Simple Fixes for a Healthier Diet

Just 5 foods can provide many of the nutrients missing from the typical American diet.

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

Reviewed by Kathleen Zelman MPH, RD/LD

What do you need to eat to have a healthier diet? If you're like the typical American, you're lacking six key dietary components: vitamins A, E, and C; the minerals potassium and magnesium, and fiber.

That's the news from America's latest nutritional report card, a U.S. Department of Agriculture report called "What We Eat in America." The survey, which measured the food intake of almost 9,000 people, shows that when it comes to three powerful antioxidants, many of us aren't doing so hot. Almost everyone surveyed (93%) was getting too little vitamin E from foods and beverages. Almost a third weren't getting enough vitamin C, and about 44% were getting too little vitamin A.

Things aren't much better in the mineral department. More than half of those surveyed weren't getting enough magnesium, and better than 90% needed more potassium. Further, most weren't meeting the daily fiber recommendations.

We scored better in some other areas. The survey found that less than 3% of Americans weren't getting enough vitamin B-2 (riboflavin), B-3 (niacin), selenium, and protein. And only 5% weren't getting enough iron, vitamin B-1 (thiamin), phosphorus, and copper.

The really good news is that we can correct the nutrient shortfall simply by eating a few plant foods more often: certain fruits and vegetables, plus nuts and beans. All these foods will also help us get enough fiber, too.

Here's a chart showing you which of the "lost nutrients" can be found in these powerful plant food groups (Note that several of the food groups contribute three of the "lost nutrients," and one actually gives you all five):

Vitamin E Vitamin A Magnesium Potassium Vitamin C
Dark green,leafy vegetables X X X X X
Yellow/orange vegetables X X     X
Berries X       X
Yellow/orange fruits X     X X
Nuts X   X X  
Whole grains (whole-wheat pasta, brown rice)     X    

5 Key Foods for a Healthier Diet

What happens if you have a handful of nuts and beans and a serving of dark green vegetables, plus some citrus and a serving or yellow-orange fruits or vegetables, every day? With the help of my trusty nutrition analysis software, I calculated how close these five key foods got me to meeting the daily needs for the five "lost nutrients" (plus fiber).

The five foods I included were:

  • 1/3 cup nuts (I used almonds for my analysis)
  • 1/2 cup cooked or canned beans (I used kidney beans)
  • 1 cup steamed dark green vegetables (broccoli)
  • 1 cup yellow/orange fruit or vegetable (1/2 cup cantaloupe and 1/2 cup cooked sliced carrots)
  • 1 cup fresh citrus juice (fresh orange juice)

The caloric cost for all this food is probably less than you think it is -- just 598 calories. Yet these five foods alone will give you:

  • 363% of the Recommended Daily Amount (RDA) of vitamin A (for women 31-50)
  • 388% RDA vitamin C
  • 90% RDA vitamin E
  • 81% RDA magnesium
  • 65% RDA potassium
  • 20 grams of fiber (the American Dietetic Association recommends 20-35 daily grams for healthy adults)
  • 0.5g of heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids

These results literally had me jumping up and down. And the great part is that these are things you get to add to your diet - which strikes me as a much happier notion than taking things away. So add these healthy fruits, veggies, nuts and beans to your grocery list today!

Elaine Magee, MPH, RD, is the "Recipe Doctor" for the WebMD Weight Loss Clinic and the author of numerous books on nutrition and health. Her opinions and conclusions are her own.

Published April 20, 2007.

SOURCES: Moshfegh A., et al., What We Eat in America, NHANES 2001-2002: Usual Nutrient Intakes from Food Compared to Dietary Reference Intakes, 2005, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service. ESHA Research Food Processor Nutritional Analysis software.

©2007 WebMD Inc. All rights reserved.

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