Think your diet is healthy? Guess again. The 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans says many adults lack seven essential nutrients -- from calcium to fiber -- and certain groups of people are missing even more. Filling in so many nutrient gaps seems insurmountable without supplements, but more often than not, food can solve the shortfalls.
Calcium: Essential Nutrient for Muscles, Bones, and More
You don't outgrow your need for calcium just because you're all grown up. While calcium is necessary to bolster developing bones, it's also needed to keep your skeleton strong throughout life. And that's not all. Besides participating in maintaining a normal heart rhythm, calcium plays a role in blood clotting and muscle function.
"Studies have shown a link between adequate calcium intake and lower blood pressure, as well as weight control," says Marisa Moore, RD, an Atlanta-based spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association.
The Institute of Medicine (IOM), the group of experts that sets nutrient quotas, has determined that calcium needs increase with age. Here's what you need every day:
- 19- to 50-year-olds: 1,000 milligrams
- 51 years and up: 1,200 milligrams
Three servings of dairy foods each day, as part of a balanced diet, provides most people with the calcium they need.
"Try to get calcium from foods, preferably dairy," advises Moore. Calcium is best absorbed in the presence of lactose, natural milk sugar.
Some examples of foods that provide around 300 milligrams of calcium per serving:
- 8 ounces of milk or yogurt
- 8 ounces calcium-added orange juice
- 1 1/2 ounces hard cheese
- 8 ounces fortified soy beverage
Fiber: Essential Nutrient for Overall Health
Fiber is best known for keeping bowel movements regular and preventing other intestinal woes, including diverticular disease, an intestinal inflammation. Years of research on fiber underscores its importance in overall health, too.
"Fiber-rich foods lower the risk of developing chronic conditions, including heart diseaseheart disease, cancercancer, and type 2 diabetesdiabetes," says Hillary Wright, MEd, RD, director of nutritionnutrition services at the Domar Center for Complementary Healthcare in Boston. "Fiber is also filling, and it's found in foods that are relatively low in calories, so it's central to weight control."
Fiber needs are based on calorie requirements. That's why men and women generally differ in their daily fiber needs, and why quotas decline with age:
- Men 19-50 years: 38 grams; 51 and older: 30 grams
- Women 19-50 years: 25 grams; 51 and older: 21 grams
It's beneficial, so why don't many people get enough fiber? Experts blame a lack of plant foods, including whole grains.
Here are some easy ways to boost fiber intake:
- Snack on whole-grain crackers, fruit, or vegetables or popcorn (a whole grain) instead of cookies, candy, and chips.
- Choose whole-grain breads and cereals, whole-wheat pasta, and other whole grains, such as quinoa, millet, barley, cracked wheat, and wild rice.
- Look for breads with more than 3 grams fiber per slice; go for cereals with five or more grams of dietary fiber per serving.
- Start a meal with bean-based soups, such as lentil or black bean. Add canned, rinsed chickpeas to salads, soups, egg, and pasta dishes.
- Include fruits, vegetables, and whole grains at every meal.
Bonus nutrients: Fresh and lightly processed fruits and vegetables and beans are rich in potassium; beans also supply magnesium.
Magnesium: Essential Nutrient for Bones, Immunity & More
Magnesium is an unsung hero of sorts. This mighty mineral participates in hundreds of bodily functions that foster good health, yet few people know that magnesium contributes to bone strength; promotes peak immunity; and normalizes muscle, nerve, and heart function.
You need this much magnesium every day:
- Men, 19-30: 400 milligrams; 31 and older: 420 milligrams
- Women, 19-30: 310 milligrams; 31 and older: 320 milligrams
Here's how to satisfy magnesium needs:
- Opt for whole grains; quinoa and cracked wheat (bulgur) are particularly magnesium-rich
- Snack on pumpkin seeds
- Sprinkle an ounce of slivered almonds on top of cereal or low-fat frozen yogurt
- Choose legumes, such as black beans, white beans, and soy as a protein source a few times a week instead of meat
- Consume three servings of low-fat dairy foods each day
Bonus nutrients: Quinoa and cracked wheat are filled with fiber; almonds are bursting with vitamin E and contain calcium; and milk is an excellent calcium source.
