The latest government snapshot of what Americans eat shows that we get plenty of protein and carbohydrates, still eat too much salt and often fall short on such key nutrients as magnesium, potassium and vitamins A, C and E.
Issued last week by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the report is drawn from the ongoing National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), which is conducted by the National Center for Health Statistics. This latest picture of the nation's eating habits comes from information collected from nearly 9,000 people, aged 1 and older, in 2001 to 2002, by the Agricultural Research Service in Beltsville as part of NHANES.
First, a little perspective: Large nutrition surveys like this one rely on "24-hour recalls," in which participants report what they ate during the previous day. These self-reports are never as accurate as results obtained by admitting study participants to a research unit to carefully measure every morsel eaten and every ounce of fluid consumed. But it's the only cost-effective way to collect information on large groups of people, according to Alana Moshfegh, research leader of food surveys at the USDA's Human Nutrition Research Center in Beltsville and lead author of the new report.
Through the years, Moshfegh said, scientists have developed a food questionnaire that has been tested and proven accurate in gauging food intake. This is the tool that was used to collect the latest data, in addition to follow-up telephone interviews.
The survey found that 93 percent of Americans don't get the daily intake of vitamin E recommended by the Institute of Medicine. Slightly more than half fall short on magnesium, 44 percent miss eating enough vitamin A, about a third eat too little vitamin C and 14 percent skimp on foods rich in vitamin B6, which is important for protein metabolism.
The new report did not measure vitamin D intake, but previous studies have shown that many people also fall short on that nutrient, which is important for strong bones.
The study found that Americans do well in getting enough protein, carbohydrates and such key nutrients as selenium, niacin, riboflavin, thiamin, iron, folate, copper and phosphorus.
Here's how you can help boost levels of the nutrients that you may not be consuming in adequate amounts, without resorting to dietary supplements:
Eat a sweet red pepper. Half of a pepper provides 142 milligrams of vitamin C -- more than a day's worth -- and almost twice what you'd get in six ounces of orange or grapefruit juice. So toss some slices on your salad or add some to your stir-fry or tortillas. (Cooking cuts the vitamin C content slightly, but you'll still more than meet the recommended daily intake.) Half a red pepper also provides more than a quarter of the recommended intake for vitamin A.
Start your day with fortified cereal. Some, including Total Whole Grain cereals, contain a day's worth of vitamin E, a nutrient that the latest survey found 93 percent of Americans fall short on. Don't like cereal? No problem. Almonds are also rich in vitamin E, providing about half a day's worth in an ounce (which also has 170 calories). Other good sources of vitamin E are sunflower seeds and oil as well as safflower oil, tomato sauce, turnip greens and blue crab.
Cook your own food whenever possible. A National Academy of Sciences report found that commercially processed food -- not the salt shaker -- accounts for about 80 percent of the sodium consumed by most Americans. So the more you can make food yourself from scratch, the better. Commercially prepared soup, bread, fast food, canned and frozen foods are among the biggest contributors of sodium. For example, a 12-ounce can of tomato juice contains more than a day's worth of sodium for an adult 51 and older and nearly 75 percent of the daily sodium intake for those 50 and younger. So if you can't make your own food, use reduced-sodium or no-sodium-added products. Or use half-and-half: That is, cut full-sodium products with lower sodium food and drink. Or try to flavor with more herbs and spices.
Snack on pumpkin seeds. They're loaded with magnesium, another nutrient that most Americans fail to consume in sufficient amounts. One ounce has 148 calories and provides 151 milligrams of magnesium, roughly 25 percent of the recommended daily allowance. Other good sources of magnesium include 100 percent bran cereal, Brazil nuts, halibut, quinoa (a whole grain), spinach, almonds, buckwheat flour, cashews, soybeans, white beans, bulgur wheat, artichokes and black beans.
Don't wait for the holidays to enjoy sweet potatoes. One medium baked sweet potato with the skin contains more than a day's worth of vitamin A and just 103 calories. Other good sources of vitamin A include carrots, pumpkin, spinach, collard greens, kale, turnip greens, winter squash, mustard greens, green leaf lettuce and pickled herring.
Have a couple of processed carbs daily. Sure, it sounds like nutritional heresy, but processed enriched flour contains added vitamins and minerals including folate. Folate helps reduce the risk of neural tube defects, including spina bifida, in newborns. The folate fortification of foods introduced by the Food and Drug Administration in 1996 has significantly decreased neural tube defects and may have some unexpected benefits for the heart and possibly provide protection against some types of cancer and Alzheimer's disease. The latest dietary guidelines recommend making half of your daily grains whole grains and half of them processed grains.
Bottom line: Diversify your diet to help get all the nutrients you need.
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