Optimising vitamin and mineral intake is a bit more complicated than just considering nutrient content in foods. Bioavailability, cooking, processing and seasonality are other important factors to keep in mind.
Follow the 10 principles below to improve your vitamin and mineral status.
1. Know your requirements
While the Nutrient Reference Values are estimated based on the best evidence that was available at the moment of their development, it is useful to know how much of each micronutrient you need for good health.
Your requirements depend on your age, gender and pregnancy/lactation status when applicable. The easiest way of finding out is using the NRV calculator. In “Reference values”, select “Show nutrients” and click “Select all”.
2. Know your potential deficiencies or extra requirements
You may need to aim for higher targets for some nutrients if you have been diagnosed with a specific deficiency (e.g. iron) or have extra demands (e.g. you are an elite athlete). You will need to talk to your doctor and/or dietitian to determine if this applies to you.
3. Eat foods with higher nutrient content and bioavailability
In addition, the absorption and bioavailability of some nutrients vary depending on the source.
4. Eat with foods that enhance bioavailability
The bioavailability of some nutrients can be enhanced by elements present in other foods. When possible, eat the nutrient-containing food and the enhancing food together.
For example, fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, K, E) are better absorbed when eaten with fat. Non-haem iron is better absorbed when consumed with a source of vitamin C.
5. Avoid eating with foods that inhibit bioavailability
The bioavailability of some nutrients can be lowered by elements present in other foods. When possible, avoid eating the nutrient-containing food and the inhibiting food together.
For example, phytate from seeds, nuts, grains, and other foods, is one of the food components that reduce the absorption of calcium.
6. Cooking, processing and storage
Cooking, processing and storage of foods can alter the nutrient content and/or bioavailability of foods. This can go both ways, either beneficial or detrimental.
For example, vitamin C content is partially lost when the food is cut, bruised or heated. It is also leached when cooking foods in water.
7. Eat mostly unprocessed foods
While many processed foods contain nutrients that are added in the manufacturing process, there are potential synergistic effects between known and unknown nutrients in a whole food. These synergistic effects may increase the bioavailability of nutrients and protect against nutrient toxicity when compared with isolated supplements.
8. Aim for variety
Eating a variety of foods increases your exposure to different known and unknown nutrients. In addition, the naturally occurring components of foods are likely to have synergistic beneficial effects in health.
When you think about variety think about different coloured fruits and vegetables, different sources of protein (e.g. fish, red meat, pork, chicken, legumes, eggs), different types of legumes, nuts and seeds, etc.
9. Eat in season
Fresh produce in season is more likely to be at the peak of nutrient content. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t eat produce that has been somehow processed (e.g. frozen, canned) because those foods are often picked in season and some nutrients are preserved after processing.
Eating in season also forces you to add some variety to your diet.
10. Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good
Maybe you don’t have access to the most nutrient-dense foods. Maybe you can’t afford them. Maybe you don’t like them. Don’t worry too much and do your best.
Finally, while some people can meet all their requirements with food, you might need supplements to correct some deficiencies.
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