How Does Your Diet Stack Up?

Many of us are short on important nutrients, survey shows

By Elaine Magee, MPH, RD
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Expert Column

According to the latest comprehensive government report, the American diet just doesn't measure up. Despite good intentions, our food choices aren't meeting our bodies' needs for four important nutrients: vitamin E, magnesium, vitamin A, and vitamin C.

Many of us - especially older adults -- should be concerned about other dietary components as well.

So what can we do about this? Below, we'll give you some great tips, recipes, and hints to make sure your diet stacks up. But first, here's a little background on the government findings.

About the Report

Each year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Surveys Research Group surveys what Americans are eating, using a random sample of 9,000 people across the country. Each participant completes a 24-hour dietary recall, which includes foods and beverages but not dietary supplements. Then, there's a follow-up phone interview. Most participants (80%) also undergo a physical exam.

The results are then compiled for a two-year period. The latest findings have been published in a document called What We Eat in America, National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey 2001-2002: Usual Nutrient Intakes from Food Compared to Dietary Reference Intake. (There's a delay in publishing the conclusions because it takes so long to collect and analyze the volumes of data.)

The report, often called simply NHANES, compares the survey results to the Institute of Medicine's Dietary Reference Intakes (DRIs), the most recent recommendations for the nutrients we need for good health. The evaluation includes 24 different nutrients and dietary components.

The Latest Findings

According to the latest report:

  • Nearly 95% of people in the United States are not getting desirable intakes of vitamin E from foods and beverages.
  • More than half aren't getting enough magnesium.
  • About 40% aren't getting enough vitamin A.
  • Nearly one-third aren't getting desirable intakes of vitamin C from the foods and beverages they consume.
  • Vitamin B-6 and zinc are also below suggested intake levels.
  • Older adults are the population group at the greatest risk of failing to meet nutritional requirements.
  • Everyone should also be concerned about getting enough vitamin K, calcium, phosphorus, and dietary fiber.

To make sure your diet has all the nutrients you need, a great place to start is with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's "My Pyramid" at, along with the 2005 Dietary Guidelines.

Another great start: Breakfast on a bowl of high-fiber cereal with skim milk, plus a glass of orange juice (this will help meet your needs for vitamin C, calcium, potassium, and fiber).

Beyond that, go out of your way to eat tasty foods that are rich in all or most of the four main nutrients the American diet is lacking. Below, you'll find top food sources of each, along with some "super foods" that contain more than one of them; 10 easy tips to improve your diet; and a couple of recipes to try.

Top Food Sources of Vitamin E

The Dietary Reference Intake for vitamin E men and women age 31 and over is 15 milligrams TE (alpha-tocopherol equivalent) per day.

Milligrams (mg)
1/4 cup sunflower seed kernels
1/4 cup filberts/hazelnuts
1 tablespoon hazelnut oil
1 tablespoon almond oil
1/4 cup peanuts
1/4 cup pistachios
1/4 cup almonds
1 cup tomato sauce
2 tablespoons peanut butter
1 cup Swiss chard cooked
1 tablespoons canola oil
1 cup greens, cooked (collard, mustard)
2 tablespoons wheat germ
1 mango
2 cups raw spinach
1 high omega-3 egg (Eggland's Best)
3.5 ounces steamed clams
1 cup broccoli, cooked
3.5 ounces canned white tuna in water
1 cup papaya cubes

Top Food Sources of Vitamin A

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