Expat Life

Invest in your future health by remembering that you are what you eat

By Susan Burke March, MS, RDN, LDN, CDE

Do you take your body for granted? I do. I wake up each morning blissfully unconcerned about the thousands of chemical reactions that take place within my body, chemical reactions which allow me breathe, walk, think, digest, absorb, and so on. If I do think about it, I amchl susan logo2 reminded of the marvel that is the human body.

Vitamins and minerals are the micronutrients that are essential to these chemical reactions, for growth and development, and we obtain most of them through our diet. With the exception of vitamin K and vitamin D, which healthy people can manufacture in their liver and skin, we need to obtain “essential” micronutrients from diet or supplements. This week we’ll look at where to find those important nutrients in our food. And also, how to get the most bang for our buck when choosing what to eat, how much, and in what form.


In order to live healthfully we need to eat (and absorb):

  • Calories – literally means a unit of heat: we know it as the energy we obtain from food;
  • Amino acids – Twenty percent of the human body is made up of protein. Protein plays a crucial role in almost all biological processes and amino acids are the building blocks of protein. We require 20 for chemical reactions in our body and can produce 10 of them within our bodies; the other 10 come from our diet.
  • Fatty acids – fat is an important component of energy, metabolism and much more: Two fats, omega-3 and omega-6, are essential. Fatty acids’ main function is to build healthy cells and maintain brain and nerve function.
  • Minerals – we need at least 18 different ones for such different functions as fluid balance, healthy bones and teeth; We need some of them in trace amounts, like zinc, and others in larger amounts, like calcium;
  • Vitamins – act both as catalysts and participants in chemical reactions. Unlike enzymes, which the body produces, we get almost all of our vitamins from food.

1Even though essential vitamins and minerals don’t contribute calories to our diet, they’re essential to growth and development. Babies’ bodies are essentially built from what they absorb in the womb, depending on the nutrients absorbed from Mom’s diet.

Experts advise eating a balanced diet with a variety of foods to obtain all the macro and micronutrients necessary for good health. We can put the red cape on a number of so-called “superfoods” that are especially rich in antioxidants and helpful in neutralizing free radicals. It’s easy to identify some of the most potent disease-fighters since they’re usually very colorful, showing off deep reds, greens, purples, oranges, and yellows. To combat a build-up of free radicals linked to disease, investing in a good diet is an investment in your future.


Those who eat best are those who focus on the big picture, the nutrition found in whole foods like those mentioned above, instead of individual nutrients. Big-picture eaters choose fresh, whole foods that are inherently rich in fiber and obtain the micronutrients essential for good health naturally. Of course, if you’re deficient in any one nutrient, it’s helpful to eat more of that nutrient-rich food or if necessary, take a supplement. But more is not always better; read more from Consumer Reports about overdosing on micronutrients here.

The average American typically falls short of the following nutrients:

  • Calcium
  • Potassium
  • Fiber
  • Magnesium
  • Vitamin C
  • Omega-3 fatty acids

Let’s have some fun this week! For each nutrient, let’s choose the one that’s most potent.

