As our society becomes increasingly aware of the importance of eating a healthy, balanced diet, we have come to understand that our diets are critical vehicles for the vitamins and minerals we rely on to stay healthy. Studies have shown that approximately 50 percent of Americans are deficient in a number of vitamins and minerals, and these statistics increase with age. Healthy eating contributes to decreasing your chances or heart disease and protects your heart health overall as well as protecting the rest of your body. Eating nutrient dense meals will help ensure that you get the nutrition you need in order to stay healthy, but how do you know which foods are the best for delivering the nutrients you need?
What are Nutrients?
While it might seem like the idea of “nutrients” is easy to understand, how many people actually know the difference between macronutrients and micronutrients and the components of each? The food education in our school system is seriously lacking, so if you don’t have a firm grasp on what nutrients you need and how to get them, you’re not alone. The first thing to know is that there are two types of nutrients that you’ll hear referenced when it comes to food: macronutrients and micronutrients. Macronutrients refer to the three main components of food that supply us with calories and energy, and we need to receive them in large amounts to keep our bodies healthy and strong; the three macronutrients are protein, carbohydrates, and healthy fat. General guidelines indicate that protein should make up 15 to 40 percent of your diet, while healthy fats should account for 15 to 20 percent of your calories and carbohydrates should be 45 to 65 percent. Micronutrients are equally important, but we only need to receive them in smaller quantities. Micronutrients refer to vitamins and minerals like Vitamin A, calcium, Vitamin D, and more.
What Nutrients Might I Be Lacking and Where Can I Find Them?
Our western diets are often high in calories but severely lacking in micronutrients, so it is very common for American adults to be lacking appropriate levels of certain vitamins and minerals. A well-balanced diet should address your nutrition needs, but it is helpful to know where you can find extra of the nutrients you may be lacking.
- Vitamin A: Vitamin A is needed to help your body grow and develop and is critical in maintenance of the immune system and good vision. It can be found in eggs, milk, carrots, sweet potatoes, and cantaloupe. More than 50 percent of Americans are deficient in Vitamin A.
- Vitamin C: We often think of taking in Vitamin C when we’re sick, but this micronutrient does more than just boost your immune system. Vitamin C protects the cells from damaging compounds in our bodies and also helps improve the absorption of iron in the body. You can get more Vitamin C from oranges, strawberries, tomatoes, kiwi, broccoli, and bell peppers. More than 50 percent of Americans are deficient in Vitamin C.
- Vitamin E: Vitamin E protects the cells from damaging compounds in our bodies and also helps slow the aging process of our cells. It’s also great for your skin! Vitamin E can be found in avocados, nuts, seeds, whole-grain foods, and dark leafy greens like spinach and kale. Approximately 80 percent of Americans are deficient in Vitamin E.
- Calcium: A must-have for strong bones and teeth, calcium is commonly found in dairy products, broccoli, dark, leafy greens, and sardines. About 70 percent of Americans are deficient in calcium.
- Potassium: Potassium is often ignored in the nutrient conversation, but it is one of the most important minerals in the body. Potassium helps with fluid balance, muscle contractions, and nerve signals, and diets high in potassium can help reduce blood pressure and protect against stroke. This magical micronutrient can be found in bananas, cantaloupe, raisins, nuts, fish, and dark, leafy greens. Nearly 90 percent of Americans are deficient in potassium.
- Magnesium: Magnesium is another important nutrient that is commonly overlooked. It helps regulate muscle and nerve function, blood sugar levels, and blood pressure and also assists with making protein, bone, and DNA. You can find magnesium in spinach, black beans, peas, and almonds. About 50 percent of Americans are deficient in magnesium.
What Are the Components of a Nutrient Dense Meal?
If your current diet consists primarily of processed foods or you’re eating a lot of junk food, it can be overwhelming to think about overhauling your diet. However, eating nutrient dense meals doesn’t have to be complicated or confusing. As with any lifestyle change, it is recommended that you start small when incorporating nutrients into your daily diet. If you’ve been eating a lot of fast food and junk food, you might still find yourself craving these things as you work to change your diet, so one great place to start is to simply add a piece of fruit, such as an apple, or a serving of vegetables, such as a side of broccoli, to your normal meal. While this won’t help you cut down on calories or fat, it will help ensure that you’re getting much needed vitamins and minerals. When you’re ready to make another change, start by substituting lean cuts of meat or low-fat dairy into your favorite recipes, like topping your homemade pizza with part-skim mozzarella cheese.
If the idea of making small changes still leaves you feeling confused and overwhelmed, or you’d just prefer to take the guesswork out of preparing healthy foods, there are plenty of online resources and cookbooks that can help. Online fitness communities like Body FX offer personalized health and wellness coaching and detailed nutritional advice, plus tons of great recipes and meal ideas. You can also use a meal delivery service, which will deliver all the ingredients you need for healthy recipes right at your doorstep, and you’ll receive a nutritional breakdown of both macronutrients and micronutrients with each meal.
Is It Possible to Get Enough Nutrients Without Eating Meat?
It is possible to get enough micronutrients and macronutrients on a plant-based diet, but it does require careful planning and a concerted effort to ensure you get all of the nutrition that you need. We typically rely on dairy products to get in vitamin D and calcium, but it’s also possible to get vitamin D from vegetables, beans, and fruits. Calcium can be obtained from broccoli, kale, bok choy, turnip greens, and mustard greens, as well as tofu. In order to get the necessary amount of protein on a plant-based diet, choose foods like chickpeas, peanut butters, and other legumes such as lentils.
Should I Take Multivitamins?
From the ubiquitous Flintstones vitamins of the 1980s and 90s to the gummy vitamins of the 2000s, many of us have been conditioned to take a multivitamin daily since childhood. While multivitamins can be a convenient way to supplement your diet with micronutrients that may otherwise be lacking, they should not be relied upon as the sole source of vitamins and minerals in your diet. Our bodies are designed to absorb vitamins and minerals through the process of digestion, and eating our micronutrients remains the best way to get the nutrition we need. Eating a poor diet filled with processed food and junk food and taking a multivitamin each day won’t ensure good health benefits, and because our bodies do not absorb vitamins and minerals as efficiently from multivitamins, you still may not receive the level of nutrition that you need. However, multivitamins can be beneficial for older adults, those with dietary restrictions, such as vegans and vegetarians, and pregnant and breastfeeding women, who may require additional vitamins and minerals in their diets.