“Our diets are better than they’ve ever been! Look how tall kids get today-it’s because we have such good nutrition in our country.”
I hear these statements regularly. It’s easy to think we eat well because food is so readily available. Especially for people who grew up with food insecurity, never knowing when a meal would be available, an abundance of food seems like it should guarantee good nutrition. Certainly, getting enough to eat is important. However, eating too many calories actually contributes to poor nutrition, as our bodies use up precious nutrients to process the excess calories.
Did you know that most of the US population suffers from nutrient deficiencies or insufficiencies? I was shocked to find my own diet was deficient in many nutrients 6 years ago when I was struggling with several health problems. Vitamins C, D, E, B-12, and omega-3 fatty acids are all too low in 30-80% of the US population, as well as minerals like zinc and magnesium. Many people, especially those over 65, eat too little protein to maintain their muscle mass.
There are several key factors that contribute to this silent epidemic of nutritional deficiency and insufficiency:
First, highly processed foods (think white flour, refined grains like rice, chips, sweets, soda and other sweetened beverages, most packaged snack foods) contain few or no vitamins, minerals or other beneficial compounds like antioxidants. In our fast-paced society where many meals are eaten on-the-go, these processed foods make up a significant percentage of our diet, replacing more nutrient-dense vegetables, fruits, meats and legumes.
Second, since 1977, until very recently, the USDA (1) has pushed the US population to reduce dietary fat and replace it with carbohydrate. This erroneous recommendation has resulted in increased consumption of breads, cereals, and other grain-based products, which are some of the least nutrient-dense foods available.
Third, even foods that are nutrient-dense like vegetables and fruits and legumes have lower levels of vitamins and minerals than in the past due to the depleted soils in which they are grown. Add in the expanding use of genetically modified crops, many of which are lower in nutrient density than their traditional counterparts (2), and it is clear that we are at huge risk for nutritional deficiencies.
The consequences of nutrient deficiencies
Nutrient deficiencies or insufficiencies may not be immediately obvious, but the consequences are nevertheless catastrophic for our health. While only a few people may have obvious signs of severe deficiency, like skin lesions from lack of zinc or hallucinations from low levels of magnesium, many people have colds they can’t shake due to an insufficiency of zinc or constipation from too little magnesium. Every vitamin and mineral we know about, as well as antioxidants and other polyphenolic compounds from food, are necessary for the production of energy in our cells. Therefore chronic fatigue can be a major symptom of nutrient insufficiencies. Our brains are part of our bodies, with specific needs for protein, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants, so mental health issues can also be symptoms of nutrient deficiencies. (3). Low blood levels of vitamin D can contribute to joint pain, some cancers, and autoimmune diseases, like hypothyroidism, inflammatory bowel disease, lupus, and multiple sclerosis. Lack of sufficient omega-3 fatty acids (from fish, seafood, and grass-fed meats) contributes to fatigue, memory problems, dry skin, depression, and inflammation that over time may help to cause heart disease and cancer. Nutrient deficiencies even contribute to obesity. Levels of vitamin D, chromium, biotin, thiamin and vitamin C are all known to be too low in a high percentage of people with obesity, and supplementing with these nutrients helps improve blood sugars and insulin sensitivity. (4) I have seen people who were unable to drop even a few pounds suddenly start losing weight simply by adding a green smoothie and some extra protein to their daily meals! In my own case, deficiencies in magnesium, selenium, protein, B-12 and omega-3 fatty acids helped fuel gastrointestinal and autoimmune problems, as well as overwhelming fatigue.
So how do we combat this rising tide of nutrient deficiencies and the resulting diseases? It’s actually pretty straightforward (although not always easy!). We need to maximize nutrition with every bite we put in our mouths. That’s true optimum nutrition! A nutrient-dense diet is our best bet to cure nutritional deficiencies and reduce our risk for autoimmune and inflammatory diseases. But there is so much misleading nutrition information given online and even by health-care professionals, it can be hard to know what a nutrient-dense diet is! Here are a few basic guidelines for optimum nutrition, and for more details, refer to the GRIN food plan and the basic food plan on this site.
- Eat the highest-quality foods you can get. This means avoiding GMO’s, buying organic where possible, eating grass-fed or pastured meat and wild-caught fish. Visit your local farmer’s market, and get fresh vegetables and meats. Try the local co-op. Many mainstream grocery stores also now carry organic produce and grass-fed meats.
- By cooking at home, you reduce your food costs, avoid additives, know what is going into your body, and take back control of your health.
- Eliminate all sugar except for special occasions. It is inflammatory as well as devoid of nutrients.
- Eliminate or greatly reduce all grains (particularly gluten, as it is a common culprit in inflammatory conditions.)
- Reduce or eliminate dairy. Dairy can cause silent inflammation by many different mechanisms. If you do eat it, use pastured (grass-fed) products, which are more nutrient-dense.
- Increase your intake of vegetables and fruits. A lot. Eat up to 6-12 cups per day of a combination of greens, colorful fruits and veggies, and cruciferous vegetables.
- Get adequate protein. Ideally you should be eating 30 grams at each meal (4-5 ounces of cooked meat or fish.)
- Don’t fear healthy fats! Eat avocados, olive oil, coconut oil, nuts and nut butters.
Want to create a personalized functional nutrition plan that meets your unique needs and fits into your life? Call me at 319-358-9510. I’d love to meet with you.
To learn more about Lisa and her services: http://www.karynshanksmd.com/lisa-scranton/
(1) 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee https://health.gov/dietaryguidelines/2015-binder/meeting1/historycurrentuse.aspx
(2) Bøhn T, Cuhra M, Traavik T, Sanden M, Fagan J, Primicerio R. Compositional differences in soybeans on the market: glyphosate accumulates in Roundup Ready GM soybeans. Food Chem. 2014;153:207-215 http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0308814613019201
(3) Vitamin deficiencies and mental health: How are they linked? Current Psychiatry. 2013 January;12(1):37-44 http://www.mdedge.com/currentpsychiatry/article/64985/depression/vitamin-deficiencies-and-mental-health-how-are-they/page/0/1
(4) Via, M. The Malnutrition of Obesity: Micronutrient Deficiencies that Promote Diabetes. SRN Endocrinology, Volume 2012 (2012), Article ID 103472, 8 pages https://www.hindawi.com/journals/isrn/2012/103472/
Lisa Scranton, MS, RDN, LD
Nutritionist. The Center for Medicine and Healing Arts
610 Eastbury Dr. Suite 5 Iowa City Iowa 52245
P. 319-358-9510 F. 319-358-9524 E. [email protected]