  1. Calcium is vital for growth and maintenance of bones and teeth as well as for nerve3 signaling, muscle contraction and secretion of certain hormones and enzymes. Too little calcium can contribute to numbness, muscle cramps, abnormal heart rhythms while too much, especially from supplements, is linked to kidney stones, and higher risk for heart attack and stroke. The FDA’s Daily Value (DV) for calcium is 1000 mg. In a typical serving size, the richest food source is:
  • Sardines – in oil, with bones – 1 oz.
  • Chinese cabbage (Bok Choy) – 1 cup, shredded
  • Yogurt (plain, nonfat) – 1 cup
  • Almonds – 1 oz. (about 23 almonds)
  1. Potassium is essential in fluid and electrolyte balance. A deficiency can lead to fatigue and high blood pressure, and unless you’re in kidney failure and on dialysis or have a confounding medical condition, eating foods rich in potassium is fairly easy; experts have linked the explosion in diagnosis of high blood pressure to diets high in sodium and low in potassium. The problem is that we’re eating too much processed foods (high in salt) and not enough fruits and vegetables. The current DV of potassium is 3.5 g (3,500 mg). In a typical serving size, the richest food source is:
  • Avocados – ½ cup pureed
  • Bananas – medium
  • Dried apricots – ½ cup
  • Yogurt (plain, nonfat) – 1 cup
  1. Fiber has multiple health roles. It’s essential for healthy digestion and proper digestive 2track function, and it fills you up, which makes eating high-fiber foods a smart weight management strategy. Too little fiber can lead to constipation and hemorrhoids, while high fiber diets are linked to lower cholesterol levels and stabilization of blood sugar. Drink plenty of no-cal fluids when increasing your fiber; otherwise there’s a risk of blocking the bowel. The recommended minimum daily is 25 g, and in a typical serving size, the richest food source is:
  • Kidney beans – 1 cup cooked
  • Baked squash (winter) – 1 cup cubed
  • Raspberries – 1cup
  • Cauliflower – 1 cup cooked
  1. Magnesium is an essential mineral involved in normal muscle and nerve function, immunity, heart rhythm and bones. Too little can lead to heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, anxiety disorders, osteoporosis, and stroke. Too much can cause diarrhea. Current DV is 400 mg and in a typical serving size, the richest food source is:
  • Nuts and seeds (squash and pumpkin seeds) – 1 oz.
  • Spinach – 1 cup raw
  • Soy beans and lentils – 1 cup cooked
  • Dark chocolate – 1 square
  1. Vitamin C is a powerful antioxidant that helps reduce oxidative stress and is essential in countless biochemical reactions necessary for creating energy and hormones. Current DV is 60 mg. Again, more is not necessarily better; too much can cause diarrhea and kidney stones. In a typical serving size, the richest food source is:
  • Orange – medium
  • Papaya – 1 cup pieces
  • Broccoli – 1 cup chopped
  • Bell pepper – per 10 strips
  1. Omega-3 fatty acids are polyunsaturated fats – known as heart-healthy fats, those eating diets high in omega-3 have lower rates of heart disease. There are two main sources of omega-3 fatty acids: marine sources provide EPA and DHA, and plant food sources provide ALA. Current DV is 60 mg. In a typical serving size, the richest food source is:
  • Flaxseed oil (cold pressed) – 1 tablespoon
  • Chia seeds – 1 oz
  • Farmed salmon – 3 oz
  • Walnuts – 1 oz


  1. Calcium: All four foods are really quite rich in calcium but yogurt takes the cake. A cup of nonfat plain yogurt has 306 mg or 31% DV. Canned fish is high, 107 mg/11% DV; almonds: 74 mg/7% DV, and bok choy, 74 mg/7% DV. Almonds have plenty of calories, since they are also rich in healthy fats, which makes them high in calories compared to watercress, broccoli and bok choy, which makes greens a great choice. Other rich sources include more types of canned fish (sardines, salmon, anchovies, shrimp); broccoli, watercress, low fat cheese, and green snap beans. For more information about calcium, click here.
  1. Potassium: Again, all four choices are good sources of potassium, but the winner is dried apricots: 755 mg/22% DV; yogurt: 625 mg/18% DV; avocados: 558 mg/15% DV; bananas: 422 mg/12% DV. Other rich sources of postassium include fish (salmon, halibut, tuna, anchovies, mackerel); and mushrooms. For more information, click here.
  1. Fiber: All dried beans (kidney, navy, pinto, black, chickpeas) are fantastic sources of fiber, averaging 11 g/45% DV per cup. Baked squash has 10 g, 40% DV, and all squash summer and winter (~10% DV), raspberries – 8 g/32% DV) and all berries (elderberries, blackberries, gooseberries, cranberries and strawberries), and cooked cauliflower, 2g/12% DV. Other rich sources for fiber include bran (corn, rice, oat and wheat), broccoli, cabbage, leafy greens and all whole fruits and vegetables, and whole grains too. For more information, click here.
  1. Magnesium: Nuts and seeds are fantastically rich in magnesium, 150 mg/37% DV in only 1 oz., but like almonds for calcium, they are rich in fat so keep an eye on portion size. Spinach is a great source of magnesium for a lot fewer calories: raw spinach has about 24 mg/6% DV, but a cup of cooked spinach contains a powerful 157 mg/39% DV! Soy beans and lentils are similarly powerful: 148 mg/37% DV, and dark chocolate is also a good source (one square has 95 mg/24% DV). Other rich sources of magnesium include dried figs, bananas, yogurt (plain, nonfat), brown rice and all whole grains, and avocados. For more information, click here.
  1. Vitamin C: Red bell peppers are super-rich sources of vitamin C, but so are yellow and green peppers! In 10 strips, a yellow bell pepper has 95 mg/159% DV, and papaya is close behind with 88 mg/147%). Broccoli has 81mg/135% DV; a medium orange 70 mg/116% DV. Other rich sources include cooked tomatoes, kiwi, guava, dark green leafy veggies, all berries including raspberries, strawberries, blueberries and blackberries, and green peas. For more information, click here.
  1. Omega-3 fatty acids: For plant sources, flaxseed oil and other oils like canola and soybean oil are rich in omega-3. One tablespoon of flaxseed oil has 14,954 mg; chia seeds contain 4915 mg plus 11 g of fiber; walnuts 2542 mg; farmed salmon 2376 mg and wild salmon 1786. Because the ALA omega 3 in plants needs to be converted to the active forms in the body many experts recommend fish over plants. Read more about plant vs. fish omega-3 fatty acids and about healthy seafood here. For those who eat little fish or whose doctor recommends fish oil supplement, read more from US News. They say, “For people who don’t enjoy omega-3-rich fish like salmon, mackerel, herring, sardines, anchovies or lake trout, or who simply don’t eat these foods regularly, fish oil supplements may be an option worth considering. While researchers continue to debate whether supplemental fish oil offers the same benefits as eating fish regularly, many doctors have become vocal advocates for the supplemental form, particularly for their patients at risk for heart disease”. Be sure to check to see if an independent lab has certified that the supplement contains what’s indicated on the label. For more info about Omega-3 fatty acids, click here.

