Identifying and Addressing Nutrient Gaps in Popular Diets

By: Watson Team on Apr 18, 2019

You might have guessed that popular diets like keto, low FODMAP, and gluten-free can have nutrient gaps. But did you know that even the healthiest of diets—those recommended by the Dietary Guidelines for Americans—can also fall short in nutrients? Here we examine how healthy diets can still have nutrient gaps and which fortifications can make up the difference.

The 3 Healthy Eating Patterns

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015-2020 (DGA) identifies three eating patterns that can be used to optimize the intake of healthy foods such as fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, while minimizing added sugars, saturated fat, and sodium.1 The three DGA recommended eating patterns are:

  1. The Healthy U.S.-Style Eating Pattern
  2. The Healthy Mediterranean-Style Eating Pattern
  3. The Healthy Vegetarian Eating Pattern

The Healthy U.S.-Style Eating Pattern (which resembles the DASH diet) is based on the types of meals that Americans traditionally consume, but with appropriate portions and in nutrient-dense forms. The DGA even includes sample meal plans you can follow.

In addition, the DGA offers two alternative eating patterns to accommodate cultural and personal preferences. The Healthy Mediterranean-Style Pattern includes more seafood and fruit, with less dairy. For those who prefer a meat-free diet, the Healthy Vegetarian Eating Pattern eliminates all meat, poultry, and seafood, but does include dairy and eggs.

When “Healthy” Isn’t Healthy Enough

If you take a close look at the DGA, you’ll find a surprising admission that the Healthy U.S.-Style Eating Pattern is not sufficient to meet all nutrient needs.

"The Healthy U.S.-Style Eating Pattern is designed to meet the Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDA) and Adequate Intakes for essential nutrients, as well as Acceptable Macronutrient Distribution Ranges (AMDR) set by the Food and Nutrition Board of the IOM ... Nutritional goals for almost all nutrients are met ... "2 - Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015-2020

So what’s going on here? To find out, we used a sample daily meal plan listed in the DGA to determine what the nutrient gaps might be.

From Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015-2020, Figure 1-3:

Breakfast:
1/2 whole wheat bagel with 2 tbsp peanut butter
1 medium banana
8 oz fat-free strawberry yogurt
1 cup of coffee with ¼ cup of whole milk and 2 tsp sugar 

Lunch:
Tuna salad sandwich on whole wheat bread
(includes 2 oz tuna, 2 tsp mayo, 2 tbsp celery, and 1 lettuce leaf)
4 baby carrots
¼ cup of raisins
1 cup of low-fat 1% milk

Dinner:
1 cup of spaghetti with 3 meatballs, ¼ cup of sauce, ¼ cup of canned diced tomatoes, and 1 tbsp Parmesan cheese
1 cup of mixed greens with 3 cucumber slices, ¼ cup of avocado, ¼ cup of garbanzo beans, 3 tbsp cheddar cheese, and 1 tbsp ranch dressing
1/2 apple
1 cup of water

 

Person writing in a notebook with vegetables and salad nearby.

Nutrient Shortfalls in the Healthy Eating Patterns

While the DGA shows that this daily meal plan is within limits for daily sodium, saturated fat, added sugars, and calories, we ran the numbers to check for nutrient shortfalls. We found that this meal plan, which follows the Healthy U.S.-Style Eating Pattern, only provides about 80% of the daily requirement for calcium, 60% of the required iron and potassium, and only 25% of the required vitamin D. 

All of these nutrients have been identified as nutrients of public health concern for Americans. If even a government-recommended healthy meal plan can’t meet all nutrient requirements, fortification becomes critical to making up the difference. Since calcium, iron, potassium, and vitamin D are also mandatory label nutrients, fortifying with these nutrients can improve a product's nutrition label, as well as make a positive public health impact.

The other two healthy eating patterns also have nutrient challenges. The Healthy Mediterranean-Style Eating Pattern is generally even lower in calcium and vitamin D since the diet contains less dairy. The Healthy Vegetarian Eating Pattern, though higher in calcium and fiber than the Healthy U.S.-Style Eating Pattern, is also lower in vitamin D.

Filling the Gaps

Many Americans struggle to eat a healthy diet. And when you consider that even healthy diets can have nutrient gaps, it becomes clear that food manufacturers have an important role to play. By choosing nutrient-dense ingredients and fortifying when necessary, together we can fill the gaps!

To learn more, download our Guide to Nutrients of Concern.

References

1. Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015-2020, 8th Ed. (2015). Retrieved from https://health.gov/dietaryguidelines/2015/guidelines/

2. Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015-2020, 8th Ed. (2015). Chapter 1: Key Elements of Healthy Eating Patterns. A Closer Look Inside Healthy Eating Patterns. Retrieved from https://health.gov/dietaryguidelines/2015/guidelines/chapter-1/a-closer-look-inside-healthy-eating-patterns/