Many Americans are malnourished
By David Dunaief, M.D.
It may come as a surprise, but most of us are malnourished. How could that be, when approximately 70 percent of the U.S. population is overweight or obese? When we think of malnourishment, developing countries come to mind. However, malnourishment is not directly correlated with hunger; it is common at all levels of the socioeconomic scale. The definition of malnourished is insufficient nutrition, which in the U.S. results from low levels of much needed nutrients.
Over the last 30 years, the pace of increase in life expectancy has slowed substantially. In fact, a New England Journal of Medicine article noted that life expectancy may actually decline in the near future (1).
According to the American Medical Association, almost half of Americans have at least one chronic disease, with 13 percent having more than three (2). The projection is that 157 million Americans will have more than one chronic disease by 2020. Most chronic diseases, including common killers, such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes and some cancers, can potentially be prevented, modified and even reversed with a focus on nutrients, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
I regularly test patients’ carotenoid levels. Carotenoids are nutrients that are incredibly important for tissue and organ health. They are measurable and give the practitioner a sense of whether the patient may lack potentially disease-fighting nutrients. Testing is often covered if the patient is diagnosed with moderate malnutrition. Because the standard American diet is very low in nutrients, classifying a patient with moderate malnutrition can be appropriate. A high nutrient intake approach can rectify the situation and increase, among others, carotenoid levels.
What is a high nutrient intake and why is it so important?
A high nutrient intake is an approach that focuses on micronutrients, which literally means small nutrients, including antioxidants and phytochemicals — plant nutrients. Micronutrients are bioactive compounds found mostly in foods and some supplements. While fiber is not considered a micronutrient, it also has significant disease modifying effects. Micronutrients interact with each other in synergistic ways, meaning the sum is greater than the parts. Diets that are plant rich raise the levels of micronutrients considerably in patients.
Let’s look at some examples.
A study showed olive oil reduces the risk of stroke by 41 percent (3). The authors attribute this effect at least partially to oleic acid, a bioactive compound found in olive oil. While olive oil is important, I recommend limiting olive oil to one tablespoon a day. There are 120 calories per tablespoon of olive oil, all of them fat. If you eat too much, even of good fat, it defeats the purpose. The authors commented that the Mediterranean-type diet had only recently been used in trials with neurologic diseases and results suggest benefits in several disorders, such as Alzheimer’s.
In a case-control (compare those with and without disease) study, high intake of antioxidants from food is associated with a significant decrease in the risk of early age-related macular degeneration (AMD), even when participants had a genetic predisposition for the disease (4). AMD is the leading cause of blindness in those 55 years or older. There were 2,167 people enrolled in the study with several different genetic variations that made them high risk for AMD. Those with a highest nutrient intake, including B-carotene, zinc, lutein, zeaxanthin, EPA and DHA, substances found in fish, had an inverse relationship with risk of early AMD. Nutrients, thus, may play a role in modifying gene expression.
What can we do to improve life expectancy?
In the Greek EPIC trial, a large prospective (forward-looking) cohort study, the Mediterranean-type diet decreased mortality significantly — the better the compliance, the greater the effect (5).
The most powerful dietary components were the fruits, vegetables, nuts, olive oil, legumes and moderate alcohol intake. Low consumption of meat also contributed to the beneficial effects. Dairy and cereals had a neutral or minimal effect.
Though many Americans are malnourished, nutrients that are effective and available can alter this predicament or epidemic. Hopefully, with a focus on a high nutrient intake, we can re-ignite the pace of increased life expectancy and improve quality of life for the foreseeable future.
(1) N Engl J Med 2005; 352:1138-1145. (2) www.ama-assn.org. (3) Neurology June 15, 2011. (4) Arch Ophthalmol. 2011;129(6):758-766. (5) BMJ. 2009;338:b2337.
Dr. Dunaief is a speaker, author and local lifestyle medicine physician focusing on the integration of medicine, nutrition, fitness and stress management. For further information, visit www.medicalcompassmd.com or consult your personal physician.