How Restricting Calories and Nutrients Affects Your Health

A lot of people follow diets that restrict added sugars, saturated fat, and calories. A new study asks whether any other nutrients might go missing by restricting nutrient and calorie intake.

Too often nutritionists, coaches, and athletes can get caught up in a nutrient focus. They may be so focused on getting some nutrient, like protein, that they will only eat high-protein foods at the cost of other foods. In contrast, sometimes the emphasis can be on avoiding some other nutrient, such as saturated fat. In this case, quality foods like red meat may be left out because of the fear of eating too much of the avoided nutrient.

In the real world, however, this is not a practical outlook. Foods – whole foods anyway, which most people agree to be healthier than processed foods – are veritable packages of nutrients, for better or worse. You may avoid red meat for health reasons, but you also sacrifice a quality protein with some of the highest quantities of important nutrients you can get anywhere. In a recent paper published in the Nutrition Journal, researchers wanted to examine the costs of avoiding nutrients in this way.

The researchers focused on added sugar and saturated fat intake. They also looked at total calories, a number people tend to try to keep low. They wondered if a chronic avoidance of calories and these two nutrients would also yield a loss in average dietary fiber or micronutrients and diminish overall dietary quality. To accomplished this task, the researchers analyzed the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey from 2003 to 2006. They looked at diets that avoided the above-mentioned nutrients and then analyzed those diets for the healthy micronutrients they may be missing.

The researchers found some interesting results. First, on average, no single food category accounted for more than 7.2% of caloric intake. However, the top three sources of energy for U.S. consumers were sweet baked goods like cake and pastries (7.2%), breads and rolls (7.1%), and soft drinks (5.4%). These three food groups combined totaled a whopping 19.7% of dietary calories.

A significant amount of nutrients came from the top ten contributors to calories, which included several dairy and meat categories. These foods provided half of dietary calcium and vitamin D, a good bit of fiber and potassium, and many B vitamins. Poultry, beef, cheese, and milk together contributed half of the recommended protein, but just under 20% of total calories. The top sources of added sugar contributed a minor amount of only a few nutrients – mostly vitamin C, thanks to soft drinks. In contrast, the top ten saturated fat sources provided over half of our intake of other healthy fats. They were also the major sources of vitamin D, potassium, calcium, B12, and iron.

This review was enlightening when we consider how the nutrients we try to avoid may well be linked to other healthy nutrients, particularly when it comes to fats. However, there were no surprises when it came to the researchers’ suggestions for better health. Stick with healthy and low-fat meats and dairy products, get more fiber from vegetables, and avoid foods with added sugar. And even though we all knew it before, now science has shown us that avoiding foods with added sugar will not have a negative impact on your micronutrient intake.


1. Peter Huth, et. al., “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),” Nutrition Journal, 12:116, 2013.

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