Most of us have heard about the macronutrients - carbohydrates, fat, protein, alcohol - and we might even scrutinize how much of each we eat. But when's the last time you thought, "gee, how's my dietary folate intake these days?" Probably never, because we don't have room in our brains to consider our intake of every micronutrient. That's why it's important to eat an overall nutrient-rich diet with plenty of variety. This series of posts focuses on some key components of a micronutrient-rich diet. We're going with a numbered list here to keep us (me) on track. And because this is such a huge topic, I'm diving it into several posts.
Side note: With exceptions where noted, these recommendations are for adults; kids' requirements may be different depending on age. Also, if you have kidney or liver problems, talk to your doctor or dietitian before making major changes to your micronutrient intake.
OK. That's enough of an introduction. Here we go.
1. Pack in the produce.
Most adults should eat at least 3 cups of veggies and about 2 cups of fruit every day. That's a total of 5 cups fruit and veggies (obviously... I know you can count). I know that you've heard this before, but maybe you didn't really understand why. Produce is packed with micronutrients that are integral to health, some of which you can't get anywhere else. Some of these micronutrients have been isolated and are available in supplement form. But no multivitamin/mineral supplement will be able to replicate the complex web of nutrients that work in concert with one another, some of which we don't even fully understand yet. Make sure to eat a variety of produce and eat a rainbow of colors. It's especially important to eat green vegetables daily. An exception is those who are taking certain blood thinners. If you're on a blood thinner, talk to your doctor before eating more green leafy veggies.
Any discussion of the benefits of produce should also mention fiber - but fiber is technically a macronutrient, so it belongs in another post.
We're currently in harvest season where fresh produce abounds. Eat a salad, roast some fresh veggies, or make some fresh pesto. Add fruit to your pancakes or make a smoothie for dessert. Sub banana slices for jelly on that PB sandwich. Vary the colors in your produce picks to get the greatest benefit. Also, it's best to eat a variety of cooked and raw produce, as there are benefits to enjoying each.
Stuck on how to spice up your veggies? Prepare them simply (such as roasting in the oven with a little salt and pepper), then cover with a standout sauce. A good sauce can revolutionize one's opinion of vegetables. Look forward to more on that topic in a future blog post. To get you started, link here to read Food and Wine's suggestions for sauces that go great with vegetables. This recipe from Food Network got some great reviews, which makes sense because I'm loving anything made with balsamic vinegar and honey these days. Since Fall is fast approaching, consider wilting some kale into your first batch of homemade chicken soup. Your body will thank you.
Warning! If you don't currently each much produce, suddenly increasing your intake may result in gastrointestinal distress. Increase your intake slowly over a few weeks for best results.
2. Include protein in every meal
Ever wonder why some people with early stages of kidney disease have to limit their meat intake? Ok, you probably weren't wondering that. But I'm going to tell you anyway. One reason is that meat is packed with minerals! If your kidneys are ok, then feel free to enjoy healthful meat as a part of your diet. While most sources of protein are rich in nutrients, I'll focus here on a few standouts.
Red meat has lots of phosphorous, potassium, and vitamin B12. It is a rich source of zinc which is actually kind of hard to come by (unless you eat a lot of oysters or liver). It also contains thiamine, riboflavin, pantothenic acid, folate, niacin, and vitamin B6. It's true that many foods are fortified with these nutrients, however, it's important to get these vitamins and minerals directly from food-based sources as well. A discussion of the evidence and debate over the health implications of eating red meat would take several blog posts. For now, I'll say that when we vilified red meat for being high in saturated fat, many of us forgot about how nutritious it is.
What's the best source of red meat? Scientific evidence (linked here) points to grass-fed and grass-finished (called 100% grass-fed) beef as the best choice nutritionally speaking. But the issue of the best source of beef is not black and white, and not everyone likes the taste of 100% grass-fed beef. Even if it is finished on grain, I recommend sourcing red meat from local producers. I prefer to support local farmers that pay attention to the way the animals are treated and processed. Ask a local butcher to make a recommendation, or connect with staff at your local farmers' market and ask where to find well-raised meat. Since the well-raised stuff is more expensive, I usually buy ground beef or cheaper cuts like chuck or flank steak. Epicurious has a flank steak recipe from 1994 that is my go-to (thanks to my fabulous mother-in-law for recommending it).
Any discussion of red meat is amiss without mention of buffalo, but there isn't room here for my treatise on the greatness of buffalo meat. Another time!
Many of you know that I don't eat eggs, but I do recommend them to everyone else! I'm highly sensitive to eggs, sadly, so I'm missing out. Egg yolks are full of micronutrients, including choline, which is especially important for pregnant women and is not found in as substantial amounts in very many other commonly eaten foods. If you have a neighbor with chickens (I'm looking to you, Seattle urban farmers) spending their days eating bugs, dirt, and grass, try and get your hands on some of their eggs. These free range eggs will likely be higher in omega-3 fatty acids than the average cage-produced eggs. The USDA removed the egg restriction from the latest version of their dietary guidelines because the evidence shows that eating cholesterol from nutritious food doesn't necessarily have the negative health consequences that we hypothesized it would. So enjoy an egg or two a few times per week, and don't feel guilty when you eat the yolk. My sister likes to make egg muffin cups ahead of time and then grab one for a quick breakfast. Bon Appetit has some great instructions for making them here.
This one's more well known. Fatty fish like salmon, halibut, fatty tuna, sardines, and anchovies are packed with omega-3 fatty acids and even contain vitamin D. Tuna is higher in mercury than some of the other options, so for kids or women who are pregnant, nursing, or thinking of getting pregnant, I recommend limiting tuna to 1-2 cans/week. Canned salmon is a great lower mercury alternative (mmm... salmon cakes, anyone?). See the very first Black Hills Nutrition blog post for my favorite (if admittedly a little weird) sardine recipe.
You may be asking yourself, "what about chicken? Shellfish? Pork? What about vegetarian protein sources like beans and nuts and cheese?" Those foods are also packed with micronutrients, but I chose to focus this discussion on the foods above. You might also be wondering how much protein to eat. The answer is really "it depends." Every person is unique, but three ounces of meat (or a vegetarian equivalent providing about 20 grams protein) per meal is a good minimum for many people.
There is a lot more to say about building a micronutrient rich diet, but I've written enough for now. Until then, happy cooking!
© Lindsey Hays, Black Hills Nutrition LLC, and Blackhillsnutrition.com, 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Lindsey Hays and Blackhillsnutrition.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.
Lindsey Hays, RDN, LN
Lindsey Hays is licensed as a Nutritionist/Dietitian in the state of South Dakota. While she holds a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN or RD) credential which is nationally recognized by the Commission on Dietitian Registration, she is not licensed to practice as a nutritionist or dietitian in states other than South Dakota. She is a Certified Dietitian in the State of Washington. The information on blackhillsnutrition.com is not intended as medical advice. The content of this site is not intended to provide or replace medical advice, nor should it be used to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent disease. Always consult a qualified healthcare professional before changing your diet or medications. For full disclaimer statement click here.