Understanding nutrient recommendations: Part 1

Dietary Reference Intakes and how to interpret various nutrition-related terms.

Does the language used when discussing nutrition seem designed for confusion instead of comprehension? Similar to many fields of study, nutrition includes the use of many acronyms so understanding those makes understanding nutrition recommendations much simpler. Nutrient intake recommendations were first issued to the public in 1941 with the goal of assisting World War II food relief efforts, according to the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (2017). The original recommendations intended to address malnutrition and starvation that resulted from the war, and were used, at least in some part, by the U.S., Canada, and England (Murphy et al, 2016). Current nutrient recommendations referenced by dietitians include the Dietary Reference Intakes or DRIs, which set nutrition standards for the public.

What are Dietary Reference Intakes?

Dietary Reference Intakes or DRIs are standards meant to improve nutrient intake without leading to excessive intake. DRIs are used to inform policy on the federal level like with WIC, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Feeding Program for Women and Children, and the school lunch system or setting intake goals as done by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (Cole, 2013). Additionally, the more familiar Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which present food patterns for a healthy diet, are designed to meet the current Dietary Reference Intakes (Murphy et al, 2016). Aside from food programs and dietary guidance, DRIs are also used for monitoring nutrition status at a population level and assuring adequate nutrition for the military.

The Dietary Reference Intakes were developed by the Food and Nutrition Board of the Institute of Medicine in 1997 and include four categories of nutrient reference values: Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA), Estimated Average Requirement (EAR), Adequate Intake (AI), and Tolerable Upper Intake Level (UL). While Recommended Daily Allowance or RDA may be the most recognizable term in the list of nutrient reference values, the more familiar percent Daily Values ( percent DVs) on food labels are partially based on RDA’s from 1968. Dietary Reference Intakes replaced the Recommended Daily Allowance’s used prior to 1997 and reflect an average amount of nutrients needed per day because it is expected that people may consume more or less of a particular nutrient on a given day. The 1997 change also replaced Recommended Nutrient Intakes or RNI’s in Canada and represented a coordination of nutrient recommendations for the U.S. and Canada.

What is Estimated Average Requirement or EAR?

EAR is the average daily nutrient intake level needed to meet the nutrition requirements of 50 percent of individuals in a group.

What is Recommended Dietary Allowance or RDA?

RDA is the intake level sufficient to meet nutrition requirements for approximately 97-98 percent of individuals in a group.

What is Adequate Intake or AI?

AI is the intake level based on observed estimates of nutrient intakes by a group or groups of healthy people and estimates from experiments can be used. AI is used when there is not enough data to set an EAR and is considered a temporary level until there is enough information to set an EAR or RDA.

What is Tolerable Upper Intake Level or UL?

UL is the highest daily intake nutrient level that is likely to pose no risk from adverse or harmful effects to most individuals in the general population. When nutrient intake exceeds this upper limit, risk from adverse effects also increases.

Using Nutrient reference values

The nutrient reference values defined above are set for generally healthy people to optimize health status and prevent chronic diseases like type 2 diabetes, obesity, cancer, and heart disease. These values can also be useful to avoid excessive intake of both macronutrients (nutrients needed in larger amounts like carbohydrates, protein, and fat) and micronutrients (nutrients needed in smaller amounts like vitamins and minerals). General intake recommendations found on food labels give a daily value for various nutrients, usually as a percentage of a 2,000-calorie diet. While this gives consumers an approximation for nutrient needs, a primary care provider and consultation with a registered dietitian can tailor specific individual requirements.

For further breakdown on nutrient recommendations and Dietary Reference Intakes, check back for Understand Nutrient Recommendations Part 2. Another resource from Michigan State University Extension is the interactive food label with information from the revised food label. Additional health and nutrition information can also be found at Michigan State University Extension.

Did you find this article useful?