If you had the opportunity to look at MyPlate, you might have had some questions. Am I supposed to count calories? Am I supposed to eat all that food recommended by the USDA? Or should I be focused on nutrients instead? The answer is somewhat all of the above.
There are a couple of ways of looking at your diet. One is focused on foods in the food groups, and another is to focus on nutrients.
When a person focuses on the food groups (like MyPlate), you’re trying to eat so many cups or portions of fruits and vegetables and so many ounces of protein, etc… This way focuses on getting all the nutrients that your body needs by eating so many portions of each food group on a daily or weekly basis. It’s a good methodology, because it’s easy to understand. Research also agrees that people don’t eat enough fruits and vegetables on a daily or weekly basis and this can lead to nutrient deficiencies. To avoid the deficiencies, just eat according to MyPlate.
The other way of looking at your diet is to focus on nutrients. I think this is much more difficult to do because you’re trying to consume enough of a food to reach the Recommended Daily Allowance for a nutrient. For instance, the Dietary Guidelines say that I should consume 1,200 grams of calcium a day, so I’m going to drink so many glasses of milk a day and eat so many ounces of cheese. There are a lot of nutrients out there. Trying to go through this process nutrient by nutrient can make you mentally exhausted!
What I do is a combination of both. I follow MyPlate while in the back of my head, I’m focusing on a few of the main nutrients that I need, like calcium, potassium and iron.
That said, nutrients are important and I believe that knowing what the nutrients are, what they do, what foods contain what nutrients, what the recommended daily intakes should be, and what nutritional deficiencies or over-intakes can lead to deserve mentioning. In future nutritional articles, I’ll be picking a nutrient a week and answering these questions.
With that in mind, I want to talk some nutrition terminology so we’re all speaking the same lingo. It can be a little confusing, but stick with me. The sum of all the nutrient guidelines is called Dietary Reference Intakes (DRIs). Under the umbrella of this term, DRIs consist of the following with the definitions provided by the USDA:
- Estimated Average Requirements (EAR) – The average daily nutrient intake level estimated to meet the requirement of half the healthy individuals in a particular life stage and gender group.
- Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) – The average daily dietary nutrient intake level sufficient to meet the nutrient requirement of nearly all (97 to 98%) healthy individuals in a particular life stage and gender group.
- Adequate Intake (AI) – The recommended average daily intake level based on observed or experimentally determined approximations or estimates of nutrient intake by a group (or groups) of apparently healthy people that are assumed to be adequate-used when an RDA cannot be determined.
- Tolerable upper intake level (UL) – The highest average daily nutrient intake level that is likely to pose no risk of adverse health effects to almost all individuals in the general population. As intake increases above the UL, the potential risk of adverse effects may increase.
The first three look rather similar. So, let’s look at them one at a time.
The EAR was established using some kind of specific and measureable marker, such as enzyme activity. If there is no marker that can be measured, there is no EAR. Notice that this amount is based on the needs of only 50% of the population.
The RDA is usually based on a certain percentage more than the EAR (specifically two standard deviations more). This is meant to cover 97-98% of the population. This is generally what you should be following.
As mentioned with EARs, some measurable markers cannot be found. In that case, the nutrient recommendation is called the AI instead of the EAR. AIs are based on estimates that should be enough to maintain health.
The UL is a safety measure. It tells you how much is too much of a nutrient.
Hopefully, the graph above helps to visualize how these terms relate to each other. What you can’t see on the graph is that the curve is measuring the Risk of Developing Disease or Illness. The peaks on the left and right sides show that the risk is high. The trough in the middle depicts a low risk, which is where the RDAs reside.
The USDA has a pretty interesting tool on their website where you plug in your sex, age, weight, height, etc… and it will spit out all the DRIs for you. Go here to check it out. When I ran this on myself, I thought the number of calories that I should be eating was a little high, but this number is based on maintaining my current weight. If you want to lose weight, you should be eating fewer calories than this number. (Remember – if you want to lose weight, you must eat fewer calories than you burn.)
So, those are the definitions we’ll be working with in the future. If you don’t understand them all right now, that’s okay. They are pretty confusing. But I think once we start working with them, they’ll make a little more sense. In the meantime, keep eating according to MyPlate.
Until tomorrow, just remember that… there are no excuses when it comes to your health!