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Micronutrient Insufficiencies. Why Are We Missing The Mark?
It's well understood and accepted that a healthy diet based on minimally-processed whole foods can help Canadians meet their basic nutrient requirements, as well as, greatly reduce their risk for chronic degenerative disease such as type 2 diabetes, cancer, cardiovascular disease including dementia, osteoporosis and more. Desipte this, a large number of Canadians are not meeting the recommended minimum intake of several vitamins and minerals (micronutrients) needed for health despite the variety of foods available.
People often chime in that all anyone has to do is follow a healthy diet to get what they need but in a sense that's a moot point. In a nutshell, no one does. Large surveys such as the Canadian Health Measures Survey and the Canadian Commnunity Health Survey have routinely shown that Canadians are sadly missing the mark.
How bad is it?
A lot of people are not getting enough vitamins A, C, D, E, B1, B2, B3, B6, and folate and the minerals magnesium, zinc, potassium and calcium; those 51 years of age and older are at the greatest risk. The numbers tell a sad tale. According to the Canadian Community Health Survey, more than 40% of us are not getting enough vitamin A, between 15-32% not enough vitamin C, and up to 30% are not getting enough vitamin B6. By far, and not surprising, the worst is vitamin D; over 90% of Canadians are woefully insufficient, or worse, deficient in this critical vitamin. It's not any better for several minerals; 35-70% are not getting the magnesium they need, 20-50% miss the mark with zinc and up to 80% of older adults are losing out on the benefits of calcum.
Why is getting enough micronutritents difficult?
Most people I see in hospital and in private practice strive to eat the healthiest diet they can but the fact of the matter is, many forces outside our control can hinder our best efforts. The following are some of the more important reasons why getting enough vitamins and minerals in amounts needed, not only to satisfy our basic requirements, but to allow us to achieve optimal well-being can be diffcult:
- Eating more refined & processed foods that lack many vitamins & minerals.
- Food processing and transportation of foods over long distances can result in nutrient losses.
- Nutrient content of soil continues to drop due to over-farming of soils, a lack of biodiversity, heavy use of synthetic fertilizers that supply mostly phosphorus, potassium & nitrogen.
- Selective breeding for plants that grow faster & bigger which will take up fewer nutrients from the soil. Many foods today have lower amounts of nutrients compared to foods 100 years ago.
- Eating less total food compared to 100 or more years ago; less total food, fewer nutrients
- Many medications can interfere with nutrient absorption or increase nutrient losses from our body, and interfere with how vitamins/minerals work in the body.
- Genetic variations which can increase the need for certain vitamins & minerals. A classic example is with the enzyme MTHFR; about 65% of us have a mutation which prevents us from absorbing and using folate efficiency. Those with this mutation can need up to 50% more folate than those without the mutation.
- Increased need for detoxification from substances like medications, alcohol & drugs.
- Aging; requirements for many nutrients increase as we age but our ability to absorb them decreases.
What's a person to do?
The focus will always be on wholesome food, first and foremost. While there are many paths to one destination, we all need some 50 nutrients each and every day to run this magnificant body of ours. While plant foods seem to be enjoying all of the attention these days, make no mistake, animal foods are highly nutritious and the vitamins and minerals from them are highly absorbable because they don't have antinutrients such as fiber, phytates, saponins, etc. Having said that, a diet based on a variety of foods, both animal and plant-base that includes both raw and cooked preparation methods, will offer the best nutritional bang for your buck.
In addition to the best possible diet you can muster, proper supplementation with quality products will help to ensure you're not only meeting your basic micronutrient requirements but will move you into the realm of being functionally optimal.
Traditional healthy eating guidelines certainly help to prevent overt clinical deficiencies but often miss the mark for optimal intake. This is the concept behind functional medicine and functional nutrition therapy. A simple example is magnesium; average intake is about 250 mg per day, the recommended intake is 320 mg for women and 420 mg for men. Optimal intakes are estimated to be between 500 – 700 mg per day to reduce chronic degenerative disease; even with a healthy diet a person can be functionally insufficient or deficient in a given vitamin or mineral.
Moving along the continuum from deficient and insufficient to optimal and thriving does take a little effort. What worthwhile in life doesn't? But it isn't as hard as you might imagine. Take out a piece of paper and make a list of three things you could change to improve the quality of your diet and get started today!
Doug Cook RD, MHSc is a Registered Dietitian and Nutritionist with a focus on functional medical nutrition therapy. He uses an integrative and holistic approach providing science-based guidance on food and diet along with the judicious use of nutritional supplements where appropriate. He is the coauthor of Nutrition for Canadians for Dummies (Wiley, 2008) and The Complete Leaky Gut Health & Diet Book (Robert Rose, Spring 2015). You can learn more about Doug by visiting his Facebook page, following him on Twitter, or by checking out his website www.dougcookrd.com.