A common question from people interested in improving their health is “How do I know I’m getting enough vitamins/minerals/protein/etc.?” There are several reasons people ask these questions. First, they have been taught that Americans are suffering from deficiency diseases. This has fueled the growth of the supplement industry – taking supplements is supposed to remedy nutrient deficiencies. The problem is that people are not suffering from deficiencies – they are suffering from excess – too much fat, too much protein, too much calories, etc.
So, when people start eating less – less protein, less calories and less fat; and eliminating familiar foods like dairy products, they begin to wonder how they’re going to get enough of some nutrients and if they are going to require supplementation. The good news is that consuming a Wellness Forum-style diet with a wide variety of plant foods provides enough of everything without having to measure and count milligrams of this and micrograms of that. And, those nutrients are packaged synergistically with thousands of other nutrients, which facilitates absorption and utilization by the body.
This confusion about nutrient content and needs is compounded when people start reading labels, particularly the portion of the label that shows the vitamin and mineral content of the food. They mistakenly think that a product that contains 100% of the RDA for a few nutrients must be better than one that contains 5% of the RDA for some of those same nutrients. This is not necessarily true since the chart showing these numbers does not take into consideration the source of the nutrients. Reading these charts can lead people to believe that a multi-vitamin or a fortified cereal is better than a whole grain product or an apple. Additionally, only a few nutrients are listed on the package. There are thousands of nutrients in food – you need to consume a little of all of them daily, which is best accomplished by consuming whole, natural foods.
The better way to evaluate food choices is to learn to practice qualitative vs. quantitative nutrition. This means that instead of focusing on how much of the RDA for a few nutrients you are consuming, and reading charts on the sides of packages, you focus on consuming a diet comprised of the right foods – mostly fruit, vegetables, whole grains, legumes and some nuts and seeds.
This focus on whole foods brings up another common question, which is how many servings of fruit and vegetables people should consume daily. It is my opinion that consumption should not be measured in terms of how many servings daily, but, again, on the totality of the diet. A plant-based (90% plant food) that is low in fat, high in fiber and minimizes processed and refined foods is the objective. Lots of unhealthy people consuming terrible diets do so while getting 5 servings of fruits and vegetables daily. It’s not enough and doing so while continuing other bad habits will not protect you against cancer, lower your cholesterol or unclog your arteries. Optimal health is achieved when the shift in eating habits is significant enough to make a difference.
The easiest and, in fact, the only way that you can make sure you are “getting enough” of the nutrients you need daily is to work at consuming a great diet. And, it is actually easier and cheaper to do this than to worry about the consequences of not doing so.