We’re all well aware of the obesity epidemic in the developed world. Did you also know that right alongside the obesity we have a major issue of malnourishment? Though it may seem counter intuitive, obese adults and children are also nutritionally deficient.1 But it doesn’t stop there. Malnourishment can come in any body shape or size.
At first you may think that someone eating an excessive number of calories would be receiving all the nutrients his body needs. But that’s not the case. The issue is a consumption of “empty calories” to a dangerous level, consuming food packed with energy but lacking in vitamins and nutrients. And whether obese or skinny, outward appearances don’t tell the full story of the nutrient deficiency inside.
There’s plenty of food around, and we don’t have a problem with Americans finding enough to eat. But we’re eating the wrong types of food too frequently, or sometimes exclusively. The more processed food you eat, the more vitamins you need. Vitamins and minerals are what make metabolism work, aiding in the chemical reactions that fuel the body, including the regulation of sugar and using fat as an energy source.
The problem we’ve developed in Western styles of eating is packing a high number of calories in smaller and smaller packages while removing the fiber and nutrients needed to process those calories, as well as to signal the brain that we’re full. (See How We Got Fat – The Story of Too Much Energy in Packages Too Small) All of these empty calories confuse the metabolism and usually result in consistent weight gain. In the case of a weak digestive system, a person may stay skinny on the outside, but the inside tells a different story.
A Starved Society
Despite our overeating, more than 80% of Americans are deficient in vitamin D.2 Roughly 90% lack adequate levels of Omega 3 fats which are critical anti-inflammatories and also aide in managing blood sugar levels. And more than 30% of us eat diets that lack basic plant-derived nutrients like vitamin C, vitamin E, vitamin A, and magnesium.3
How did we get ourselves in this processed pickle?
A major contributor is the fact that processed foods are just so darn tasty and convenient. With their refined flours, high levels of sugar (or more commonly, high fructose corn syrup), and trans-fats, they’re super easy to pick up and eat when you’re busy, and yes, they’re cheap.
Because of their convenience, these food choices supplant the higher quality and nutrient dense foods that many see as more expensive and time consuming to prepare. But these marvels of modern food science combine ingredients in ways our body doesn’t recognize as food (primarily because most of those ingredients don’t qualify as food). We evolved eating foods that were drastically different, including the fact they were much higher in all nutrients.4
Even the quality of our meat has suffered. Most meat found at the grocery store includes hidden chemicals to process and preserve to enable a longer shelf life. It doesn’t compare to the wild game and naturally raised livestock our bodies recognize as food.
Even those who eat a diet full of fresh produce are often found lacking in critical nutrients. How can this be?
Modern farming methods simply do not replenish the soil with nutrients the way that has been done since humans developed agriculture. Conventional fertilizers only supply basic macro-nutrients to increase crop yields but do nothing to strengthen the soil.
The Journal of the American College of Nutrition published a study in 2004 using data from the USDA’s archives. The researchers examined the nutrient profile of 43 different vegetables and fruits grown in 1950 and compared them to the same plants grown in 1999.
Despite biotech’s claims of more abundant and nutritious food using their technology, not one single nutrient in those crops had increased during that 50 year time span. The study’s results showed vitamin C had decreased by 20%, calcium was down 16%, and iron had dropped 15%. Most crops grown today have fewer nutrients than those grown when our parents were kids.5
Our bodies are smart and will initiate cravings to get us to eat foods containing nutrients our body’s need. But with the decreased nutrition of our foods, both modern and traditional, our bodies may continue to prompt us to eat, looking for that nutrition they’re starving for. So people eat more and get fatter, but never feel satisfied, and it becomes a vicious cycle.
Of course the lack of nutrition leads to more issues than weight gain. A weakened immune system can’t do its job, leading to increased cases of sickness ranging from colds and flus to autoimmune and other chronic conditions.
The Failed “Solution”
The government and food manufacturers have tried to deal with this by “enriching” the foods they’ve stripped of nutrients. Particularly in processed foods, ingredients are refined (whole wheat into white flour, brown rice into white, etc.) which reduces by fiber by up to 80% and decimates the levels of vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients.6 The manufacturers then add synthetic versions of those nutrients into their products and claim it to be as healthy, and sometimes they even say better, than the original plant.
