Americans don’t get enough nutrients. Here’s a solution.

By Steve Mister
Special to the Outlook

Nearly nine in ten Americans don’t get enough vitamins and minerals.

Many nutritionists think this is a simple dietary challenge. Americans just need to eat more fresh produce, lean protein, and whole grains.
That’s easier said than done. Many people, particularly the poor, live in communities that lack healthy food options. And the economics don’t help. Nutrient-rich foods tend to be expensive, while calorie-dense, nutrient-poor foods tend to be cheap.

Fortunately, solving America’s dietary shortfalls is possible with the help of nutritional supplements like daily multivitamins. They’re no substitute for healthy eating, but they’re a realistic way to plug the gaps in our diets.

Many Americans living in remote rural areas, or inner cities without supermarkets, struggle to access fresh, healthy foods. In Minneapolis, nearly four in ten corner stores don’t sell fresh produce. For most Detroit residents, the nearest grocery store is twice as far as the closest fast-food joint. Half a million Houstonians live in neighborhoods so far from grocery stores they’re called “food deserts.”

Even Americans with access to healthy foods fail to get enough of the nearly three dozen nutrients for which the federal government has established recommended daily intakes. Vitamins A and D, magnesium, fiber and choline are among the shortfall nutrients in our diets.

Getting nutrients from food alone is difficult. Consuming the government-recommended 1,000 milligrams of calcium per day would take over 10 cups of cooked kale — or more than 7 cups of cottage cheese. Meeting advised daily Vitamin D levels would necessitate chowing down nearly a dozen eggs or over 4 pounds of Swiss cheese. Folks would need to eat over three cups of black-eyed peas or nearly six cups of cooked broccoli to reach the recommended amount of folic acid.
Those deficiencies can lead to serious health problems. A lack of Vitamin A can leave people more prone to infections and eye problems. Vitamin D deficiencies can contribute to osteoporosis, depression, and cancer. A person who doesn’t get enough magnesium may develop high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, and type 2 diabetes.

Given these risks, it’s no wonder that nutritionists urge people to eat nutrient-rich foods like quinoa, chia seeds, oysters, almonds, and black-eyed peas.
But this isn’t practical. The foods richest in nutrients are also some of the priciest. Quinoa, for example, costs $6 per pound. That’s tough to justify when a bag of rice costs one-tenth as much. A small pack of chia seeds runs $10.

It’s unrealistic to think that the 43 million Americans living in poverty would be able to afford these luxuries.

It’s certainly possible for people to get all of the nutrients they need from healthy eating. But for those who struggle to maintain a perfect diet, multivitamins can help fill in the gaps for about a dime a day.

Research confirms that people who take multivitamins are healthier. One study tracked nearly 15,000 older men for over a decade. Those who took a multivitamin daily were less likely to develop cancer than those who did not. Another study discovered that women who took a multivitamin for at least three years were less likely to die from cardiovascular disease.

It would be wonderful if everyone had the time, money, and opportunity to eat a healthy diet daily. But until that day arrives, folks can help protect their health with a proven way to fill nutritional gaps — a multivitamin.

Steve Mister is the president and CEO of the Council for Responsible Nutrition, the leading trade association for the dietary supplement and functional food industry.