An important parting shot: None of these micronutrients can prevent disease, especially if you smoke, or you’re a couch potato. But eating nutrient-rich foods are part of the recipe for better health. Enjoy chewing your way to a delicious and healthy future!


Reposted from March, 2015

Susan Burke March

Susan Burke March

Susan Burke March, a Cuenca expat, is a Registered and Licensed Dietitian, a Certified Diabetes Educator who specializes in smart solutions for weight loss and diabetes-related weight management. She is... Read More

  • Ray Schwarten

    Great Article. I need to print it out and re-read in detail. Thanks

  • Kris Fischer

    I love your common sense approach to eating. I never come away from your articles feeling guilty, but better informed and with some good information to use. As well as being well written, your articles add to making my diet healthier. Thanks

  • Claudia E. Hughes

    Thank you Susan for this excellent article. While I know of this information as I have read about this before, it is always good to refresh my recollection on what foods I should concentrate on like to avoid high blood pressure, and getting enough of the nutrients you write about. Let’s face it, I don’t eat chia seeds or flaxseed oil, but I love salmon, and it is easy to snack on a few walnuts while watching TV. Keep writing. Gracias, Claudia E. Hughes

  • Good info! A couple things I wonder about: first, how much research is done on South American or tropical fruits? Is there a North American bias toward the fruits/veggies (less so veggies) of the north? We know how much vitamin C is in an orange but how about a mangostino or a pitihaya?

    Also I wonder, since we don’t see a lot of dried fruit here, how much if any, loss is involved in drying? Or does it improve nutrition, like cooking of some veggies?

    Lastly, what do we do for nuts? Don’t see many of them in the mercados and Supermaxi’s of Cuenca.

  • Bruce McAlevy

    Now quit quoting the USA stuff, and tell people what is available in Ecuador, most of which is superior to that available in the USA. Maca, chia, incaberries, even chocolate etc. Food here is radically more nutritious than in the USA, where most food is grown in depleted soil with artificial fertilizers. The most common nutritional deficiencies found in the USA are not the same as Ecuador.

  • Jo W.

    Lots of good stuff here, Susan! I would put it as follows:
    “You are what you eat, digest, and absorb.” The animals people eat are also what they eat, eg., scavengers such as hogs and others eat even feces. We try to stick with grass-fed animals for quality protein and vitamin B12, zinc, and omega 3/6 good ratio. It is difficult but not impossible here to get this meat. The flavor of pastured chicken is hard to beat!
    Second, some saturated fats, e.g., organic, “raw” coconut oil and cream, are important for cell membranes and the body’s production of hormones. Adequate cholesterol under the skin is necessary for the body to glean vitamin D from sunshine.
    Reliable studies, including one from Argentina where grass-fed beef is readily available, show that red meat and whole milk may provide powerful properties that actually inhibit colorectal cancer (CRC), a leading cause of cancer-related deaths in the nation. One of these substances, conjugated lenoleic acid (CLA), is an unsaturated fatty acid found only in red meat, whole milk (cow and goat), and whole milk derivatives. Rather than in the visible fat covering organs and seen around muscles, CLA is found in interstitial, non-visible fat in the meat. Raw cream and milk also provide this very beneficial nutrient.
    Third: ascorbic acid, usually referred to as “vitamin C,” is but the “outer shell” of vitamin C complex. Whole foods, abundant in Cuenca, contain the whole vitamin C the body handles differently – no diarrhea, etc. Puerto Rico’s acerola cherry is an excellent source of the vitamin C complex we purchase in the US. Not sure if it is available in Ec.