It's easy to go online and look up the RDA for every vitamin and mineral based on your age and gender. But how much of each of these nutrients are you actually getting from the foods you eat every day — and do they meet your RDA?
There are several ways to approach this question. One is the relaxed way — that is, not worrying too much about the details and focusing instead on the big picture: eating a balanced diet that contains a variety of colorful fruits and vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts, dairy products, seafood, lean meats, and poultry. When choosing what to eat, emphasize nutrient-dense foods, which are packed with vitamins and minerals and have relatively few calories.
Some nutrient-dense foods
- Chard, collard greens, kale, mustard greens, spinach
- Bell peppers
- Brussels sprouts
- Mushrooms (crimini and shiitake)
- Potatoes (white or sweet)
- Cantaloupe, papaya, raspberries, strawberries
- Seeds (flax, pumpkin, sesame, sunflower)
- Beans (garbanzo, kidney, navy, pinto)
- Lentils, peas
- Almonds, cashews, peanuts
- Barley, oats, quinoa, brown rice
- Salmon, halibut, cod, scallops, shrimp, tuna
- Lean beef, lamb, venison
- Chicken, turkey
Making healthful food choices
Some essential nutrients are packed into every food group, and certain foods — such as flour, cereal, and salt — are fortified with specific nutrients as well. Vitamin and mineral supplements from a bottle cannot encompass all the biologically active compounds teeming in a well-stocked pantry. A simple apple or piece of broccoli could have plenty of nutrients besides vitamins and minerals that might interact to improve your health. For example, broccoli contains isothiocyanates, which may have anti-tumor properties.
It also pays to remember a few other helpful pieces of advice:
Limit liquid sugars. Liquid sugars, which are found in soft drinks, sports drinks, iced teas, and sweetened waters, have no benefits for health and are clearly linked to higher risk of obesity, diabetes, and perhaps heart disease. There is no reason to include these in your diet. Skip the sugary drinks and have some unsweetened tea or sparkling water instead.
Minimize refined carbohydrates. Highly processed wheat, rice, and other grains have the same effects in the body as table sugar. So minimize your intake of white bread, French fries, most breakfast cereals, and most high-carbohydrate packaged and processed foods, such as pretzels and chips. Instead, choose whole grains, high-fiber breakfast cereals, brown rice, steel-cut oats, and fruits and vegetables.
Choose healthy fats. Fish, nuts, and vegetable oils contain healthy monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, which help lower heart disease risk. Eat these foods regularly and in moderation. Don't get caught up in the "low-fat" craze (for example, low-fat salad dressing) as you will be limiting your intake of these good fats and will likely instead be eating a diet high in refined carbohydrates. Limit saturated fat and cholesterol, and especially avoid eating trans fat, found in partially hydrogenated vegetable oils.
Don't forget fiber. Eat plenty of foods that contain dietary fiber (the edible, indigestible parts of plant foods). Good sources include fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and dark chocolate. Fiber from grains helps lower the risk of heart disease. Your daily fiber goal depends on your age and sex, as follows:
- men ages 50 or younger: 38 grams
- men over 50: 30 grams
- women ages 50 or younger: 25 grams
- women over 50: 21 grams.
Balance energy intake and output. The energy you take in should equal the energy you use. That means if you are sedentary and 5 feet 4 inches tall, you need far fewer calories to remain at your current weight than an active person who is 6 feet tall.
Focus on fruits and vegetables
Set a goal. Start by eating one extra fruit or vegetable a day. When you're used to that, add another and keep going. For example, add fruit to your breakfast cereal every morning. Then try eating a piece of fruit for an after-lunch snack. Next, add at least one vegetable to your dinner plate.
Be sneaky. Adding finely grated carrots or zucchini to pasta sauce, meat loaf, chili, or a stew is one way to get an extra serving of vegetables.
Try something new. It's easy to get tired of apples, bananas, and grapes. Try a kiwi, mango, fresh pineapple, or some of the more exotic choices now found in many grocery stores.
Start off right. Ditch your morning donut for an omelet with onions, peppers, and mushrooms. Top it with some salsa to wake up your palate. Or boost your morning cereal or oatmeal with a handful of strawberries, blueberries, or dried fruit.
Drink up. Having a 6-ounce glass of low-sodium vegetable juice instead of a soda gives you a full serving of vegetables and spares you 10 teaspoons or more of sugar. You can also make your own vegetable juice with a blender or juicer.
Give them the heat treatment. Roasting vegetables is easy and brings out new flavors. Cut up onions, carrots, zucchini, asparagus, turnips — whatever you have on hand — coat with olive oil, add a dash of balsamic vinegar, and roast at 350° until done. Grilling is another way to bring out the taste of vegetables. Use roasted or grilled vegetables as a side dish, put them on sandwiches, or add them to salads.
Let someone else do the work. If peeling, cutting, and chopping aren't your thing, food companies and grocers offer an ever-expanding selection of prepared produce, from ready-made salads to frozen stir-fry mixes and take-along sliced apples and dip.
Improve on nature. Don't hesitate to jazz up vegetables with spices, chopped nuts, balsamic vinegar, olive oil, or a specialty oil like walnut or sesame oil. Most grocers carry several spice blends made specifically for vegetables. Even a dash of grated Parmesan cheese can liven up the blandest green beans.