The latest report card on the nutritional composition of the American diet tells us a lot about the food choices we've been making. If we reshape our eating patterns, we could improve our nutrient intake and lower our risk of cancer and other health problems.
The new publication, which details our nutritional shortcomings, is called What We Eat in America: NHANES 2001-2002. It's based on a federal dietary survey of almost 9,000 people. Almost all of the shortfalls identified in this report can be corrected by eating a balanced, mostly plant-based diet recommended in both the 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans and the American Institute for Cancer Research's cancer prevention guidelines.
Results of the survey show that almost a third of us get too little vitamin C, almost half get too little vitamin A, more than half get too little magnesium, and at least 92 to 97 percent get too little fiber and potassium. Since vegetables, fruits and beans are major sources for these nutrients, to end any deficiency we might have, most of us should try to eat three-and-a-half to five cups of vegetables and fruits a day. The survey indicates that all of us need to expand our produce choices and learn to enjoy more dark green and orange vegetables and more fruit.
These particular nutrients are important because they help lower the risk of our major health problems: cancer, heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes. When we expand the amounts and variety of vegetables, fruits and beans we eat, we get a wide range of natural phytochemicals, along with these nutrients, that seem to keep blood vessels healthy and block several steps in the cancer development process.
By including more whole grains in our choice of breads, cereals, rice and pasta, we can also get more magnesium, potassium and fiber. If we aim for three or four servings of whole grains a day, we can still include a few of the refined grain products that we find hardest to give up. Too many refined carbohydrates can mean too many calories that challenge weight control.
According to the survey, vitamin E consumption falls below recommended levels for 93 percent of us. Getting enough of this vitamin poses a challenge, because its major sources are high-fat, high-calorie vegetable oils, nuts, and seeds, although some can be found in dark green leafy vegetables. You can use soft tub margarine and canola or olive oil to add vitamin E to your diet without too much saturated fat. However, people who are trying to cut back on calories may have difficulty getting enough vitamin E this way without exceeding their calorie limit.
Vitamin E supplements aren't a good option, however. New studies confirm past findings that these supplements don't protect against heart disease or cancer. Furthermore, some researchers suggest that the gamma-tocopherol form of vitamin E, which is more abundant in nuts and seeds, may lower cancer risk. Supplements with the alpha-tocopherol form should be considered carefully, because they can reduce blood levels of the gamma form. If you wish to take vitamin E supplements, you should use one with mixed tocopherols.
The only other common nutritional deficiencies found in the survey that can't be fixed by taking the steps above are shortages of calcium and vitamin D. To remedy these shortcomings, from the age of nine onward we need three daily servings of dairy or calcium-fortified juice, cereal, or soymilk. These servings provide the calcium linked with sturdy bones, blood pressure control and possibly less colon cancer. For the elderly and anyone else who is advised to aim for the highest intake levels of vitamin D, a supplement may be needed.
But you shouldn't think immediately of using supplements when you hear about common nutritional problems. By eating a mostly plant-based diet that's recommended for lower cancer risk, your food choices will supply most of the nutrients that are often missing.