A Consumer's Guide to the DRIs (Dietary Reference Intakes)

Recommendations for nutrient intakes are called Dietary Reference Intakes (DRIs).

DRIs are based on the amount of vitamins, minerals and other substances like fibre that we need - not only to prevent deficiencies, but also to lower the risk of chronic disease.

The History of Dietary Reference Intakes

Since 1938, Health Canada has been reviewing nutrition research regularly and defining nutrient needs for healthy people. In recent years, scientists have learned more about nutrients and their link to chronic diseases such as cancer, diabetes and heart disease. Since 1995, scientists in Canada and the United States have been working together to develop nutrient recommendations based on the latest information. These recommendations are called Dietary Reference Intakes (DRIs).

The DRIs encompass four types of nutrient reference values, each with different uses:

  • Estimated Average Requirement (EAR) - the amount of a nutrient that is estimated to meet the requirement of half of all healthy individuals in a given age and gender group. This value is based on a thorough review of the scientific literature.
  • Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) - the average daily dietary intake of a nutrient that is sufficient to meet the requirement of nearly all (97-98%) healthy persons. This is the number to be used as a goal for individuals. It is calculated from the EAR.
  • Adequate Intake (AI) - only established when an EAR (and thus an RDA) cannot be determined because the data are not clear-cut enough; a nutrient has either an RDA or an AI. The AI is based on experimental data or determined by estimating the amount of a nutrient eaten by a group of healthy people and assuming that the amount they consume is adequate to promote health.
  • Tolerable Upper Intake Level (UL) - the highest continuing daily intake of a nutrient that is likely to pose no risks of adverse health effects for almost all individuals. As intake increases above the UL, the risk of adverse effects increases.
  • Acceptable Macronutrient Distribution Range (AMDR) - the percentage range of protein, fat, and carbohydrate intakes that is associated with reduced risk of chronic disease while providing adequate intakes of essential nutrients.

How Does Health Canada use the DRIs?

Health Canada uses the DRIs in policies and programs that benefit the health and safety of Canadians. For example, the DRIs are being used:

  • to assess dietary guidance documents to ensure they are based on sound science;
  • as a benchmark to evaluate how well Canadians are eating; and
  • to make decisions about the dosage levels in supplements and special dietary foods.

Who Else Uses the DRIs?

The DRIs are a set of different types of numbers with different uses depending on the situation. Users of the DRIs include health care providers, institutions such as hospitals and nursing homes, governments, and industry. Some of the ways DRIs can be used are in assessing people's nutrient intakes, planning diets, and developing appropriate nutrition education materials for individuals or population groups.

So What Should You Do?

Look to the Food Guide

You don't need to pore over reams of scientific documents to tell you how to eat well. You can continue to refer to Canada's food guide to help you make healthy eating choices. Using the food guide and eating a variety of foods can help you get the nutrients you need and to reduce your risk of chronic conditions such as cancer, diabetes and heart disease.

Check Out Nutrition Labels

You can also look to the Nutrition Facts Table that is provided on most packaged foods in a standard form listing calories and 13 key nutrients based on a specific amount of food. The nutrients chosen are those that consumers, health professionals and scientists consider important to the health of Canadians.

The % Daily Value (% DV) can help you make informed food choices. Look for it in the Nutrition Facts table on food packages.

The label information allows you to compare products more easily, assess the nutritional value of more foods and better manage special diets. You can use Nutrition Facts, the list of ingredients, and nutrition claims to make informed food choices.

Become Supplement Savvy

Making healthy food choices can help you meet your nutrient needs for good health. However, in certain cases, specific vitamin or mineral supplements are recommended. For example, the evidence is clear that the use of supplements containing folic acid substantially reduces the risk of occurrence of birth defects known as neural tube defects (NTDs). All women who could become pregnant should take a multivitamin containing 0.4 mg of folic acid every day, in addition to the amount of folate found in a healthy diet.

If you are considering a multivitamin or multivitamin-mineral supplement, talk to your health care provider to find the best supplement for you. In large doses some substances in multivitamins could actually do more harm than good.

Remember the Activity Side of the Equation

In developing these nutrient reference values, it became clear that everyone should engage in one hour of physical activity per day to prevent weight gain and to achieve additional benefits in reducing risk of chronic diseases. Check out
 Canada's Physical Activity Guide to Healthy Active Living to help you build physical activity into your daily life.

Get Advice that's Right for You

The DRIs are designed to meet the needs of individuals who are healthy and free of specific diseases or conditions that may alter their daily nutritional requirements. If you have specific conditions or chronic diseases, seek advice from a health care provider or registered dietitian to develop an eating and physical activity plan that is tailored to your special needs.

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