findings

According to the latest report:

  • Nearly 95% of people in the United States are not getting desirable intakes of vitamin E from foods and beverages.
  • More than half aren't getting enough magnesium.
  • About 40% aren't getting enough vitamin A.
  • Nearly one-third aren't getting desirable intakes of vitamin C from the foods and beverages they consume.
  • Vitamin B-6 and zinc are also below suggested intake levels.
  • Older adults are the population group at the greatest risk of failing to meet nutritional requirements.
  • Everyone should also be concerned about getting enough vitamin K, calcium, phosphorus, and dietary fiber.

Continued

To make sure your diet has all the nutrients you need, a great place to start is with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's "My Pyramid" at www.mypyramid.gov, along with the 2005 Dietary Guidelines.

Another great start: Breakfast on a bowl of high-fiber cereal with skim milk, plus a glass of orange juice (this will help meet your needs for vitamin C, calcium, potassium, and fiber).

Beyond that, go out of your way to eat tasty foods that are rich in all or most of the four main nutrients the American diet is lacking. Below, you'll find top food sources of each, along with some "super foods" that contain more than one of them; 10 easy tips to improve your diet; and a couple of recipes to try.

Top Food Sources of Vitamin E

The Dietary Reference Intake for vitamin E men and women age 31 and over is 15 milligrams TE (alpha-tocopherol equivalent) per day.

Food
Milligrams (mg)
1/4 cup sunflower seed kernels
17
1/4 cup filberts/hazelnuts
8
1 tablespoon hazelnut oil
6
1 tablespoon almond oil
5
1/4 cup peanuts
2.5
1/4 cup pistachios
2.2
1/4 cup almonds
2.2
1 cup tomato sauce
3.4
2 tablespoons peanut butter
3.3
1 cup Swiss chard cooked
3.3
1 tablespoons canola oil
2.9
1 cup greens, cooked (collard, mustard)
2.8
2 tablespoons wheat germ
2.6
1 mango
2.3
2 cups raw spinach
2
1 high omega-3 egg (Eggland's Best)
2
3.5 ounces steamed clams
2
1 cup broccoli, cooked
1.8
3.5 ounces canned white tuna in water
1.6
1 cup papaya cubes
1.6

Top Food Sources of Vitamin A

The Dietary Reference Intake for women aged 31 and over is 700 RE (retinol equivalents). The Dietary Reference Intake for men aged 31 and over is 900.

Food
RE
1/2 cup cooked carrots
1,300-1900
1/4 cup canned pumpkin
1,350
1 small baked sweet potato
1,310
1/2 cup butternut squash, cooked
857
1 mango
805
1/2 cup spinach, cooked
739
1 cup cantaloupe cubes
561
1/2 cup greens (mustard, collard, beet)
260-500
1/2 cup kale, cooked
481
2 cups raw spinach
404
1 cup broccoli, cooked
212-348
2 cups Romaine lettuce
292
1 cup vegetable-tomato juice
283
1/2 cup Swiss chard, cooked
275
1/2 cup chopped red sweet peppers
212
2 cups loose leaf lettuce
212
2 fresh apricots
183
3 1/2 ounces steamed clams
171
1/2 cup artichoke hearts, cooked
149
3 1/2 ounces oysters
146
1/2 cup tomato sauce
120
4 dried apricot halves
101

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Top Food Sources of Vitamin C

The Daily Recommended Intake for women aged 31 and over is 75 mg/day. The Daily Recommended Intake for men aged 31 and over is 90 mg/day.

Food
Milligrams (mg)
1/2 cup raw red pepper
142
1 cup orange juice
82-124
1 cup broccoli, cooked
124
1 cup Brussels sprouts
96
1 cup fresh grapefruit
94
1 cup papaya
86
1 cup strawberry halves
86
1 kiwi
74
1 cup canned grapefruit juice
72
1 cup cantaloupe cubes
68
1 cup tomato-vegetable juice
67
1/2 cup raw green pepper
66
1 mango
57
1 cup cauliflower, cooked
54
1 cup kale, cooked
54
1 small orange
51
1 grapefruit half
41-46
1 cup tomato juice
44
1 cup greens, cooked (collard, beet, mustard)
36-44
1 cup butternut squash, cooked
36
1 cup tomatoes, chopped
34
1 cup tomato sauce
32
1 cup Swiss chard, cooked
32
2 cups raw spinach
31
1 cup green soybeans, cooked
30
1 cup raspberries or blackberries
30

Top Food Sources of Magnesium

The Daily Recommended Intake for women aged 31 and over is 320 mg/day. The Daily Recommended Intake for men aged 31 and over is 420 mg/day.

Food
Milligrams (mg)
1/4 cup roasted pumpkin seeds
303
1 cup Swiss chard, cooked
150
1/2 cup tofu
128
1/4 cup almonds
119
1 cup beet greens, cooked
98
1/4 cup soy nuts (roasted soybeans)
98
1/4 cup hazelnuts/filberts
96
1 cup okra, cooked
92
1/4 cup sunflower seeds
82 (average)
1/4 cup cashews
74
1 whole artichoke, cooked
72
1 cup butternut squash, cooked
72
1/4 cup peanuts
63
1/4 cup walnuts or pistachios
51
1 tablespoon molasses
50
1/2 cup baby lima beans, cooked
50
2 slices whole-wheat bread
48
2 cups raw spinach
48
3.5 ounces crab, cooked
43
1 cup low-fat yogurt
43
1 cup collard greens, cooked
42
1 cup whole-wheat pasta, cooked
42
1/2 cup brown rice, cooked
42
1/2 cup beans, cooked (kidney, lentils, pintos, black-eyed peas, split peas)
32-40
3.5 ounces fish, shrimp or oysters, cooked
30-40
1 cup Brussels sprouts, cooked
36
1 banana
34