As we’ve know for a long time now, isolated synthetic nutrients do not deliver the same value to the body as what those same nutrients do when eaten together in a whole food. It’s not the beta-carotene that makes a carrot healthy, it’s the carrot. It’s not the vitamin C that makes oranges good for us. It’s the orange. Don’t be tricked into thinking your body will benefit from processed foods that have been “enriched” in an attempt to be able to show a passing grade on the nutrition label on the box.
Now the question is, how do I make sure I’m getting enough nutrients?
– Though weakened, plants still reign supreme as the kings of nutrient providers compared to all other foods. Make plants the focus of your meals. Vegetables, fruits, nuts/seeds, and properly prepared7 whole grains and legumes are the foundation of any healthy diet. From basic vitamins and fiber, they also provide powerful antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds your body uses to detoxify and repair.
– Consume modest amounts of animal protein. When it comes to meat, in terms of more healthy properties with fewer negatives such as inflammatory properties, think “the fewer the legs the better.” Small cold-water fish like sardines and anchovies are perfect choices since they don’t contain high levels of heavy metals and other contaminants. Other good choices are wild caught Alaska salmon, herring, mackerel, and trout. For land-based animals opt for grass fed and pastured meats (or even better, wild game) for their higher levels of CLA (conjugated linoleic acid) and omega-3 fats compared to their conventional meat alternatives.
– Fat is critical for health, and the best sources are plant-based fats in the form of avocados, coconut oil, extra virgin olive oil, nuts, seeds, hemp and flax. Avoid the modern industrial seed oils – vegetable oil, canola, soy, etc. – that offer inflammatory and rancid omega-6 fats. EDIT: In some cases like a nursing mother, very young children, or those with severe deficiencies or in a healing protocol, the rich animal fats (“sacred foods” as some call them) could be useful, but they’re certainly not necessary or ideal for sustained consumption. Sacred turns profane when over used.
Eat Your Medicine with a Fork
The best medicine is what you find at the end of your fork. Eating fresh, whole foods will provide your body the synergistic combination of nutrients your body needs to maintain optimal health. As I mentioned above, however, even the best diets can leave us deficient of critical nutrients. Most common are vitamin D and omega-3 deficiencies. If you spend most of your day inside an office or don’t eat fish at least twice a week, supplementing with high quality vitamin D and mercury free fish oil capsules is highly recommended.
Eating a diet full of nutrient packed calories will allow your body to maintain a healthy weight, neutralize free radicals, repair broken cells, man a fully armed immune system, and provide you the energy you want to accomplish all those lofty goals you’ve set for yourself. Show yourself some love. Eat for happy living.
1 Gillis L, Gillis A. Nutrient inadequacy in obese and non-obese youth. Can J Diet Pract Res. 2005 Winter;664:237-42.
2Reis JP, et al. Vitamin D status and cardiometabolic risk factors in the United States adolescent population. Pediatrics. 2009 Aug 3.
3Compiled by Dr. Gerald Combs, USDA, Agricultural Research Service ARS, Grand Forks Human Nutrition Research Center, as viewed in Linda Pollak and Philipp Simon, “Strategic Goal 5: Improve the Nation’s Nutrition and Health,” presentation at “Plant Breeding: A Vital Capacity for U.S. National Goals,” workshop, Raleigh, North Carolina, February 2007.
4Cordain L, et al.. Origin and evolution of the Western diet: Health implications for the 21st century. Am J Clin Nutr. 2005 8 2:341-54. Review.
5Changes in USDA Food Composition Data for 43 Garden Crops, 1950 to 1999,” Journal of the CAN, vol23, no6
6 Jonnalagadda SS, et al. Putting the whole grain puzzle together: Health benefits associated with whole grains—summary of the American Society for Nutrition 2010 Satellite Symposium. The Journal of Nutrition. 2011 March 30
7 Soaking or fermenting grains and legumes removes phytic acid, an enzyme inhibitor that makes their nutrients inaccessible until the seed is ready to germinate.