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Your Diet is Cute... and Ineffective

Posted on August 24 2017

It’s a provoking charge, but it’s also likely to be entirely true for most Americans; your diet is ineffective – but so is mine.

To live a healthy live, conventional wisdom says that all we need to do is eat healthy foods, exercise regularly, drink plenty of water, and get adequate sleep.

Michael Pollan, author of influential books such as In Defense of Food and The Omnivore’s Dilemma, gives this famous diet guidance in his 2009 New York Times acclaimed book, Food Rules: “Eat real food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”

As sage as this advice may be, the vast majority of Americans fail to make any real effort to take Mr. Pollan’s advice.

Case-in-point, the International Dietary Data Expansion Project (or INDDEX) created the Dietary Quality Index to reflect “the percentage of calories people derive from nutrient-rich, unprocessed plant foods.” (Greger M.D., 2015). On a 100-point percentage scale, the average American diet rates a mere 11%. The remaining 89% of the diet comes from animal products (32%) and processed foods (57%).

Add to the DQI results the adherence to the American Heart Association’s "Life's Simple 7" recommendations for healthier living and our control over our health doesn’t look that much better. The AHA created guidelines for healthier living that include: managing blood pressure, controlling cholesterol, reducing blood sugar, getting active, eating better, losing weight, and not smoking. In a survey of 1,933 adults, most only regularly achieved 2 or 3 of these health targets. And in fact, just a single responder claimed to have mastered all 7. Reacting to these results, a former AHA President cautioned, “That should give all of us pause.”

But this can’t be all bad news, can it? A glass-half-full approach says that we’re following somewhere between 30-40% of the Life’s Simple 7 guidelines and over 10% of our diets are comprised of nutrient-rich, unprocessed food.

Not so fast, suggests Roddy Sheer and Doug Moss in Scientific American: “Because of soil depletion, crops grown decades ago were much richer in vitamins and minerals than the varieties most of us get today.” And research from the Journal of the American College of Nutrition backs them up.

In 2004, the JACN found that when they studied nutritional data of 43 different fruits and vegetables from the U.S. Department of Agriculture for the time frame from 1950 to 1999, the data showed “reliable declines” in the amount of protein, calcium, phosphorus, iron, riboflavin (vitamin B2), and vitamin C in the same breeds of fruits and vegetables. The primary researcher of the study, Dr. Donald Davis of the University of Texas at Austin’s Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, adds that there have likely been declines in other nutrients, too, such as magnesium, zinc, and vitamins B6, and vitamin E – but they were not studied in 1950.

So, what does this mean for our modern assumptions about health living – especially for our diet?

The U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Department of Health and Human Services offers a possible solution in their joint-publication, Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015-2020 (Eighth Edition). They offer that “… fortified foods and dietary supplements may be useful in providing one or more nutrients that otherwise may be consumed in less-than-recommended amounts.”

So what are the “recommended amounts?”As an example, a study by the Medical Economics journal found that over 94% of the U.S. population were getting less than the EARs (estimated average requirements) for Vitamin D (similarly, the Campaign for Essential Nutrients agrees and finds this number to be closer to 96%) – but after taking a dietary supplement, that number was reduced by over 20%.

Similarly, deficiency in Vitamin E was reduced by nearly 25% after taking a supplement – and Vitamin C by almost 20% as well.

From their research, “Nutritionists and other health professionals advise patients to get the nutrients they need from their diet. Unfortunately, research shows that relying on food alone results in nutrient deficits for many Americans. Indeed, the recent Dietary Guidelines for Americans state as a goal that people should, “meet nutritional needs primarily through foods,” but also recognize vitamin and mineral supplements (VMS) are, “useful in providing one or more nutrients that otherwise may be consumed in less than recommended amounts or that are of particular concern for specific population groups.””

