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Nutrition and Diet (cont.)

Dietary Reference Intakes

One thing that we all have in common is that we all eat. What, when, why, and how much we eat varies from person to person. We often choose our foods based on taste, familiarity, cost, and/or availability. What we choose to eat is not necessarily what our bodies need us to eat. A diet that is deficient in nutrients is one that can lead to health and weight problems. Fortunately, guidelines have been established to assist each of us in deciding what foods to eat to provide our bodies with the nutrients that we need.

Research to determine the appropriate amount of nutrients for health began in the 1940s because men were being rejected from the military during World War II due to the effects of poor nutrition on their health. The first Food and Nutrition Board was formed to evaluate the nutritional intakes of large populations. Since then, the Food and Nutrition Board has undergone many changes and published comprehensive guidelines on nutrition for both maintenance of good health and disease prevention.

The latest and most comprehensive nutrition recommendations are contained in the so-called Dietary Reference Intakes (DRIs). DRIs were created in 1997 and have changed the way that diets are evaluated. The primary goal of these guidelines was to not only prevent nutrient deficiencies but also reduce the risk of chronic diseases such as cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and osteoporosis. DRIs have been set for macronutrients (carbohydrates, proteins, and fats), micronutrients (vitamins and minerals), electrolytes and water, the role of alcohol in health and disease, and bioactive compounds such as phytoestrogens and phytochemicals.

There are four types of DRI reference values:

  • Estimated Average Requirements (EARs): the nutrient intake that is estimated to meet the needs of 50% of the individuals in a given gender and age group
  • Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDAs): These tend to be the most well-known guidelines. They were set for the nutrient intake that is sufficient to meet the needs of nearly all individuals (about 97%) in a given gender and age group. Many people often incorrectly refer to these as the recommended "daily" allowances and believe that it is their goal to reach the RDA each day. It was not meant to be used as a guide for an individual's daily needs. The RDAs were established to be used in setting standards for food-assistance programs, for interpreting food record consumption of populations, and for establishing guidelines for nutrition labels.
  • Adequate Intakes (AIs): the nutrients for which there is not enough information to establish an EAR
  • Tolerable Upper Limits (Upper Levels or ULs): a nutrient's maximum level of daily intake that is unlikely to cause adverse health effects in nearly all individuals (97% to 98%) of the population

Due to the complexity of analyzing diets, the DRIs have been primarily used by researchers and registered dietitians. The programs used to analyze diets have now become available to the public. You can keep track of everything that you eat and drink on one of the internet sites that offer one of these programs, and you will get detailed information about your intake in comparison to the DRIs. When keeping track of your diet, you want to use a Web site that uses the USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference as their source of nutrition information.

You do not need to reach the guidelines for every nutrient, every day of the week, so do not be alarmed when you fall short or go over in nutrients every now and then. But when you are consistently having a problem reaching your recommendations, it's best to work with a health-care professional.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 8/6/2014

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