Be careful which nutritional bogeyman you go after, says NHANES analysis

By Elaine WATSON

- Last updated on GMT

Be careful which nutritional bogeyman you go after, says NHANES analysis

Related tags Added sugars Nutrition

Some of the biggest contributors of calories, sat fats and added sugar in the American diet are also the largest contributors of vital nutrients, says a new study highlighting some potentially unintended consequences of diets that just focus on calorie counting or banishing sat fats and added sugar.

In an analysis of dietary intake data from the government’s National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) 2003-6, published in Nutritional Journal​, the authors identified the top food sources of calories, added sugars and saturated fats in the American diet and quantified their contribution to fiber and micro-nutrient intakes.

Cheese, beef, milk, RTE cereals, fruit drinks high in calories, fat, sugar, but also essential nutrients  

This revealed that some foods we are often encouraged to avoid have more redeeming features than others in that they are much more nutrient dense that others, said the authors.

“The top five sources of added sugars account for 83% of the population’s added sugar intake but with few exceptions, they provide little or no nutritional value.

"In contrast, the top three sources of saturated fats contribute more than 40% of the vitamin B12, almost half of the vitamin D and calcium, and are major sources of other essential nutrients to the American diet.”

grated cheese
Cheese contributes 16.5% of saturated fat intakes in the American diet, but also contributes 21% of calcium intakes, 11.4% of phosphorus intakes, 9.2% of vitamin A intakes, 7.5% of zinc intakes and 6.6% of vitamin B12 intakes

For example, cheese (which contributes 16.5% of Americans' sat fat intakes), beef (which contributes 8.5% of Americans' sat fat intakes), and milk (which contributes 8.3% of Americans' sat fat intakes), also contributed 49.5% of Americans’ intakes of vitamin D, 46.3% of calcium, 42.3% of vitamin B12 and 11.6% of potassium.

Meanwhile, ready-to-eat cereals - responsible for 3.9% of added sugar intakes - contributed 6-22% of 11 different vitamins and minerals to the diet.

Similarly, ‘fruit drinks and -ades’contributed 11% of added sugars to the American diet, but also contributed 16.3% of vitamin C intakes.

Finally, the category ‘cakes, cookies, quick bread, pastry, pie’ contributed 7.2% of calories, 14.4% of added sugars and 8.2% of sat fats to the diet, but also provided 5.1% of fiber, 6.2% of iron and 5.9% of folate intakes.

…While soda, candy and booze have ‘virtually no nutritional value’

In stark contrast, ‘soft drinks and soda,’ ‘candy, sugars, and sugary foods,’and‘alcoholic beverages’ contributed 13.6% of calories and 52.5% of added sugars, but had “virtually no nutritional value”​, said the authors.

Reducing intake of these foods could greatly reduce population caloric intake without compromising the overall nutritional quality of the diet.”

Speaking to FoodNavigator-USA about the findings, co-author Dr Victor Fulgoni, senior vice president of consultancy Nutrition Impact, said: "The message is don't throw the baby out with the bathwater. It's just a reminder that some of the things we are being told to consume less of also provide significant amounts of the things we are told to consume more of."

As for those who would argue that there are few surprises in a study funded by the dairy industry concluding with positive findings about dairy, he said: "We used publicly available data and anyone doing the same analysis would have got the same results.

"Another question that is interesting for further research is whether dairy fats are different from other saturated fats."

He also noted that intakes of milk and milk products is associated with a reduced risk for CVD despite their being a major contributor to SFA intakes, as other components in dairy such as calcium, potassium, magnesium, protein and vitamins D and B12 may confer favorable cardiovascular effects.

Saturated fats

Kellogg-Scooby Doo Cereal
Ready-to-eat cereals contribute 3.9% of added sugars to the US diet, but they also account for 21.6% of folate intakes, 17% of iron, 13.9% of vit B12, 14.8% of vit B6, 11.6% of thiamin, 9.8% of vit A, 9.8% of Niacin, 9.3% of zinc, 9.3% of Riboflavin 5.6% of fiber, and 6.2% of vit D intakes

The mean total saturated fats intake by people aged two years and older was 27.7 g/day.

The top 10 sources of sat fats were: Cheese (16.5%), beef (8.5%), milk (8.3%), other fats and oils (8.2%), frankfurters, sausages, luncheon meats (6.9%), cake, cookies, quick bread, pastry, pie (6.1%), margarine & butter (5.8%), milk desserts (5.1%), poultry (4.2%), and crackers, popcorn, pretzels, chips’(4%).

Added sugars

The mean intake of added sugars was 83.9 g/day.

The top 10 sources were: Soft drink, soda (33%), candy, sugars, sugary foods (19.5%), cake, cookies, quick bread, pastry, and pie (14.4%), fruit drinks and ‘ades (11%), milk desserts (5.4%), ready-to-eat cereal’ (3.9%), yeast breads and rolls (2.1%), ‘milk drinks’ (1.8%), yogurt (1%), condiments and sauces (0.9%).


The mean total calorie intake was 2,176 kcal/day.

The top 10 sources were: Cake, cookies, quick bread, pastry, and pie (7.2%) followed by yeast breads and rolls (7.1%), soft drinks’ (5.4%), beef (4.7%), crackers, popcorn, pretzels, chips (4.7%), cheese (4.6%), milk’ (4.5%), candy, sugars, sugary foods (4.5%), poultry (4.3%), and alcoholic beverages (3.7%).

The study was supported by the National Dairy Council.  

Source​: Nutrition Journal,​ August 8, 2013  doi:10.1186/1475-2891-12-116

‘Major food sources of calories, added sugars, and saturated fat and their contribution to essential nutrient intakes in the U.S. diet: data from the national health and nutrition examination survey (2003–2006)’

Authors​:  Peter J Huth, Victor L Fulgoni III, Debra R Keast, Keigan Park and Nancy Auestad  

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1 comment

Nothing Wrong With Variety of Foods

Posted by Thalia,

I don't think there are too many health professionals (ie: dietitians) telling people to quit eating dairy and meat.

As a dietitian myself, I'm a staunch advocate for dairy foods and meat, as they definitely do provide a vast array of vitamins and minerals. However, the recommendations for the general populous is to eat low fat dairy and lean meats as much as possible to cut unnecessary sat fat and cholesterol.

Based on the research around lunch meats (cured, smoked, etc) that is something I would recommend steering clear of as much as possible. There are higher quality alternatives.

In terms of soda, sport drinks and other beverages that provide no nutritional value and only calories in the form of sugar, as stated above... Those products are ones to enjoy every now and then. But save your money and buy something fresh instead.

One not to forget about is the carbohydrate group. Ready to eat cereals are usually an ok option for kids. I'd recommend picking the higher quality brands that do use whole grains (they'll have more fiber than the other brands, see nutritional label). But carbohydrates (whole grains) also provide lots of fiber and many different vitamins and minerals.

The dietary guidelines are there and based on a consensus of high quality research.

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