It's easy enough to look up how much vitamin C or calcium you should get each day. It is also easy to read the back of a vitamin bottle to see just how much of a given vitamin or mineral the product provides. But how can you tell if what you eat — which should be your primary source of important nutrients — is giving you what you need?
One way is to focus on the big picture: eat a balanced diet that contains a variety of colorful fruits and vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts, dairy products, seafood, lean meats, and poultry. Focus on nutrient-dense foods like these, which are packed with vitamins and minerals relative to the number of calories they deliver, and you should be fine.
To really optimize your diet, keep these two additional tips in mind.
- Limit liquid sugars. Soft drinks, sports drinks, energy drinks, and other sugar-sweetened beverages can deliver up to 12 teaspoons of sugar in a single serving, with no other useful nutrients. These beverages offer no health or nutritional benefits. Worse, regular consumption of these drinks can increase your chances of becoming obese or developing diabetes — both of which raise your risk for heart disease and other chronic conditions. Unsweetened coffee or tea or sparkling water are better choices.
- Cut back on refined carbohydrates. White bread, many breakfast cereals, packaged snack foods, and potato chips and French fries deliver mainly pure starch — which the body quickly converts to sugar — with few other nutrients or fiber. Better choices are whole grains, breads made with whole grains, high-fiber breakfast cereals, brown rice, steel-cut oats, fruits and vegetables, and beans. A good general rule is to choose foods that have at least one gram of fiber for every 10 grams of carbohydrate. Even better, aim for a gram of fiber for every 5 grams of carbohydrate.
For more information and advice on making sure you get the proper amount of vitamins and minerals in your diet, buy Vitamins and Minerals, a Special Health Report from Harvard Medical School.