5 Key Nutrients and How to Get Enough of Them

5 Key Nutrients and How to Get Enough of Them

Snack on black beans for fiber, carrots for vitamin A and more!

In a society that’s become so focused on losing weight, it’s almost habit to check nutrition labels in search of a single number: Calories. Calorie counts can be important, but they don’t tell the whole story. Nutrition labels offer a myriad of information including fat, protein, sodium, sugar, vitamins and minerals.

Find out how much—and of what—you should be eating. 

Variety is the spice of life
A healthy diet consists of getting enough nutrients from a wide variety of fresh produce, 100 percent whole grains and lean proteins. Build a well-balanced meal:

  • Load at least half your plate with fruits and vegetables.
  • Round out your dish with a three-ounce serving of lean protein, like chicken or fish—about the size of a deck of cards or a checkbook.
  • Measure out one and a half cups of cooked whole grains, like brown rice or quinoa.

A veggie-heavy meal might help you eat less fat, refined carbohydrates and unnecessary calories. Save money and eat the freshest produce possible by choosing seasonal fruits and veggies.

Hold the fork! Before you chow down, take a look at the nutrition labels on your meal’s ingredients.

How to read nutrition labels
Nutrition labels reveal the amount of fat, calories and vitamins in each serving, but they don’t tell you how much to eat so your body can function properly.

Check your labels for fat, sodium, cholesterol and added sugars—all of which should be low in your diet.   

Fat: Our bodies need healthy fats like omega-3 fatty acids found in salmon and monosaturated fats found in olive oil. Healthy fats help reduce bad—or low-density lipoprotein (LDL)—cholesterol levels and help your body produce cells. Eating healthy fats may even reduce your risk of heart disease and stroke.

However, saturated fats found in butter and cheese should be limited to 20 grams or less per day. Too much saturated fat in your diet can increase stroke and heart attack risks. Trans fats are also detrimental to your health—lowering good cholesterol and raising bad cholesterol levels, and upping your risk for type 2 diabetes, stroke and heart disease. It’s best to keep trans fatty acid consumption as low as possible.

Sodium: A diet high in sodium may force your kidneys to work harder to dilute the excess sodium in your blood stream. To reduce these risks, limit your intake to 2,400 milligrams a day. Avoid foods like bacon and salted nuts to cut these numbers.

Cholesterol: Another contributor to an elevated risk of heart disease is too much bad or LDL cholesterol. Fried foods, processed meats like sausage and packaged foods like muffins and other baked goods are high in cholesterol and saturated fats—both of which may contribute to an increase of LDL cholesterol.

You can help protect your heart by keeping your cholesterol intake as low as possible. Foods high in cholesterol typically contain high levels of saturated fats, so diets that limit both of these tend to be healthier. Choose your cholesterol intake wisely—foods like eggs may be high in cholesterol, 210 milligrams per large egg, but they’re low in saturated fat, and contain other nutrients that may help lower heart disease risk.

Sugar: Not all sugar is bad for our bodies, but excessive added sugar can hurt your health. Natural sugars, found in fresh fruits, are essential, but a diet high in added sugar can contribute to weight gain and up your risk of heart disease. The American Heart Association recommends limiting daily added sugar consumption to about 100 calories for women and 150 calories for men. 

On the other hand, you should opt for foods high in vitamins, minerals and more. Here’s what to look for.

Vitamin A: This vitamin is important for maintaining normal vision and a healthy immune system. The recommended daily intake of vitamin A is 5,000 international units (IU). The best way to get this? Eat plenty of fruits and veggies like sweet potatoes and carrots—each with more than 100 percent of the recommended daily amount per cup.  

Vitamin C: Abundant in kale and yellow bell peppers, vitamin C is needed for the growth and repair of your body’s tissues. You should aim for 60 milligrams of vitamin C a day. A single cup of kale contains 80 milligrams of vitamin C, while one whole yellow bell pepper contains 340 milligrams of the vitamin. 

Fiber: In addition to promoting normal bowel function, dietary fiber helps control blood sugar levels. Your body needs about 25 grams a day. Foods like black beans contain 15 grams per cup, and raspberries, 8 grams per cup.   

Calcium: Milk isn’t the only source of calcium. Produce like oranges and broccoli contain a decent amount—72 and 43 milligrams per cup, respectively. Load up on calcium-rich foods to reach the recommended daily 1,000 milligrams of calcium—important for bone and tooth health.

Iron: Iron is an essential part of the protein that carries oxygen from the lungs to the rest of the body. Eighteen milligrams may not seem like a lot, but many struggle to reach this goal. A cup of red kidney beans contains more than 5 milligrams of iron, and the same serving of black beans contains just under four.    
Track your progress
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) set guidelines for recommended daily intake of nutrients based on a 2,000 calorie diet. These guidelines are a good starting point, but talking to your doctor is the best way to ensure you’re following a plan that’s appropriate for your body. 

An easy way to make sure you’re reaching these marks is to track your diet. Mobile apps like MyFitnessPal and FatSecret help you do just that. In addition to tracking calories, these apps calculate the nutrients you’re eating throughout the day. The Sharecare app also offers information about healthy meals and portion size, although it doesn’t track calories.

Before you start tracking your diet, get a better understanding of your overall health by taking the RealAge Test. This assessment measures how your lifestyle and family history affect your longevity. You’ll receive personalized recommendations for lowering your RealAge, which might include eating a diet high in good nutrients.

Medically reviewed in September 2018.

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