Nutrition is the process of taking food into your body so your body can use that food to provide energy for daily activities and exercise. Too often the word nutrition paints pictures of unappealing foods and denial of taste. Eating healthy does not mean surviving on dry toast and carrot sticks. A balanced diet should include a variety of appetizing foods that provide needed nutrients. Food can have nonnutrition-related functions as well. For example, social celebrations, holiday get-togethers, and expressions of support to a family facing an illness or tragedy often include food. Food is part of everyday life. Rather than seeing nutrition as an obstacle, you can focus on positive food choices as part of your new healthy lifestyle.
You may be asking yourself, Does nutrition really have much of an impact? To drive home the importance of nutrition, consider that an estimated 16% of deaths in men and 9% of deaths in women have been attributed to missing the mark with regard to nutrition.3 Hitting the mark does not have to be a mystery. The U.S. government’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans provides a summary and synthesis of research related to nutrition and food to provide guidance related to healthy eating.3
Where and Why Do Adults Fall Short?
The Dietary Guidelines points out that American adults often are lacking in their consumption of calcium, potassium, fiber, and magnesium, as well as vitamins A, C, and E.3 Finding foods containing these vitamins and minerals is not difficult. Table 10.1 lists some examples of good sources. Reflect on your own eating habits and consider small changes you can make to ensure that you consume adequate amounts of these nutrients.
Falling short in regard to these nutrients as well as others is likely related to an underconsumption of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, milk and milk products, and oils.5 Take a second look at table 10.1 to identify a couple of items in each row that you could add to your diet. In addition, women of reproductive age should consume foods containing folic acid and iron.5 Specifically, pregnant women should consume 400 micrograms of folic acid per day to prevent neural tube defects in their babies. Low iron levels are common among women, which is why experts recommend that women consume iron-rich foods (e.g., meat, poultry, fish, fortified cereals, whole grains). When consuming products such as fortified cereals and grains, you may also want to consume foods rich in vitamin C (e.g., orange juice along with your fortified cereal), which help your body absorb the iron.5
Although adults may underconsume some nutrients, they often overconsume others. Particularly, adults are consuming too many calories as well as too much salt, added sugars, cholesterol, and fat (in particular, saturated and trans fats).3 To maintain body weight, the number of calories consumed in foods and beverages must equal the number of calories the body uses for basic functions as well as to provide energy for work, activities of daily living, and exercise. Shifts in this balance as a result of even small amounts of extra calories on a daily basis can be to blame for the gradual increase in body weight often seen throughout adulthood. One of the benefits of a physically active lifestyle is the additional calories used on a daily and weekly basis.
Salt (or more technically, sodium) intake is linked with higher blood pressure. Middle-age as well as older adults may be more salt sensitive than others.3 To decrease the risk of developing high blood pressure, keep a handle on your sodium intake. Naturally occurring sodium and added salt within the cooking process or at the table account for some of your total intake. Most salt consumption, however, is related to what manufacturers add to processed foods. Snack favorites that typically are high in sodium include pretzels, potato or tortilla chips, and salsa. Some items vary in their sodium content among manufacturers. Soup is a good example of a product that can be very high in sodium or reasonable, in the case of some new lower-sodium options. Keep an eye on product labels. Low-sodium products have less than 140 milligrams of sodium, or less than 5% of the Daily Value for sodium.3
By paying closer attention to food labels, you can optimize your choices.
Read more about ACSM’s Complete Guide to Fitness & Health, edited by Barbara A. Bushman, PhD, FASCM.