With the way we eat today, you may be surprised to learn a lot of people have diets that are lacking in many essential nutrients.
These diets may exceed dietary recommendations for things like refined grains, sodium (salt), saturated fats and calories, but fall short of important nutrients such as calcium, iodine, iron, zinc, vitamin D and Omega-3 fatty acids, leading to what we call the “nutrition gap”. So, while we may get plenty of calories and look well fed, over time the absence of essential nutrients may ultimately lead to negative consequences. Nutritional deficiencies can also occur due to lifestyle behaviours or the presence of a chronic disease or condition.
Some call this lack of nutrition in our diets the “nutrition gap”; others call it “hidden hunger” or “micronutrient deficiency”. Whatever the name, the nutrition gap is a public health concern because it occurs across all age groups, and can negatively affect health.
Are You Getting Enough Essential Nutrients?
National dietary guidelines provide recommendations on eating patterns and food sources for adults and children aged 2 and older. The most recent dietary guidelines encourage us to:
- Balance calories with physical activity to manage weight
- Consume more of certain foods and nutrients such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy products, and seafood
- Consume fewer foods with sodium, saturated fats, trans fats, cholesterol, added sugars, and refined grains. These foods include:
- Meat pies, sausage rolls and fried hot chips
- Potato crisps, savoury snacks, biscuits and crackers
- Processed meats like salami, bacon and sausages
- Cakes, muffins, sweet biscuits and muesli bars
- Confectionary (lollies) and chocolate
- Ice-cream and desserts
- Cream and butter
- Jam and honey
- Soft drinks, cordial, energy drinks and sports drinks
- Wine, beer and spirits
If you could follow the dietary guidelines perfectly, you would get closer to the kind of nutritional intake needed for optimal health. But the reality is that most people eat differently every day, meaning that you might eat a well-balanced diet one day but not the next. In some cases, dietary supplements, such as vitamins, and fortified foods, may be a good way to make sure you are consistently getting all the nutrients you need. Supplements should not be used as a substitute for eating a balanced diet.
Always consult your doctor before you take any supplements or change your diet. Dietary supplements are not intended to treat, diagnose, mitigate, prevent, or cure disease.
What Am I Missing?
There are six particular nutrients that could be lacking in the typical diet. These include vitamin D, calcium and iron. The absence of these nutrients is directly related to people not eating the recommended amounts of foods such as whole grains, fruits, vegetables, seafood, and dairy. Here’s why these nutrients are so important:
- Vitamin D is thought to have a role in many vital health systems, most notably with bone, muscle, and immune health. While vitamin D can actually be made by your body, sunlight on the skin is needed to make it, and several factors can impact our ability to produce it in sufficient amounts to meet the body’s needs. Such factors include use of sunscreen, age, and environmental factors such as time of day for sun exposure, cloud cover, and amount of smog. For example, as we age, the ability to produce vitamin D on the skin decreases. Most people get their vitamin D when they expose bare skin to ultraviolet B (UVB) light from the sun.
Food alone cannot provide an adequate amount of vitamin D. Foods that contain small amounts of vitamin D include fatty fish (such as salmon, mackerel and herring), liver, eggs, margarines and some milk products. Infant formula is fortified with vitamin D
For people such as the elderly, who may not be able to get exposure to the sun, considering a multivitamin containing vitamin D or other supplement may be a good way to be sure to get adequate vitamin D.
- Calcium is needed for bone health and plays an important role in the function of nerves, blood vessels, and muscles. It can be found in milk and milk products, and foods fortified with calcium. Many plant foods, such as green leafy vegetables also contain calcium, but consumption of enough plant foods to get the recommended amount of calcium may be difficult to do.
- Iodine is important in the body for hormone development. It is needed to make thyroid hormones, which help control metabolism, growth and development (including growth and development of the brain). A deficiency of Iodine in your diet can lead to an enlarged thyroid gland.
The easiest way to get more iodine in your diet is simply to start buying iodised salt instead of regular salt. Although it comes from the ocean, sea salt is not a good source of iodine.
- Zinc is a nutrient which is found throughout the body’s cells. It helps the immune system to fight off invading bacteria and viruses. Zinc is also used by the body in the process of making proteins and even your DNA. During your early development, zinc is used at a higher rate to grow and develop properly. Zinc is even used in your body to give you an accurate and proper sense of taste and smell!
- Iron is very important to have in your diet. It helps to form haemoglobin which carries the oxygen from your lungs all around your body. It’s why you start to feel weak and tired when your muscles and brain are deprived of the oxygen they need. Iron also has a role in keeping your immune system healthy. Serious iron deficiencies can lead to a condition called anaemia, where your body slows or stops production of red blood cells. Iron is a common nutritional deficiency, especially in children and women of childbearing age.
- Omega-3 fatty acids play a crucial role in brain function, and appear to have an anti inflammatory effect, lowering the risk of many chronic diseases such as heart disease, stroke, dementia in older adults and macular degeneration in the eyes. Fish, especially oily fish such as salmon and tuna, can be a valuable source of essential omega-3 fatty acids. Small quantities of these fatty acids are also found in lean grass-fed red meat, poultry and some eggs.
Something else you need
Dietary fibre, while not a nutrient, is an important substance for keeping digestion and bowel movements regular. Fibre is the non-digestible part of the food plants we eat, and can be found in fruits and vegetables. Other good sources of fibre include beans, peas, nuts, and whole grains.
Learn More About It
Getting the right nutrients for your body is a very individual formula. It is based on your dietary habits, health, age and medical history. To find out more about your own nutritional needs and how well your body absorbs the nutrients, speak with your doctor. He or she should be able to give you a referral to a nutritionist or registered dietitian who can help. These are qualified healthcare professionals who will understand your specific situation, medical history and background, and guide you through the nutrition gap.
Alpa Shah, MS, RD, CDE is a Senior Medical Manager, US Dietary Supplements, Global Medical Affairs at Pfizer.