Can we get all the nutrients we need from diet alone?
Today I was driving and trying to think of an idea for tackling nutrient density through food/diet alone. Can we do it in a reasonable and sustainable way? And are there going to be calorie limiters i.e when someone is eating few calories for fat loss and can't eat enough total food to cover basic nutrient needs. Someone dieting at 1500 calories might not be able to eat enough food in general to ensure they're covering all bases.
While I can't say for sure that eating in a calorie deficit means being nutrient deficient, I know that simple having to eat less means you'll also consume fewer vitamins and minerals. So tackling this through the lens of a restricted calorie diet probably means we'll come up short with something because we don't have enough total calories to play with.
As I worked through this thought process, it made sense to start with someone who was not calorie restricted and is also large enough to require more maintenance calories. This gives more room for food volume and variety. Both of which are necessary for consuming a wide array of nutrients.
A lean and active adult can easily maintain on 3,000 calories per day. Many guys do it and quite a few women as well. So it's reasonable to assume that an individual with a larger amount of calories to play with and a genuine interest in eating healthy, might attempt to use all of those calories to eat a varied diet in the interest of essential nutrients coverage.
About 3,000 calories
202 g protein
59g fiber (that's a lot!)
3.6g Omega 3
8g Omega 6
Instead of trying to rig the system to work in my favor, I selected all my foods simply to meet the calorie, protein, carb and fat numbers. I did not pay attention to Omega Fatty Acids, vitamins, minerals or fiber.
Rather, I chose a variety of lean meat, salmon, veggies, fibrous carbohydrates, fruit and unsaturated fats that would offer a spectrum of flavors and textures while also assuming some nutrient diversity.
90/10 lean ground beef
Farmed salmon (assuming wild might be cost prohibitive)
Rx bar (egg whites)
Fruit - Banana and blueberries
I know some people would look at this and say "you could easily add "x" food that would cover more nutrients with fewer calories, such as consuming only fruits and vegetables and no starches. But I also know that pretty much no one would do that and it always comes back to what people are willing to do. The above list of foods is nothing to sneeze at in terms of food prep and kitchen knowledge and you won't see many people cooking this means items each week for themselves. Lets hand it to the individual willing to do all that (who still might come up short in basic nutrient needs). Perfect also means unrealistic.
The good news is we not only more than double the RDA for omega fatty acids but also kept the ratio more with 1:2 to 1:3. That's great.
However, even with the abundance of calories and dietary diversity, we still fell short on calcium, iodine, choline and Vitamin D. For some nutrients we are higher than the Upper Tolerable Limit (UI) while others we meet barely meet the minimum. This is a wide degree of "nailing it" that assumes even when you meet your RDA you might JUST make it (like copper) or might be WAY over (like potassium). Then, if we start adding salt to foods, don't potassium needs go up, likely meaning our current intake isn't actually enough?
It's a good way of making yourself feel like you might be failing a well-rounded diet when in actuality you meeting all RDA minimums through food alone is very slim. If we're all falling short through food intake, how are we still up and at 'em?
Essemtial and Non-Essential Nutrients
Many of the vitamins and minerals we need are considered essential, which means we have to get them through diet. Non-essential means our body can produce them itself. Vitamin D is a good example of a non-essential (actually conditionally essential), meaning we don't have to get it through food but we need sub exposure to make it ourselves. When we're talking about vitamins and minerals though, it's beyond the scope of most people (myself included) to go through a list like above and change our diet just to meet the RDA minimums. Food choices based solely on nutrient needs is tedious and for most, probably not sustainable.
However, addressing some major areas of nutrition can do a lot to help cover an array of nutrient needs. These would be things like:
- are you eating complete proteins?
- do you occasionally consume red meat? If not, how are you getting iron e.g greens and supplements?
- do you consume multiple servings of vegetables/fruit per day?
- are you choosing whole food and fibrous sources of starches like potatoes, oatmea etc?
- do you consume unsaturated fat sources through whole foods like nuts, avocado and olive oil?
Most of the above bullet points simply focus on covering basic macronutrient needs (proteins, carbs, fats) through whole food sources with some diversity. While this may seem simplistic, you would be shocked at the number of people I speak to who consume almost no vegetables, unsaturated fat sources, red meat or non-boxed/bagged carbohydrates.
Specialty diets aside, like vegan/vegetarian which can be done well with some effort, many people simply choose low nutrient density foods which can create some chronic problems. I feel that women are especially prone to this as a huge portion that I personally worked with are chronically consuming low calories(which makes eating a variety of foods difficult), avoid red meat (even though they might need the iron) and totally give up dairy, carbs or some other fad nutritional protocol which eliminates their chief source of some nutrients like calcium or B vitamins.
Should you supplement?
Before supplementing, it's important to address your food intake and diversity. Ensure you eat like an adult and don't avoid or cut out whole food groups for long periods because of dieting trend. If you cut out all dairy and it's your only source of calcium, that can come back to bite you. Instead, you can also get a nutrient pan run by your doctor to see what you might be deficient in and then discuss with them on the best course of action. If you can't say you eat as the above list suggests for some reason, start by addressing your diet. Obviously if you are vegan/vegetarian then you need alternatives to animal products.
Obviously some supplements DO work. Prenatal vitamins are associated with reduced risk of low birth-weight infants. Supplements derived from whole foods are better absorbed than synthetic ones - and can be helpful under the right circumstances. An anemic person benefits from an iron supplement, those on plant based diets might need iodine or B12.
If you choose a supplement, choose whole-food derived and avoid supertherapeutic doses, they can present issues with toxicity. If you feel you have a lingering health problem, energy related issues or some other chronic malaise, it's not a bad idea to get a blood test for nutrient deficiencies. If your doc won't do it, there are plenty of companies out there, like LabCorp who you can order tests through directly.
If you track, an app like Cronometer can give you a general idea of ways your diet might be lacking if you tend to eat the same things all the time. Check out the nutrient breakdown of a typical day's diet and look for any red flags. Personally, from the above I know I can easily address calcium with a fortified almond milk beverage (since I am lactose intolerant), I can obviously get Vitamin D through sun exposure (and a supplement can help during winter). I can get idodine through using occasional iodized salt rather than kosher salt. I can get plenty of choline from eggs and Vitamin E through a bit of olive oil.
For me, none of these requirements are deterrents. I don't eat that many eggs currently but it isn't hard or expensive to add in a couple here and there. The rest barely requires any work from me so I know these things can be easily addressed. However if this was the case of being chronically low in iron, B12 or magnesium, it might be helpful to look at food sources and see if you need temporary supplemental assistance.
If you want to get a quick overview of "should I supplement or not", check out this link to Examine.com, covering who might need supplements and how to go about choosing them: Do You Need A Multivitamin?
The average person probably runs behind on some nutrients that they are getting enough of through diet alone. Whether this nutritional gap is large enough to warrant a supplement is a different matter. My recommendation, if you don't accurately track your food, is to ask yourself if you are an at-risk person for a deficiency. Are you dieting? Are you elderly or pregnant? Are you following a nutritional plan that avoids foods like dairy, carbohydrates or animal proteins? These are red flags for need some nutritional, and possibly supplemental, intervention.
Then, if you are truly concerned, talk to your doc and get a blood panel if you don't think you can address it through diet.