Have you ever wondered whether you're getting enough vitamins and minerals in your diet or whether you need to supplement it by taking a multivitamin? Many Americans skimp on nutrient-rich foods, such as fruits, vegetables, dairy and proteins, which provide essential vitamins and minerals. Instead, we eat a diet with excess salt, fat, refined sugar and highly processed foods — all of which tend to provide few vitamins.
There's a reason the standard American diet is known as the SAD diet. Unfortunately, it leads to higher rates of obesity, cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and certain cancers. And in our fast-food, grab-and-go culture, we too often rely on what's quick and easy — giving little thought to what's best for our bodies.
We're supposed to eat so that the body gets all the energy and nutrients it needs. Nutrients, such as carbohydrates, fats, proteins, vitamins and minerals are essential for the body to function, grow and repair itself. So why are most of us falling short? How can we know whether we are eating a balanced diet without keeping a tally sheet?
Amanda Beaver, a registered dietitian nutritionist for Houston Methodist Wellness Services, is here to simplify things and help you find out if you are getting enough vitamins and minerals.
How easy is it to get all the daily recommended vitamins and minerals we need in one day?
This depends on your diet. It is very difficult to get all the daily recommended vitamins and minerals in one day if you're eating a diet focused on highly processed convenience foods and fast food. These foods are typically rich in calories, but poor in nutrients like vitamins and minerals.
On the other hand, it can be much easier to get all the recommended vitamins if you eat a varied diet containing veggies, fruits, beans, whole grains, nuts, proteins, dairy and leafy greens. All these foods are rich in vitamins and minerals, and many are good sources of fiber.
But even if you eat many of these foods regularly, it can still be difficult to get some specific nutrients, especially calcium and vitamin D. I recommend my clients intentionally add calcium-containing foods to their regular diet, and some may require a vitamin D supplement as it is not found in many foods.
Pregnant women and women of childbearing age may also find it hard to get enough iron. For my client's struggling to get enough iron, I typically recommend a snack of lower sugar, iron-fortified breakfast cereal, such as Cheerios.
Do we rely on vitamins too much?
Many people think of vitamins as a substitute for eating a nutritious diet. This is simply not true. In most cases, I recommend trying to get your nutrients from food first. Foods contain a host of other nutrients not typically found in vitamins, such as various types of fiber, which may be beneficial to our heart and GI health, antioxidants, and carotenoids that help protect our eyes from damage.
Are people confused by the daily recommendations? Or are they simply unaware of what they need?
I think that the supplement industry's targeted advertising makes us think we need extra vitamins and supplements to be healthy or give us an extra boost. For example, many think that taking excess B vitamins will speed metabolism or improve brain function. However, this is only needed in the case of deficiency or a problem with absorbing vitamins. Instead, think of vitamin-rich foods as your nutrition prescription, such as salmon, spinach and beans.
What does a one-day menu look like that has all the daily recommended vitamins and minerals in it?
This one-day sample menu contains about 2,000 calories and the daily recommended amount of vitamins for a female adult of childbearing age.
- ½ cup of old-fashioned oats cooked with:
- 1 cup of 1% milk or calcium-fortified soy milk
- 1 cup of sliced strawberries
- 2 tbsp. raisins
- ¼ cup walnuts
- 2/3 cup plain Greek yogurt
- ½ cup of blueberries
- ¼ cup roasted almonds
Black bean chili:
- 1 cup of cooked black beans
- ¼ medium onion
- ¼ medium pepper
- ½ cup diced tomatoes
Top with 2 tbsp. shredded cheddar cheese
Serve with 1 slice whole-wheat bakery bread for dipping
- ½ medium red bell pepper, sliced
- ¼ cup hummus
- 1 6-inch whole-wheat pita
- 4 oz. cooked sockeye salmon
- ½ cup roasted sweet potatoes
- 1 1/2 cups baby spinach
- 5 sliced cherry tomatoes
- ¼ medium cucumber
- 3 tbsp. crumbled feta cheese
- 1 tbsp. pumpkin seeds
- 1 tbsp. balsamic vinaigrette
What vitamins and minerals do we most often lack in the standard American diet (SAD)?
The standard American diet — a diet high in packaged snacks, sodas and fast food — lacks several important vitamins and minerals, but public health experts are particularly concerned about a few nutrients: potassium, vitamin D, calcium and dietary fiber. Many Americans also tend to under consume vitamins A, C, E and K along with magnesium and choline. The SAD diet lacks the beneficial antioxidants found in many plant foods, such as beta-carotene, lutein and flavonoids.
What can we learn from reading food labels?
Thankfully the FDA recently redesigned the food label to clearly show how much of the most commonly lacking nutrients in American's diets are in a food. Grab a food label and follow along.
Look at the vitamins at the bottom of the food label, and you will see the amount of vitamin D, calcium, iron and potassium in the food. The dietary fiber is listed right below total carbohydrates. The label will also show the percent daily value of the nutrient that food contains.
For example, ½ cup of canned black beans may have about 10% of the daily value of potassium and iron and 25% of the daily value of dietary fiber.
How can we ensure we are getting what we need without weighing, recording and calculating everything we eat?
You can make sure you are getting the vitamins and minerals you need by not avoiding any food groups. For example, avoiding fruits could cause you to fall short on vitamin C. Avoiding veggies may lead to not getting enough vitamin K.
To get enough vitamins, eat a varied diet containing fruit, veggies, grains, nuts, dairy (or calcium-containing alternative) and proteins daily. If you miss one day, that is okay, just include that food group the next day.
Who should consider taking supplements?
The bottom line is to try to get your vitamins from food first. Do this by eating a variety of veggies, fruits, nuts, beans, dairy, and proteins daily. Vegetarians, vegans, pregnant women and breastfeeding women will likely need to take a supplement and should also make sure to choose specific vitamin-rich foods.
People who avoid certain food groups, such as dairy, should intentionally try to obtain the missing nutrients from other foods or a supplement. If you are concerned, meet with a registered dietitian who can tell you the nutrients your diet may be missing. Remember to let your doctor know before you start taking a supplement.