Even though studies show a solid half of all U.S. adults consider healthy eating a top priority, the standard American diet falls short on many important nutrients. In fact, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the federal government’s guide to what to eat and drink to meet nutrient needs, promote health, and prevent disease, has identified four nutrients that Americans eat at such low levels that they’re a “public health concern.”
Low intakes of these four nutrients are associated with chronic diseases, including type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
The recommended amount you need of each nutrient depends on your individual calorie requirements, age, and gender, explains Lauren Twigge, RD. Check these guidelines below to see if your diet passes muster.
1. Dietary fiber
Fiber is a key player in digestive health, but it also plays an important part in metabolic health, too. Fiber helps lower cholesterol and stabilize your blood sugar. Women should aim for 25 grams daily, and men should target 38 grams as their goal. Another way to measure proper fiber intake is to try to get 14 grams for every 1,000 calories you consume. That translates to 28 grams of fiber for a 2,000-calorie diet. Beans, fruits such as berries and pears, seeds such as chia seeds and quinoa, whole grains, and vegetables are all top sources of dietary fiber.
Calcium helps you build strong bones and also functions as an electrolyte, supporting nerve transmission and muscle contraction. The daily calcium recommendation is 1,000 milligrams for both women and men. Dairy products such as milk, yogurt, and cheese; canned salmon and sardines; and dark leafy greens like spinach and kale are all rich in calcium.
Potassium also serves as an electrolyte to regulate hydration levels as well as support nerve and muscle function. This essential mineral also boosts heart health by managing blood pressure. Women should be getting 2,600 milligrams per day and men need 3,400 milligrams per day. Potassium is primarily found in fruits (dried fruit like raisins, prunes, and apricots are great picks), vegetables (potatoes, tomatoes, and broccoli), lentils, kidney beans, and animal products such as milk, yogurt, chicken, and salmon.
4. Vitamin D
Alongside calcium and phosphorus, vitamin D maintains and builds bone. It also plays a variety of roles in immune health, inflammation, and glucose metabolism. The daily vitamin D recommendation is 600 IU (international units) for both women and men. Few foods naturally contain vitamin D, but egg yolks, mushrooms, and fatty fish like sardines and salmon do. Many foods such as dairy products including milk and yogurt and ready-to-eat cereals are fortified with vitamin D. These foods provide most of the vitamin D in American diets.
Foods that check more than one box
Shifting to a new, healthier diet can be difficult, so make small changes that make a big difference, says Twigge. Prioritize nutrient-dense foods and beverages that contain most of the nutrients of concern to knock out dietary recommendations more efficiently.
Below are four specific examples of foods and beverages that pack at least three of the four nutrients into a single serving:
Dark leafy greens. Greens like spinach, kale, or collards contain fiber, potassium, and calcium. Add these greens to an egg scramble for a meal that will fill you all four nutrients of concern.
Dried fruits. Dried apricots and prunes provide fiber, calcium, and potassium. Try pairing these fruits with nuts (which also contain fiber, calcium, and potassium) for an even healthier on-the-go snack.
Dairy products. Milk and yogurt offer potassium, calcium, and vitamin D. You can get all four nutrients of concern if you top yogurt or milk with a fiber-rich ready-to-eat cereal or granola.
Fatty fish. Canned fatty fish such as sardines or salmon is a source of calcium, vitamin D, and potassium. Pair these fish with a fiber-rich whole-grain cracker to get all four nutrients at once.