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The Super Foods

Some foods can help you kill many birds with a single nutritional stone, so to speak. Certain foods appear more than once on these lists. In fact, I found three foods that are on all four:

  • Swiss chard
  • Raw spinach
  • Cooked greens

I also found three foods that are in all but one of the lists:

  • Butternut squash
  • Tomato sauce/juice
  • Broccoli

These foods are top sources of two of the four nutrients:

  • Almonds, peanuts, pistachios, and hazelnuts (magnesium and vitamin E)
  • Soy (tofu and soy nuts are rich in magnesium; green soybeans are tops in vitamin C)
  • Clams (vitamins E and A)
  • Oysters (vitamin A and magnesium)
  • Kale (vitamins A and C)
  • Cantaloupe (vitamins A and C)
  • Papaya (vitamins C and E)
  • Mango (vitamins A and C)

10 Diet-Boosting Tips

Here are some easy tips to help make sure your diet isn't deficient in these four nutrients.

1. Enjoy a handful of nuts almost every day.

2. Use raw spinach instead of lettuce for your salad.

3. Throw some papaya or mango into your smoothie (mango is available frozen).

4. Discover some of these less-popular vegetables as side dishes: greens, Swiss chard, Brussels sprouts, kale, and butternut squash.

5. Add broccoli to everything you can think of (salads, casseroles, pizza, side dishes) and serve it with a light dip or dressing as an appetizer or snack.

6. Enjoy cantaloupe as a snack, garnish, or part of your breakfast.

7. Drink tomato juice, enjoy some tomato soup, or have an Italian dish featuring tomato sauce.

8. For a change of pace, find a light entrée recipe that features clams or oysters.

9. Pop some edamame (green soybeans) into the microwave for an easy and satisfying snack; munch on some soy nuts; and look for recipes that feature tofu. You can also add shelled green soybeans to all sorts of dishes, like fried rice, casseroles, pasta salads, etc.

10. Switch to cooking oils that contribute some vitamin E (hazelnut oil, almond oil, canola oil), and buy the higher omega-3 and vitamin E eggs if they're available in your area.

Also, try these recipes, which focus on foods that are rich in the nutrients so many of us are lacking.

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Swiss Chard Italian Wraps

Journal as: 1/2 cup vegetables without added fat + 1 ounce low-fat cheese

OR 1/2 cup vegetables with 1 tsp fat maximum

12 medium to large leaves Swiss chard (red or green), rinsed well; cut out the thickest part of stem (about 1/3 of the way up from the bottom of the leaf)

4 to 5 ounces sliced or shredded part-skim, low-moisture mozzarella

12 teaspoons tomato paste

6 small tomatoes (or 3 large), quartered

About a teaspoon Mrs. Dash Garlic & Herb salt-free seasoning

Salt to taste (optional)

  • Place 4 leaves (still fairly wet from being rinsed) on a microwave-safe plate and microwave on HIGH for about 25 seconds.
  • Lay the leaves face-down on a nonstick jellyroll sheet (or similar) with stems lined up from north to south. Lay 1/4 ounce of cheese in the center, in a 2-inch long rectangle, from north to south. Spread 1 teaspoon of the tomato paste over the cheese, then top with 2 quarters (if using small tomatoes) and sprinkle about 1/16 teaspoon of the Mrs. Dash over the tomato filling.
  • Fold north and south ends of leaf over the filling, then fold in the sides to create a burrito-like wrap. Place on jellyroll pan, stem side up. Repeat with remaining leaves and filling. Preheat oven to broil.
  • Broil, with pan about 6 inches from the flame, for 2 minutes. Flip wraps over, and broil other side 2 minutes more. Sprinkle salt over the top, if desired.

Yield: about 6 side servings (2 wraps per serving)

Per serving (2 wraps): 102 calories, 9 g protein, 11 g carbohydrate, 3.8 g fat (2.2 g saturated fat), 10 mg cholesterol, 3.3 g fiber, 369 mg sodium. Calories from fat: 31%.

Smoky Greens (without ham hocks or bacon grease)

Journal as: 1 cup vegetables without added fat + 1 tsp sugar or honey

2 teaspoons olive oil

1 cup chopped sweet onion

1 teaspoon minced garlic

16-ounce bag of "cut and cleaned" mixed greens (collard, mustard, turnip) or collard greens

2 cups water or low-sodium chicken or beef broth

1/2 tablespoon brown sugar

1/2 tablespoon molasses

1 teaspoon liquid smoke flavoring (available in small bottles in the BBQ section of most supermarkets)

Pepper to taste

Salt to taste (optional)

  • Heat olive oil in large nonstick saucepan over medium-high heat. Add onion and garlic and sauté for a few minutes, stirring often.
  • Add chopped greens and 2 cups of water or broth. Add the brown sugar, molasses, and liquid smoke and stir well to blend.
  • Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to simmer. Continue to simmer for about 25 minutes, or until greens are tender.

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Yield: 4 servings

Per serving: 82 calories, 2.5 g protein, 14.5 g carbohydrate, 2.5 g fat (0.3 g saturated fat), 0 mg cholesterol, 5 g fiber, 25 mg sodium. Calories from fat: 26%.

WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Expert Column Reviewed by Kathleen M. Zelman, MPH, RD, LD on November 10, 2005

Sources

SOURCE: Nutrients in Food by Elizabeth Hands, ESHA Research Food Processor II.

Recipes provided by Elaine Magee; © 2005 Elaine Magee.

© 2005 WebMD, Inc. All rights reserved.

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