Dr. Mark Hyman is the author of The Blood Sugar Solution and advocates a diet of whole, nutritious foods to help people lose weight in a healthy manner.
How Malnutrition Causes Obesity
by Dr. Mark Hyman, M.D.
Americans are overfed and undernourished. That’s right, the most obese children and adults in the country are also the most nutritionally deficient (1)!
How can those two things possibly co-exist?
The mistake is to think that if you eat an abundance of calories, your diet automatically delivers all the nutrients your body needs. But the opposite is true. The more processed food you eat, the more vitamins you need. That’s because vitamins and minerals lubricate the wheels of our metabolism, helping the chemical reactions in our bodies run properly. Among those biochemical processes greased by nutrients is the regulation of sugar and burning of fat. The problem is that the standard American diet (SAD) is energy dense (too many calories) but nutrient poor (not enough vitamins and minerals). Too many “empty calories” confuse the metabolism and pack on the pounds.
A Nutritionally Deficient Culture
After reviewing the major nutritional research over the last 40 years and doing nutritional testing on over 10,000 patients — I can tell you that Americans are suffering from massive nutritional deficiencies. What I see in my office is reflected in the scientific literature. Upwards of 30 percent of American diets fall short of such common plant-derived nutrients as magnesium, Vitamin C, Vitamin E, and Vitamin A (2). More than 80 percent of Americans are running low on Vitamin D (3). And nine out of 10 people are deficient in omega-3 fats, which are critical for staving off inflammation and controlling blood sugar levels. (For more information, plus a quiz on where your nutritional imbalances lie, see The Blood Sugar Solution).
So, what happened? Why are we so undernourished?
* Food is less nutritious. Processed foods, stuffed with high fructose corn syrup, refined flours and trans fats-are a modern phenomenon. These foods crowd out more nutrient-dense foods because they are inexpensive and convenient. Your grandmother wouldn’t recognize most of the foods filling the center aisles of our grocery stores today. Imagine what early humans would think of Lunchables! Our species evolved eating foods that contained dramatically higher levels of all vitamins, minerals, and essential fats (4). Wild game is leaner and healthier than animals raised in factory farms. Plus, the meats and fish eaten by hunter-gatherers were almost always fresh. Most store bought meat today are laced with chemicals, such as nitrates, used to process and preserve.
*Soil is being squeezed. There is a reason our food is less nutritious, industrial farming is depleting the nutrients in the country’s farmland. As a result, most vegetables harvested today have fewer nutrients than those plucked from the ground just two generations ago. One of the largest and most compelling studies on this topic was published in 2004 in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition. Using data from the USDA’s archives, a team of scientists looked at the nutrient content of 43 fruits and vegetables — everything from rutabaga to honeydew — grown in 1950 and compared them to the identical fruits and veggies grown in 1999. Their findings were disturbing. Levels of calcium were down 16 percent, iron 15 percent, and Vitamin C 20 percent (5). Not a single nutrient had increased in the past 50 years.
Because those foods contain fewer nutrients, the servings we do eat don’t deliver as much nutrition as they once did. Fewer nutrients means lowered immunity and increased vulnerability to chronic disease and obesity. When your body doesn’t get the right nutrition, it just keeps asking for more food. The endless cycle of craving a Catch-22; people are eating more, getting fatter, but still not feeling satisfied — it’s a nightmare from which they can’t escape.
*Refining kills nutrients. In general, foods are stripped of their nutrients during the refining process. One of the most telling examples of this mistake is wheat. The process of refining whole wheat flour into white reduces the fiber by 80 percent and slashes levels of essential minerals, vitamins, and phytonutrients (6). Eventually, food manufacturers started adding synthetic versions of the most important vitamins and minerals back into food and call the food “enriched.” But the idea that you can process out nutrients, such as B vitamins in the making of white flour, and then add them back is reductionistic and neglects the synergistic qualities of food. Food makers call these “enriched foods” but that’s only because they are so impoverished in the first place!
Three Ways to Grab More Nutrient-rich Calories
•Eat more plant-based foods: Fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, beans, and whole grains are the foundation of a lifelong ultraprevention diet. They are high in vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, anti-inflammatory compounds, fiber, and essential fatty acids. These foundation foods also eliminate the many triggers of chronic illness, such as saturated fat, trans fat, sugar and toxic food additives.
•Prioritize healthy plant-based fats: The best way to eat most of your fat is in the form of extra-virgin olive oil, flax, nuts, and seeds with minimal amounts of properly processed (expeller-pressed) vegetable oils. Avoid oils that do not state the method of extraction or have a bitter aftertaste or rancid flavor.
•Dine on modest amounts of lean animal protein: The best sources are small cold-water fish that don’t contain high levels of metals and other contaminants. Healthy fish choices include sardines, herring, mackerel, salmon, trout, and arctic char. Wild game, such as wild elk and deer, are also rich sources of omega-3 fats because of the wild plants they eat.
Remember, food is your best medicine! Whole foods are naturally packaged with a vast array of nutrients that work synergistically to optimize your health. They ripple throughout our entire physiology, reducing inflammation, boosting detoxification, balancing hormones, and providing powerful antioxidant protection — all things that repair the underlying causes of disease.
(1) Gillis L, Gillis A. Nutrient inadequacy in obese and non-obese youth. Can J Diet Pract Res. 2005 Winter;66(4):237-42.
(2)Compiled 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.
(3)Reis JP, et al. Vitamin D status and cardiometabolic risk factors in the United States adolescent population. Pediatrics. 2009 Aug 3.
(4)Cordain 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.
(5)Changes 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
Mark Hyman, M.D. is a practicing physician, founder of The UltraWellness Center, a four-time New York Times bestselling author, and an international leader in the field of Functional Medicine.