Most Americans don’t get the recommended daily allowances of basic vitamins and minerals. In fact, most of us take in far too few nutrients. Yet, at the same time, most Americans are taking in far too many calories.
The 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans identifies four nutrients as key: fiber, vitamin D, calcium, potassium.
Additionally, many studies point to other critical nutrients for disease prevention, including vitamins A, C and K, as well as folic acid, many B vitamins and magnesium.
If we are overeating, yet not getting adequate amounts of these basic nutrients, then what nutrients are we getting? And, more importantly, where are they coming from?
Where Are Our Nutrients Coming From?
There are many different ways to get your basic vitamins and minerals. You would think that the most obvious would be from the foods you eat. However, when you consider that just 28 percent of U.S. adults eat two or more servings of fruit a day and a mere 32 percent eat the three or more recommended servings of vegetables a day, food doesn’t seem to be the way to go.
And even if you were eating the recommended amounts of produce, depleted soils and commercial agriculture have caused many of our vegetables and fruits to have far fewer nutrients than those grown a decade or so ago.
Perhaps that’s why so many foods in the United States are either enriched or fortified. Enriched foods are those that have lost nutrients during processing and had those nutrients added back in. Breads and cereals are the most common examples, as is milk.
Foods that are fortified have nutrients added to them at levels that are higher than naturally occur in the food, such as adding vitamin D to milk. Some fortified foods have nutrients added that aren’t normally in those foods, like adding calcium to orange juice.
In addition to food, there is the supplement path. At least half of Americans take some type of supplement, with multivitamins leading the way.
Given all this, researchers set out to determine if Americans were getting their recommended daily allowance of key nutrients, and what percentage of those nutrients were coming from foods, enrichment/fortification, or supplements.
Using information from the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics, researchers reviewed food recall surveys from more than 16,000 participants, with 7,250 between the ages of 2 and 18, and 8,860 over the age of 19.
They examined those surveys to determine nutrient intake from either foods and/or supplements. They looked at 19 specific nutrients:
- Vitamin D
- Vitamin A
- Vitamin C
- Vitamin E
- Vitamin K
- Thiamin (vitamin B1)
- Riboflavin (vitamin B2)
- Niacin (vitamin B3)
- Vitamin B6
- Vitamin B12
- Folate/folic acid (vitamin B family)
They then broke the results into three groups based on the data:
- Naturally occurring in foods
- All food sources (naturally occurring and enriched/fortified)
- All sources (foods and supplements)
Turns out, we have quite a nutrient deficiency problem here in America.
Thank Goodness for Enrichment
In a nutshell, we aren’t doing too poorly, but many of us are significantly undernourished while being overfed.
Specifically, researchers found that when all sources were considered, far too many participants fell well below the estimated average requirements (EAR) for six key nutrients:
- Vitamin D (70 percent)
- Vitamin E (60 percent)
- Vitamin A (34 percent)
- Vitamin C (25 percent)
- Calcium (38 percent)
- Magnesium (45 percent)
When it came to the B vitamins and minerals such as zinc, iron and selenium, people fared better, with 8 percent or less of the participants falling under the EAR.
As for potassium, nearly 3 percent of the group had above average intake. And when it came to vitamin K, about 35 percent of the participants had above average intake.
However, only 3 percent or less met or exceeded levels for calcium, iron and vitamins D, C and E. And just about 5 percent had higher levels of vitamin A, while 8 percent exceeded zinc levels. Finally, just 10 percent of participants had higher levels of niacin.
What was shocking was how the numbers were affected when you considered the different sources. For example, a large percentage of nutrients came from either enrichment or fortification, including:
- Vitamin A
- Vitamin B6
- Folate/folic acid
In fact, enriched and fortified foods had some level of impact on every nutrient, with the exception of selenium. In some cases, levels were affected as much as 46 percent, while in other cases there was only a 1 percent or 2 percent difference.
Supplementation also played a key role for a handful of nutrients, including vitamins A, C, D and E, as well as calcium and a bit for magnesium.
Researchers concluded, “Compared with intakes from naturally occurring nutrients, enrichment and/or fortification dramatically improved intakes of several key nutrients, including folate, thiamin, iron, and vitamins A and D. Dietary supplements added to the intakes of those who used them and further reduced the percentage of the population below the EAR for magnesium and vitamins A, C, and E… Health professionals must be aware of the contribution that enrichment and/or fortification and dietary supplements make to the nutritional status of Americans.”
How to Get Those Vitamins
It’s up to you to make a concerted effort to get enough nutrients. First and foremost, eat your five servings of fruits and vegetables every day. Aim for organic options to ensure the highest possible levels of nutrients.
Also, when choosing breads, pastas and other grain-based products, choose whole-grain options. This will help prevent over-processing and will lessen the dependence on enriched foods.
Next, supplement your diet with fortified foods. Choose orange juice with calcium or organic milk with vitamin D.
Finally, be sure you are taking, at minimum, a high-quality multivitamin that contains at least the recommended daily allowance of each vitamin and mineral.
To learn about the most important vitamins you should be taking, including some that do not appear on the government’s list of minimum nutrition guidelines, see our free report, Top 7 Supplements for Lifetime Vitality.
 USDA Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion. The Report of the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee on the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010 [internet]. Alexandria (VA): USDA Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion; 2010 [cited 28 Oct 2010]. Available from: http://www.cnpp.usda.gov/DGAs2010-DGARCReport.htm.
 Fulgoni, VL3rd, et al. Foods, fortificants, and supplements: Where do Americans get their nutrients? J Nutr. 2011 Aug 26. [Epub ahead of print.]