Vitamin E: An Essential Nutrient to Combat Free Radicals
A misplaced fear of fat may harm health by preventing you from getting the vitamin E you need.
Vitamin E, found primarily in fatty foods such as nuts, seeds, and oils, is a potent antioxidant. It combats free radicals, the unstable oxygen molecules that result from normal metabolism as well as from exposure to air pollution, cigarette smoke, and strong ultraviolet rays.
"Many people are constantly trying to lose weight," says Moore. In the bargain, they are eliminating healthy high-fat foods and that's costing them vitamin E."
For example, one ounce of sunflower seeds supplies two-thirds of an adult's daily vitamin E quota. An ounce of almonds provides almost half.
Vitamin E is a complex nutrient; food supplies eight different types of vitamin E. Experts have determined that alpha-tocopherol vitamin E (AT) is the most useful of the vitamin E forms. Men and women over age 19 need 15 milligrams of AT every day.
Here's how to get more vitamin E:
- Snack on sunflower seeds or almonds and add them to salads, steamed vegetables, and cooked whole grains
- Enjoy a nut butter sandwich on whole-grain bread
- Use sunflower and safflower oil instead of corn or vegetable oils
- Combine low-fat milk, honey and 1 ounce toasted slivered almonds in a blender for a delicious and nutritious smoothie
- Include vitamin E-fortified ready-to-eat whole-grain cereals
Bonus nutrients: Whole grains supply fiber; sunflower seeds offer magnesium and fiber; and milk contains calcium.
Vitamin C: Essential Nutrient for a Healthy Immune System
It's touted for helping the body repel germs and cancer, but it's not solely responsible for a healthy immune system.
Vitamin C is also vital for the production of collagen, the connective tissue that keeps muscles, skin, and other tissues, including bone, healthy. And, like vitamin E, vitamin C is a powerful antioxidant that helps ward off cellular damage.
You need this much vitamin C daily:
- Men, 19 and older: 90 milligrams
- Women, 19 and older: 75 milligrams
Your body can't store vitamin C or make it, so you need some every day. Include some of these vitamin C-rich foods in your choice of fruits and vegetables:
- Raw sweet red pepper, 1/2 cup: 142 milligrams
- Medium kiwi: 70 milligrams
- Orange juice, 6 ounces: 61-93 milligrams
- Strawberries, 1/2 cup raw: 49 milligrams
- Cantaloupe, 1/4 medium: 47 milligrams
- Broccoli, cooked, 1/2 cup: 51 milligrams
Bonus nutrients: Vitamin C-rich foods also provide potassium and fiber. Sweet red pepper and cantaloupe are rich in carotenoids. Consuming vitamin C at meals or snacks improves the absorption of iron from plant foods and iron-fortified grains.
An important player in good health, vitamin A is essential for normal vision, gene expression, tissue growth, and proper immune function, among many other duties.
Vitamin A comes in two forms: as retinol (preformed and ready for the body to use) and carotenoids, the raw materials the body converts to vitamin A. Americans have no trouble consuming adequate retinol, but they don't get nearly enough carotenoids.
"While there is no daily requirement for carotenoids, you should include foods rich in carotenoids every day," says Wright.
Concentrating on including colorful produce will likely get you more carotenoids than you're eating now. Top picks include:
- Sweet potato
- Sweet red pepper
Bonus nutrients: Foods that contain carotenoids are rich in potassium and supply fiber; there's vitamin E and magnesium in spinach, and vitamin C in broccoli.
Potassium: Essential Nutrient for Nerves and Muscles
Potassium is present in every cell of your body. It plays a central role in normal muscle contraction, transmission of nerve impulses, and fluid balance. Potassium even serves to promote strong bones, and it's necessary for energy production.
