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People need a certain number of calories each day to survive. But they need to be the right kind of calories and many U.S. adults apparently aren't getting them.

And it turns out that Americans with some kind of physical disability are even more likely to be malnourished.

An estimated 10% to 25% of U.S. adults fit into one or more category of disability, from those who have difficulties with activities of daily living, such as dressing, bathing and eating, to those who cannot use their legs or have difficulty carrying out routine tasks, such as money management or household chores.

To get a getting understanding of how these difficulties can affect nutrition, University of Illinois researchers analyzed two sets of self reported food and supplement consumption data from 11,811 adults, more than 4,200 of whom met the guidelines of being disabled.

The data came from the 2007-2008 and 2009-2010 National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys, conducted by the National Center for Health Statistics.

"We conducted statistical analyses to compare people with and without disabilities in terms of nutrient intake," said University of Illinois kinesiology and community health professor Ruopeng An, who guided the study.

He and his colleagues wrote up their findings in the Journal of Human Nutrition and Dietetics.

Not even close

"We found that American people consume much lower amounts of nutrients than are recommended," An said. "For example, only 11.3% of people meet the daily recommended intake of fiber. Only 4.7 percent of adults consume recommended amounts of potassium."

Vitamins are another area of deficiency. Consumers don't get enough vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin D, calcium and iron, An said. Making matters worse, they eat more saturated fat, cholesterol and sodium than recommended.

Consumers who are disabled tend to get even less nutrition. Disabled consumers were less likely to meet recommended dietary levels of saturated fat, fiber, vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium and potassium, the researchers report.

"In general, people with disabilities are also disadvantaged nutritionally compared with people without disabilities, even though the bar is already so low," An said.

Disabilities a big complication

As it turns out, those with the most severe physical and mental disabilities were also the least likely to eat enough of the right food.

"Physically, financially and mentally, they have different barriers to accessing healthy food," he said.

If you think about it a trip to the grocery store can be a challenge for anyone who uses a cane, walker or wheelchair to get around. Some who are disabled cannot grasp small items, open cans or jars, or stand at a countertop to prepare foods.

Supplements help

Dietary supplement use moderately improved vitamin C, vitamin D and calcium intakes. But that usually required the intervention of a health care provider to suggest it. The findings may shift the focus of how best to improve the overall health of disabled consumers.

"Policymakers and activists for the disabled traditionally have focused primarily on improving transportation options and the physical accessibility of buildings, roads, paths and parking lots," An said. "Now it's time for them to turn their attention to the nutritional challenges that confront people with disabilities."

Even consumers who are not disabled might be surprised at how little of the daily recommended nutrients they consume. To help you determine that number, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has produced this online calculator.

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