Would you consider your diet to be healthy? If your answer is yes, you're not alone. A survey of more than 3,000 people in the United States, United Kingdom and Germany found that 72 percent claim to eat well on a daily basis, and more than half think that their food choices alone provide the essential micronutrients necessary for a wholesome diet.
The responses are encouraging but likely unrealistic: Chronic conditions that have been linked to poor nutrition, such as diabetes, osteoporosis and heart disease, are common in the United States, United Kingdom and Germany. In fact, heart disease is the leading cause of death in all three countries.
The survey, which was commissioned by the Global Nutrition & Health Alliance (GNHA) and conducted by Instantly, a marketing and research firm, was published in the November/December 2015 issue of Nutrition Today.
When survey participants were asked about omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin D — the two nutrients the survey focused on most — their responses were interesting: The majority (between 70 and 81 percent) understood that omega-3s are important for health, but on average 40 percent weren't sure if they were getting enough of it from their diet. And when it came to vitamin D, less than half of those surveyed got enough of it from their meals.
"I always encourage people to get as much of their nutrients as possible from foods, but the reality is, it is more difficult than you think to consume enough through diet alone," says Suzanne Steinbaum, DO, cofounder of the GNHA and director of Women's Heart Health at the Heart and Vascular Institute at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York. "And according to this [survey], a lot of adults may be overestimating how healthy their diets are and should consider supplementation." Dr. Steinbaum quickly adds that supplements should not act as a replacement for a well-balanced diet, "but they can be important when attempting to bridge the gaps."
On the other hand, David Katz, MD, founding director of Yale University Prevention Research Center, questions this baseline health survey. "If we define 'unhealthy' as not taking an omega-3 supplement, then perhaps it's not odd that there is a discrepancy (in this data)," he says. "But, if it were true, the answer would involve the difference between the immediate and the important: People often assess their health based on the immediate — how they feel right now; however, health professionals, and especially preventive medicine specialists like me, think about vulnerability and risk for future maladies."
Nutritious Meals Are Best
So how can we easily incorporate more of the essential vitamins and minerals into our daily diets? Steinbaum recommends going the Mediterranean route.
"Research has shown that a diet high in fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts and olive oil can decrease the incidence of heart disease by 30 percent, whereas diets high in saturated fats and simple sugars can increase the risk of heart disease by 30 percent," she states.
She suggests eating dishes filled with:
- Deep greens: arugula, spinach, broccoli, kale and Brussels sprouts
- Colorful fruits and veggies: tomatoes, mushrooms, peppers and onions
- Fiber-rich whole grains: barley, quinoa, lentils, beans and chickpeas
- Fish rich in omega-3 fatty acids: salmon and sardines (In fact, why not give one of these scrumptious salmon recipes a try?)
- Lower-fat proteins: chicken or turkey breast
Dr. Katz agrees, adding, "The great health outcomes seen in the Blue Zones (locations in the world where people live longest) are courtesy of lifestyle behaviors, not supplements."