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According to a study published online last month in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, a large proportion of Canadians weren’t meeting daily requirements for vitamins A and C, nutrients vital for a strong immune system, as well as calcium, magnesium and potassium, minerals that regulate blood pressure.

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If you’re like most Canadians, your diet probably doesn’t lack protein, carbohydrates or fats. But you might not be paying attention to the finer details.

According to new data from the University of Toronto, many Canadians are under-consuming several essential vitamins and minerals.

While you might not notice the effects now, chronically missing out on these nutrients can deplete your energy and lead to a range of health consequences.

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Shortfall nutrients

The study, published online last month in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, assessed the nutrient intakes of Canadian adults ages 19 and older who participated in the most recent (2015) Canadian Community Health Survey.

A large proportion of Canadians weren’t meeting daily requirements for vitamins A and C, nutrients vital for a strong immune system, as well as calcium, magnesium and potassium, minerals that regulate blood pressure. Nearly 30 per cent of females ages 19 to 50 didn’t meet daily iron requirements.

And the vast majority of Canadians weren’t getting nearly enough fibre, with males consuming on average 18 grams a day and females 16 grams.

The study also revealed that most Canadians continue to consume too much sodium. The average intake for all adults exceeded the safe upper daily limit of 2,300 milligrams.

These findings aren’t new. The 2004 Canadian Community Health Survey revealed similar findings about our intakes of key nutrients, including magnesium and vitamins A, C and B12.

Whole foods versus supplements

This study considered nutrient intakes from food and beverages only; it didn’t account for intakes from supplements.

Taking a daily vitamin and/or mineral supplement can help you meet daily targets for certain nutrients. And in some cases, it’s necessary to do so.

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For example, menstruating people who find it challenging to meet their daily iron requirement from foods alone may benefit from taking a multivitamin and mineral supplement that contains iron.

Eating nutrient-dense whole foods, though, should be your first approach to getting the nutrients your body needs. Unlike supplements, whole foods deliver vitamins and minerals along with fibre and a myriad of disease-fighting phytochemicals.

Nutrients to focus on

While they’re not the only ones that deserve attention, the following three nutrients should be on your radar screen. Here’s what they do, how much you need and where to find them.

Calcium: It helps protect bones from thinning, maintains healthy blood pressure and aids muscle and nerve function.

Adults ages 19 to 50 require 1,000 mg of calcium a day. Older women need 1,200 mg; for men, calcium intake needs to increase to 1,200 mg after age 70.

Excellent food sources include dairy or fortified non-dairy milks. One serving (e.g., one cup of milk, three-quarters of a cup of plain yogurt or 1.5 ounces of hard cheese) supplies 310 mg of calcium.

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Tinned sardines and salmon (with bones), firm tofu (made with calcium sulphate), collard greens, bok choy, rapini, pinto beans, almonds and tahini are other good sources.

Iron: It’s used to transport oxygen to muscles and other tissues, make healthy connective tissue, transmit nerve impulses and support immune function.

Women ages 19 to 50 need 18 mg of iron each day while women older than 50 and adult men require 8 mg. Vegans need 80 per cent more iron than non-vegetarians since iron in plant foods is harder for the body to absorb.

Clams, oysters, mussels and lean beef are very good sources of heme iron, the type found in animal foods. Plant foods high in iron (non-heme iron) include edamame, lentils, chickpeas, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, tofu, dried prunes and cooked spinach.

Fibre: A high-fibre diet helps protect against Type 2 diabetes, heart attack, stroke and colorectal cancer. It also helps keep your gut microbes in a healthy balance, which is thought to have wide-ranging health benefits.

For adults under 50, an adequate daily fibre intake is considered 25 g (women) and 38 g (men); for older adults it’s 21 g (women) and 30 g (men).

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To increase your fibre intake, include whole grains in your daily diet. Outstanding sources include freekeh (14 g per one cup), farro (10 g per cup), bulger (8 g per cup) and whole grain pasta (6 g per cup).

Eat lentils and beans (e.g., chickpeas, black beans, kidney beans) more often, which provide 12 to 16 g fibre per one cup. Consider making a batch of bean or lentil salad for quick plant-based meals.

Include vegetables and whole fruit at meals and snacks.

Leslie Beck, a Toronto-based private practice dietitian, is director of food and nutrition at Medcan. Follow her on Twitter @LeslieBeckRD

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