Looking at this problem from a bottoms-up approach, the Campaign for Essential Nutrients confirms the journal’s findings. The CEN found that Vitamin D levels were adequate in only 4% of the population. After taking a dietary supplement up to 12 days per month, that figure increased to 34%, and from there, taking a Vitamin D supplement up to 24 days per month moved the adequacy up to 96% - and at 25 days or more per month, this number increased to 99% adequacy.

For similar essential vitamins and nutrients, the adequacy level moved in the following ways with a) no supplement, b) supplementation up to 12 days per month, c) supplementation up to 24 days per month, and d) supplementation of 25 days or greater:
• Vitamin E: 12%, 62%, 99%, and 100%
• Vitamin C: 50%, 81%, 96%, and 99%
• Magnesium: 42%, 64%, 79%, and 82%

With such dramatic results in increased vitamin and nutrient adequacy, it’s concerning that many health professionals only look to the binary-solution of “diet and exercise,” rather than the triangular-solution of “diet and exercise and supplementation.” But some people aren’t so surprised:

Andrew W. Saul, PhD states, “The advice from conventional health authorities is, ‘Well, you should eat better.’ Well, we’re not... So we’re going to have to do something else. And that means we’re going to have to, in addition to educating people to eat right, we’re going to have to get them to take supplements and take extra nutrients. Even if you are eating really well and have a… plant-based diet, and really do everything right, you’re still not going to get enough vitamin C; you’re still not going to get enough vitamin E… so these have to be supplemented if people are going to have optimum health – and when people have optimum health, they don’t get sick, or they don’t get sick as often – or if they do get sick, they get better.”

Of course, all sorts of factors play a role in your overall health – diet, exercise, supplementation, daily habits, genetics, environment, sleep, hydration, and stress – and the list could go on. Some are better at managing these factors than others and some manage them quite unconventionally. But as long as we’re all conscious of our choices (and they’re nearly all choices), we can continue to move forward, in the right direction, even if we’re not masters yet.

Brad Glocke is the Co-Founder of Harmonía, a wellness company. He lives with his wife, Kristina, an ACSM certified personal trainer, and his two children in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He holds a Masters degree from the University of Wisconsin. More information about Harmonía can be found at Brad also hosts a brand new podcast, called the Mind Vitamin Podcast (MVP), which is available on iTunes and Stitcher.



Scheer, Roddy and Moss, Doug. "Dirt Poor: Have Fruits and Vegetables Become Less Nutritious?" Scientific American. Ed. Doug Moss. N.p., 29 Apr. 2011. Web. 21 June 2017.

Purvis, Andre. "Is Food Less Nutritious Than it Used to Be?" The Guardian. N.p., 15 May 2005. Web. 21 June 2017.

That Vitamin Movie. Prod. Trevor King. Dir. Michael Beattie. Perf. Andrew Saul, PhD, Dr. Jorge Miranda Massari, Dr. Tom Levy, Dr. Ron Hunningshake, Dr. Michael Gonzalez, and Dr. Alan Gaby . Trevor King Media, 2016. DVD. 1 Jan. 2016. Web.

Greger, M.D., Michael. How Not to Die. New York, NY: Flatiron , 2016. Print.

Low Dog, M.D., Tieraona. Fortify Your Life: Your Guide to Vitamins, Minerals, and More. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society, 2016. Print.

"Closing the Vitamin and Mineral Intake Gap: How Pharmacists Can Help." Pharmacy Times. N.p., 15 Dec. 2015. Web.

"Bridging the Vitamin and Mineral Intake Gap: Role of Dietary Supplements." Pharmacy Times. N.p., 30 Nov. 2016. Web.

"The American Nutrient Gap: And How Vitamin and Mineral Supplements Can Help Fill It." Medical Economics. N.p., 1 Nov. 2016. Web.

"Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015-2020 (Eighth Edition)." The Department of Health and Human Services with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Dec. 2015. Web.

"Diet Quality Index - International (DQI-I)." International Dietary Data Expansion Project. INDDEX, n.d. Web.


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