The new Dietary Guidelines for 2015-2020 recommended by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) target five nutrients that Americans should be paying particular attention to. Not getting enough of them may be causing health problems for some of us.
The culprit: too many of us still do not eat enough vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and dairy foods.
The five nutrients:
Dietary fiber. Dietary fiber can aid in maintaining the health of the intestinal tract, as well as help control cholesterol and blood sugar levels. Low intakes are due to eating too few vegetables, fruits, and whole grains, says USDA.
Calcium. This mineral is important for bone health and may help prevent colon cancer. Low intakes of calcium are due to low intakes of dairy, USDA notes. Good plant sources are collard greens, spinach, whole wheat bread, almonds, and beans.
Vitamin D. Also important for bone health, vitamin D is unique among vitamins because sunlight on the skin enables the body to make vitamin D.
Our body’s ability to convert sunlight into active vitamin D declines as we get older. And in the winter, sunlight lacks the UV rays that make vitamin D, unless you’re in the United States as far south as Atlanta or Los Angeles. That and the fact that few foods are rich in vitamin D means that many people have less-than-optimal blood levels.The Institute of Medicine recommends 600 IU a day of vitamin D for adults up to age 70 and 800 IU for those over 70. Many multivitamins now have at least 600 IU.
Foods with naturally higher levels of vitamin D include salmon, herring, mackerel, and tuna. Foods that may be fortified with D include fluid milk, soy beverage (soymilk), yogurt, orange juice, and breakfast cereals.
Potassium. This mineral is important for maintaining healthy blood pressure. To increase potassium in the diet, USDA recommends focusing on food choices with the most potassium, such as white potatoes, beet greens, white beans, plain yogurt, and sweet potato. See below for the Dietary Guidelines’ list of the 15 foods richest in potassium.
Iron. For young children, women capable of becoming pregnant, and women who are pregnant, USDA says that a low intake of iron puts them at risk of iron-deficiency anemia. (Most other adults get plenty of iron.)
To avoid anemia, USDA recommends that women and adolescent girls consume foods containing heme iron (the kind found in animal foods), such as lean meats, poultry, and seafood, because this kind is more readily absorbed by the body.
Additional non-heme iron sources include legumes (beans and peas) and dark-green vegetables, as well as foods enriched or fortified with iron, such as many breads and ready-to-eat cereals. Absorption of iron from non-heme sources is increased by consuming them along with vitamin C-rich foods.
Women who are pregnant should also take an iron supplement if that’s recommended by their obstetrician or other health care provider, USDA adds.
The best sources of potassium:
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This post was originally published in early 2016 and is periodically updated.