Adequate potassium intake hedges against high blood pressurehigh blood pressure, which creeps up with age. Men and women over age 19 need 4,700 milligrams of potassium every day.
"If you already have high blood pressure, check with your doctor or pharmacist about the medications you take to control it," Wright advises. "Some drugs, including certain diuretics, cause the body to lose potassium, which increases your potassium needs."
These potassium-packed foods will help you meet your daily quota:
- 1 cup canned white beans: 1,189 milligrams
- 1 cup cooked spinach: 839 milligrams
- Medium sweet potato, cooked: 694 milligrams
- 1 cup fat-free yogurt: 579 milligrams
- 1 cup orange juice: 496 milligrams
- 1 cup cooked broccoli: 457 milligrams
- 1 cup cantaloupe: 431 milligrams
Bonus nutrients: Beans supply magnesium and fiber. Sweet potato, broccoli, and cantaloupe can boost fiber and carotenoids; yogurt contains calcium.
Who May Need Even More Nutrients?
Women of Childbearing Age
If there's a chance you'll become pregnant, two nutrients are particularly important.
Folic acid is the synthetic form of the B vitamin folate. Once you conceive, folic acid (and folate, the natural form) help protect your baby against neural-tube defects (and possibly cleft lip and/or palate) during the first 30 days.
Getting the recommended 400 micrograms of folic acid every day from supplements or foods along with a diet rich in folate-filled foods is critical for women who may become pregnant. Folate is important throughout the remainder of pregnancy, too. It's involved in cell production and guards against a certain type of anemia.
The body absorbs folic acid with twice the efficiency of food folate, which explains the recommendation for the man-made variety. Even so, folate-rich foods are important, too.
Fortified foods include:
- 1 ounce ready-to-eat breakfast cereals: 100-400 micrograms folic acid
- 1 cup cooked enriched spaghetti: 80 micrograms folic acid
- 2 slices enriched bread: 34 micrograms folic acid
Folate-filled foods include:
- 1 cup cooked lentils: 358 micrograms folate
- 1 cup cooked spinach: 263 micrograms folate
- 1 cup cooked broccoli: 168 micrograms folate
- 1 cup orange juice: 110 micrograms folate
Iron is responsible for transporting oxygen to cells and tissues throughout the body. It's important for women to consume adequate iron before pregnancypregnancy as well as during.
"Pregnancy is a drag on iron stores and may cause iron-deficiency anemiaanemia in mom," Wright says.
To avoid health problems, experts say women should include foods rich in heme-iron, the highly absorbable form found in animal foods, and include iron-rich plant foods or iron-fortified foods along with vitamin C. Vitamin C enhances the absorption of non-heme iron. The ideal amount is about 18 milligrams of iron daily for women ages 19 to 50. Pregnant women should get 27 milligrams a day.
- 3 ounces cooked beef: 3 milligrams
- 3 ounces cooked turkey: 2 milligrams
- 3 ounces cooked light meat chicken: 1 milligram
Non-heme iron sources:
- 3/4 cup Whole Grain Total cereal: 22 milligrams
- 1 cup fortified instant oatmeal: 10 milligrams
- 1 cup cooked soybeans: 8 milligrams
- 1 cup boiled kidney beans: 5 milligrams
Older Adults, People with Dark Skin, and Those Who Avoid the Sun
What do these groups have in common? They may lack vitamin D.
Vitamin D production is initiated in the skin in response to sunlight. People who avoid the sun may not make enough vitamin D. Ditto for people with darker complexions, who have a higher level of melanin, a natural sunscreen.
Age decreases the body's ability to make vitamin D, so older people may easily become deficient, even when they get enough sun. To make matters worse, vitamin D needs double after age 51 to 400 international units (IU) a day (the equivalent of four glasses of milk), and increase to 600 IU daily after age 70.
In addition, most foods are poor natural sources of vitamin D. That's why experts recommend consuming vitamin D from fortified foods, including milk and breakfast cereals, and from supplements. You may need a mixture of both to get the vitamin D your body requires.