Have you ever seen the letters “DRI” and wondered what it meant? What the heck is a dietary reference intake anyways? RDA, AI, UL, EAR…there are so many acronyms to keep track of when trying to figure out how much of different nutrients you need!
Well, this basic post is going to give you some background info to understand what a dietary reference is, the differences between the different types of dietary reference intakes, and how to interpret them, so you can understand nutrition facts and supplement labels with confidence.
Dietary Reference Intakes:
Dietary Reference Intakes (DRIs) are developed and published by the Institute of Medicine. They represent the most current science-based recommendations of nutrient needs of healthy individuals. DRIs are currently set for over 40 substances.
DRIs are intended to serve as a guide for good nutrition to healthy people in the United States and Canada. Reference values vary based on age, gender, and life-stage.
Notice that these are intended for healthy individuals; individual needs vary based on health status or life stage (for example, pregnant individuals and teenagers need different amounts of certain nutrients compared to most healthy adults).
RDA: Recommended Dietary Allowance
RDA is something even people in nutrition mix-up. A common misconception is that it stands for “recommended daily allowance,” but it actually stands for Recommended Dietary Allowance.
RDA is the average daily level of intake sufficient to meet the nutrient requirements of healthy individuals. It is considered a “goal” amount for dietary intake of individuals.
EAR: Estimated Average Requirement
Estimated average requirements (EAR) is the average daily level of intake estimated to meet the needs of 50% of healthy individuals, usually used to assess the nutrient intakes of groups of people to plan nutritionally adequate diets for them.
This means that if everyone consumed this amount of a substance, it would be enough for half of them. The other half may need more.
What’s the use in knowing the EAR? Well, EARs are used in nutrition research and policy making, and are the basis used to make RDAs. It is considered a useful tool to make and evaluate nutrition programs for groups.
AI: Adequate Intake
AI stands for Adequate Intake. AIs are intake levels that are assumed to ensure nutritional adequacy for most healthy people. It is an educated guess based on the available data when established evidence is insufficient to establish an RDA.
UL: Upper intake level
The tolerable upper intake level (UL) is the maximum daily intake unlikely to cause toxicity or harmful effects in healthy individuals. If intake increases above the UL, the risk of adverse health effects also increases.
For example, the UL of vitamin C is 2,000mg, which is the equivalent of 2 Emergen-C packets. Which is why I always advise people against slamming those all day when they feel like they have a cold, since consuming more than that can lead to increased risk of diarrhea and kidney stones (more about that here).
How to Use the DRIs:
Each of the four DRIs serves a different purpose. For example, the EAR is useful for nutrition planning and evaluation for groups. The RDA and AI are useful for goal setting and evaluation at the individual level. The UL helps to prevent toxicity (like with mega-dose supplements).
Oh, and what is DV?
DV, or “Daily Value” is a percentage system developed by the FDA to help consumers compare products within the context of the total diet. A DV is the amount of a micro or macronutrient in one serving of food out of 100% of the RDI for normal healthy adults based on a 2,000 calorie diet.
These values are nice guidelines for easy assessment of how much of certain nutrients are in different foods. But keep in mind everyone may have slightly different needs, You may need more than 2,000 calories to properly fuel your body and/or lifestyle and thus your needs of all nutrients would increase.
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