We've heard over and over that a diet rich in whole grains, fruits, vegetables and legumes guards against heart attack, stroke, type 2 diabetes, certain cancers, even Alzheimer's disease.
It's no surprise since these foods provide key vitamins and minerals and plenty of natural compounds, including fibre and phytochemicals, which help our bodies fend off disease.
Yet, despite the wealth of evidence that supports the benefits of a healthy, nutrient-packed diet many Canadians continue to shortchange their diets - and their bodies - when it comes to vitamins and minerals (especially calcium, magnesium, folate, potassium, iron and zinc), while consuming too much sodium.
The guide below will help you choose foods rich in key vitamins and minerals - and eat the healthiest diet possible.
It supports cell growth and development, maintains healthy skin, nails, bones and teeth and maintains immunity. It's also needed for healthy vision. Vitamin A is found preformed in certain animal foods and is also derived from plant foods that contain beta-carotene.
Best food sources: oily fish, milk, cheese, and eggs. Beta-carotene is found in orange and dark green produce including carrots, sweet potato, winter squash, broccoli, kale, spinach, apricots, cantaloupe, peaches, nectarines, mango and papaya.
This B vitamin supports cell growth and division and helps keep our DNA, the genetic material of cells, in good repair. Consuming adequate folate has been linked with a lower risk of colon and breast cancers.
Best food sources: asparagus, broccoli, cooked spinach, lentils, avocado, artichokes and orange juice.
It helps nerve cells communicate effectively and the immune system function properly. B6 is also needed for the production of red blood cells and plays a role in blood sugar control.
Best food sources: beef, pork, poultry, fish, whole grain breakfast cereals, avocado, bananas and potatoes.
It's used to maintain healthy nerve function, make red blood cells and manufacture DNA in cells.
Best food sources: all animal foods such as meat, poultry, fish, eggs, milk, yogurt and cheese. It's also found in fortified foods such as soy, rice and almond beverages as well as soy products.
It supports collagen synthesis and wound healing, strengthens blood vessels, supports immunity and helps the body absorb iron from plant foods. Its antioxidant action may help guard against heart disease, stroke, cataracts and macular degeneration.
Best food sources: oranges, grapefruit, kiwi fruit, cantaloupe, mango, strawberries, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, red pepper and tomato juice.
It builds strong bones and teeth, helps muscles contract and relax and supports nerve function. An adequate intake of calcium is thought to reduce the risk of osteoporosis, high blood pressure, calcium oxalate kidney stones, and colorectal cancer.
Best food sources: milk, yogurt, cheese, fortified plant beverages and juice, baked beans, black beans, soybeans, firm tofu, canned salmon and sardines (with bones), bok choy, broccoli, collard greens, kale, Swiss chard, dried figs and almonds.
When it comes to calcium, you're better off eating your vegetables cooked. High levels of a natural compound called oxalic acid binds calcium, reducing its availability for absorption. Cooking releases some of the calcium that's bound to oxalic acid.
This under-appreciated mineral maintains normal muscle and nerve function, helps preserve healthy blood pressure, keeps heart rhythm steady, and supports immunity and strong bones. It also helps regulate blood sugar levels by influencing the activity of insulin, the hormone that clears sugar from the bloodstream.
Studies suggest that a magnesium rich diet can help lower elevated blood pressure and reduce the risk of heart attack and type 2 diabetes.
Best food sources: black beans, chickpeas, kidney beans, navy beans, soybeans, firm tofu, spinach, Swiss chard, halibut, almonds, cashews, sunflower seeds, yogurt and wheat germ.
It helps transport oxygen to cells and tissues, supports metabolism, and is used to make brain chemicals (neurotransmitters) that aid in concentration. It's also needed to manufacture many proteins and enzymes in the body.
There are two forms of iron in foods: heme and nonheme iron. Heme iron is found in all animal foods and is well absorbed. Iron in plant foods such and legumes and green vegetables is called nonheme iron which is less efficiently absorbed. (Adding a vitamin C rich food to a plant-based meal will improve the absorption of nonheme iron.
Best food sources: Heme iron - beef, oysters, clams, turkey, chicken, tuna, pork loin and halibut.
Nonheme iron - Fortified breakfast cereal, instant oatmeal, soybeans, lentils, baked beans, black beans, firm tofu, cooked spinach, raisins and prune juice.
It's used for growth and reproduction, supports immunity and wound healing and helps the body transport vitamin A.
Best food sources: beef, chicken, turkey, crab, oysters, milk, yogurt, lentils, chickpeas, black beans, baked beans, cashews, pumpkin seeds and sunflower seeds.
It maintains normal fluid balance and nerve function, promotes muscle function and supports cell structure. An adequate intake of potassium may help treat and prevent high blood pressure and lower the risk of stroke, osteoporosis and kidney stones.
Best food sources: milk, yogurt, apricots, bananas, cantaloupe, nectarines, oranges, prunes, raisins, spinach, Swiss chard, tomato juice, artichokes, baked potato (with skin), legumes and nuts.
Do you need to supplement?
While I always encourage my clients to meet the majority of their daily nutrient requirements by focusing on healthy foods, some people may need to take a supplement to ensure they are covered.
The following people should take a daily multivitamin and mineral:
- Women of childbearing age, who require 0.4 to 1 milligram of supplemental folic acid to help prevent birth defects
- Menstruating females, who have high daily iron requirements (18 milligrams)
- Vegetarians, who require almost twice as much iron as non vegetarians
- Vegans, who avoid all animal foods and, as such, need supplemental B12
- Adults over 50, who may not be absorbing enough vitamin B12 from foods due to reduced stomach acid.
- Low calorie dieters
I also recommend that all Canadian adults take 1000 international units (IU) of vitamin D3 year-round for bone health. Some people may need more to maintain a sufficient level of vitamin D in their bloodstream. Speak to your registered dietitian to determine if you require additional supplements.
All research on this web site is the property of Leslie Beck Nutrition Consulting Inc. and is protected by copyright. Keep in mind that research on these matters continues daily and is subject to change. The information presented is not intended as a substitute for medical treatment. It is intended to provide ongoing support of your healthy lifestyle practices.