We always hear we are getting “too much” salt, sugar and saturated fat. But what about nutrients of which we get too little?
The 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans singled out several key nutrients that Americans are often deficient in, and recommended a diet high in fruits and vegetables. Some on the list (including calcium, vitamin D, and potassium) are so low that their deficiency poses a real public health risk. The Standard American Diet (SAD) tends to be high in carbohydrates, protein and saturated fats, but only 10% of it is made up of fruits and vegetables. The leading fruits and vegetables consumed in the US in descending order are: iceberg lettuce, raw tomatoes, French fries, bananas and orange juice, making up almost 30% of all fruits and vegetables consumed–not enough variety to include many important vitamins. Since fruits and vegetables are the main sources of vitamins and minerals, many Americans are deficient. All of the cited deficiencies can be found in plant foods:
Calcium. It is hard to believe that with the high intake of dairy products that Americans could be deficient in calcium, but that is the case. The problem is that we don’t absorb calcium from milk very well. Many studies have shown that we absorb calcium from plants better than from dairy. For example, one cup of cooked kale has the same amount of absorbable calcium (100 milligrams) as one cup of cow’s milk (with less than half the calories and no fat). Leafy greens, legumes, and fruit also contain calcium, and many foods and drinks are fortified with the mineral such as almond and soy milk. Here is a list of more foods high in calcium with a few recipes, too.
Vitamin D. There are not many plant foods that contain vitamin D naturally, except for mushrooms! This is especially if they have been exposed to sunlight, which you can do yourself by setting them out for an hour or so before storing. Otherwise, the best way to get the daily requirement is 10 minutes of sun exposure, taking a supplement, or eating vitamin D fortified foods.
Potassium. My mother had many problems with low potassium in her later years, partly due to high blood pressure medicine which acts as a diuretic. It was a serious concern and she landed in the ER several times just for this problem. Healthy high potassium plant foods include beans, dark leafy greens, potatoes, squash, avocados, mushrooms, and bananas. Here is a list of the 10 highest sources of potassium.
Magnesium. Called the “invisible deficiency” because it is hard to diagnose. But it has a lot of serious consequences for many different problems. It is estimated that 80% of Americans do not get enough magnesium. Food sources are your safest bet so focus on amping up your consumption of leafy greens — one cup of cooked spinach provides 157 milligrams of magnesium. Legumes are a solid choice too, with a cup of cooked white beans coming in at 113 milligrams of the nutrient. And if you’re a fan of squash and pumpkin seeds, one cup packs in a whopping 649 milligrams. Other great options are nuts, including almonds and cashews, and whole grains.
Vitamin K. This is not something I hear about very often, but a lack of this vitamin it can have a serious impact on bleeding disorders. Good plant sources of Vitamin K are leafy greens! This includes frozen kale and spinach, which have a higher vitamin K content than raw. Also, mustard greens, collards, beet greens, swiss chard, turnip greens, dandelion greens, and broccoli raab (leaves).
Vitamin A helps our vision and helps to prevent night blindness. High vitamin A foods include sweet potatoes, carrots, dark leafy greens, winter squash, lettuce, dried apricots, cantaloupe, bell peppers, and tropical fruits.
Vitamin C. American do not eat many fruits and vegetables, and broccoli, strawberries, kale and grapefruit — all rich sources of vitamin C — make up less than 2% of fruit and vegetable consumption in the US. Foods high in vitamin C include bell peppers, dark leafy greens, kiwifruit, broccoli, berries, citrus fruits, tomatoes, peas, and papayas. The current DV for vitamin C is 60 mg. Here is a list of high vitamin C foods.
Vitamin B-12 is only found in animal products, but is an interesting nutrient because neither plants nor animals naturally synthesize B-12. In the past it came from animals who would consume soil, through unwashed plants and non-chlorinated water. Soil contains bacteria that make B-12. The B-12 accumulates in the animals’ tissues, which becomes a source of the vitamin for humans when we eat the animal. But in today’s world, animals do not live in environments where they are outside and eat dirt, so they are also given B-12 supplements. Instead of needing to eat meat to get B-12, we can just take the supplements ourselves! It is a cheap supplement you can find at CVS or any drug store. It is also added to many cereals, as well as soy, almond, and coconut milks, so if you eat those foods you may not need to buy a supplement.
Did you notice the overlap? It seems clear that adding leafy greens into our diet will be enormously beneficial to meet our daily vitamin and mineral needs. And eating a wide variety is important too–even if you keep meat and dairy in your diet.