A new federal report finds that much of the population -- which is overweight and overfed -- often falls short in consuming essential nutrients. In short, Americans are eating too much of the wrong stuff.
That's one of the conclusions of the Dietary Guidelines Scientific Advisory Committee, which issued its report in August. Written by a group of 13 experts from academia, the report notes that more than half of adults and children fail to consume enough calcium, vitamin E, fiber, magnesium and potassium. Intake is low enough to be "of concern," the committee reported, noting that most adults also fall short in consumption of vitamins A and C.
That Americans could be so overfed and still be short of key nutrients "surprised me," said the committee's chairwoman, Janet King, senior scientist at the Children's Hospital Oakland Research Institute in California. "It's appalling that here in this land of plenty, with access to a wide variety of foods, that we still have a significant proportion of the population selecting foods that lead to inadequate intakes of critical nutrients."
The committee found, for example, that:
* Eighty percent of children, 86 percent of men and 93 percent of women don't get enough vitamin E. The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) sets an average recommended daily intake of 15 milligrams for adults -- about the amount found in an ounce of almonds and a couple tablespoons of safflower oil. Kids need six to 11 milligrams. This vitamin is key for healthy immune function.
* About two-thirds of adults fall short on magnesium. This mineral helps maintain healthy metabolism. Men need 400 to 420 milligrams per day (men over 30 needing the higher amount). That's equal to about a cup of ready-to-eat bran cereal, two cups of spinach salad and a half-cup of soy nuts. Women require 310 to 320 milligrams. Pregnant women require 350 to 360 milligrams, depending on their age.
* Slightly more than half of adults underconsume vitamin A, which helps keep immune function intact and is important for vision. Men need 900 micrograms (or 3,000 I.U.) Women require 700 micrograms (2,333 I.U.). Eating a medium baked sweet potato or a half-cup of carrots meets the requirements for most adults.
* About half of adults don't get enough vitamin C, which also helps bolster the immune system. Men need 90 milligrams daily; women 75 milligrams. A half-cup of strawberries and six ounces of V8 juice pretty much cover the bases for both. (Children require 25 to 75 milligrams per day.)
* Roughly 40 percent of men and slightly more than half of women fail to get enough calcium, a mineral key for strong, healthy bones and a host of other important bodily functions. Kids and teens ages 9 to 13 years need 1,300 milligrams daily -- about the amount found in two cups of plain, nonfat yogurt and a cup of skim milk. Adults aged 19 to 50 need 1,000 milligrams daily. Those 51 and older need 1,200 milligrams daily.
* Recommendations are to consume 25 to 35 grams of fiber per day, with women at the lower end, men at the upper. Both men and women fall far short, with men consuming about 18 to 19 grams per day; women, about 13. Fiber is important for keeping things "regular" and for reducing the risk of heart disease. Eating a cup of bran cereal plus a cup of bean soup will meet the fiber requirements for most people.
The committee underscored that "nutrients should come primarily from foods" rather than from supplements, noting that "the more scientists learn about nutrition and the human body, the more they realize the importance of eating whole foods."
Ah, but which whole foods? Here's what the committee advised. (By the way, the group's recommendations form the basis for the next set of Dietary Guidelines, which are slated for release in January):
Add healthy oils, fish and nuts. What little vitamin E is consumed these days comes mostly from salad dressings, mayonnaise, oils, margarine and potato and corn chips -- in short, from sources that are also high in calories. Better choices, the committee noted, include: fortified ready-to-eat cereals; almonds and sunflower seeds; canola, sunflower and safflower oil; tomato paste and sauce; wheat germ, turnip greens, avocados and pine nuts. And don't forget fish and seafood, which are among the best vitamin E sources. Plus, unless seafood is fried, it's generally low in calories.
More fruit and vegetables. Sure, you've heard it a thousand times before, but "low intakes of vitamins A, C and magnesium tend to reflect low intakes of fruit and vegetables," the committee noted. So a really simple fix is to eat more fruit and veggies. And remember that five servings a day is the recommendation for kids. (A serving is half a cup of chopped fruit or vegetables; a cup of leafy veggies, such as lettuce; a piece of fresh fruit; a quarter-cup of dried fruit or six ounces of juice.)
Women need at least seven servings a day; men need at least nine. Teens and larger adults may need up to 13 servings a day. So add fruit to your whole grain cereal, snack on veggies and fruit whenever possible and add a salad course to dinner. You can even add a bedtime snack of fresh fruit. (Just be sure to brush your teeth before going to sleep.)
Have some daily bread. Just make it whole grain, not the usual low-fiber white bread, rolls, buns and pizza crust. Other high-fiber options beyond whole-grain baked goods include beans, which pack eight to nine grams per half-cup. Whole-grain cereals without added sugar are another smart choice for increasing fiber.
Branch out. Go beyond the familiar standbys. For example, guava is a great source of fiber and vitamin C. Sweet potatoes, clams, beets, potatoes and prune juice are loaded with potassium. Pickled herring provides a good wallop of vitamin A. Many ready-to-eat breakfast cereals now are fortified with calcium. Dandelion greens pack vitamin E. Tofu is a good source of magnesium. And while orange and grapefruit juice are two traditional standbys for vitamin C, the whole fruit has more fiber and fewer calories with the same amount or more of vitamin C. Plus, there are a number of other choices with even richer amounts of this key vitamin, including red peppers. Other foods that pack a hefty amount of vitamin C include kiwi fruit, broccoli, vegetable juice cocktail, strawberries, sweet potatoes, cauliflower, pineapple, kale and mango.
Choose low-fat and nonfat dairy foods. You'll get more calcium and less fat and calories. Skim milk has 16 more milligrams per eight-ounce serving of calcium than 1 percent milk, 21 more milligrams than 2 percent. Ditto for nonfat yogurt vs. low fat or full fat. By the way, yogurt also contains potassium.
Magnify magnesium. Most people get their magnesium from milk, white bread, ready-to-eat cereal, white potatoes, beef and poultry and alcoholic beverages.
But there are plenty of better choices, the committee noted, including pumpkin seeds, bran cereal, Brazil nuts, halibut, spinach, almonds, buckwheat flour, cashews and soybeans. Others include white beans, bulgur wheat, brown rice, oat bran, tuna, pollock, artichokes and soy milk.
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