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Wednesday
Aug312011

Why Americans are Overfed and Undernourished

Written by: Tom Nikkola – Director of Nutrition & Weight Management

Key take-aways:

  • Americans are eating more energy-dense foods than ever, yet they’re starving their bodies of important nutrients.
  • A significant percentage of the population falls short of minimum suggested intakes for important nutrients such as vitamin D, calcium and magnesium.
  • Fortified foods make up a large part of essential nutrient intakes for Americans, which reinforces the fact that Americans consume large amounts of processed foods.
  • High-quality nutritional supplements play an important role in supporting nutrient intake, but Americans must continue to replace their processed foods with whole foods to improve nutrient intakes.
  • Do your own 30-day challenge: Take your high-quality nutritional supplements AND eat at least 9 servings of non-starchy vegetables and fruit each day.

Half the adult population of the United States will be obese by 2030 if trends continue as they have in recent years.[i] That’s 65 million more obese people. There are a variety of possible reasons we’re gaining excess weight at such striking rates, but one likely reason is the amount of food we consume. Americans eat more than enough calories to support their daily energy needs, but the source of these calories are low in essential nutrients, leaving many people overfed in calories and undernourished in vitamins and minerals.

Researchers publishing in the Journal of Nutrition (JN) recently reviewed nutrient intakes from over 16,000 Americans. Vitamin and mineral intakes from these individuals were determined after reviewing food journals. Though this method is not perfect, with such a large sample size, the researchers were able to provide a good idea of the quality of Americans’ nutrition intakes.

Recommended, required and reality

Nutrient recommendations come with a few different terms. The first, which is less well known is the Estimated Average Requirement (EAR). The EAR represents the nutrient levels at which 50% of the population’s minimum nutrient needs would be met. Saying that again, when you look at the EAR, these nutrient levels assume half of the population will still be below minimum requirements.

The Recommended Daily Allowance (RDI) is set by increasing the EAR level by 20%.[ii] As we’ve gained greater understanding of how nutrients work, it’s become obvious there is a significant difference between the EAR or RDI levels and optimal levels. That’s why you’ll often see nutrient levels in nutritional supplements and recommended by holistic nutrition experts that far exceed the ‘recommended’ minimum amounts.

When the JN article’s research group analyzed Americans’ diets, they looked at nutrients as they naturally occurred and were available through fortification in foods, and then at a third group who used nutritional supplements in addition to their fortified foods.

Much of the American diet is made up of processed foods, which have little naturally occurring nutrients in them. In fact, most of the nutrients are removed as they are processed. Then the foods are fortified as some vitamins and minerals, often low-quality nutrients, are added back in.

The table below shows what percentage of the population fell below the Estimated Average Requirements, including their fortified foods (middle column), and the percentage that still fell below with the use of nutritional supplements (right column):

As you can see, a significant percentage of the population is not meeting the Estimated Average Requirement which, again, is the amount of the nutrient required for at least half of the population to avoid deficiency! With food more accessible than ever, and Americans consuming more calories than in the past, it’s sometimes hard to understand how we can be missing out on so many important nutrients. Of course, the processed foods that make up so much of the Standard American Diet (S.A.D.) lack the high volume of nutrients found in whole foods like fresh vegetables, fruit, nuts, seeds and pasture-raised meats and eggs.

Intakes below the EAR were also seen for vitamin B6 and B12, zinc, folate, iron, thiamin, copper, riboflavin, niacin and selenium, though not at the same significant rates. Of course, consuming vitamins and minerals at levels above the EAR doesn’t mean individuals are getting optimal nutrient levels, only that they’re consuming nutrients at levels believed to help at least half the population avoid nutrient deficiency.

Supplementing  

Nutritional supplements can help to increase nutrient intake, but many multivitamins found in large stores lack quality nutrients or are found in levels less than optimal. According to the study in JN, there’s also evidence that some supplement users don’t take supplements on a regular basis. One-third of Americans claim to use a multivitamin, but just as with foods, the nutrient value of multivitamins vary dramatically, and among those multivitamin users, use is not habitual. Aside from using a multivitamin, minerals such as calcium and magnesium must often be taken separately as their large size makes it difficult to fit in most multivitamin/mineral supplements.

Nutritional supplements can help support daily nutrient needs, but adding them to a poor diet isn’t the answer to optimizing nutritional intake. Whole foods have enzymes and phytonutrients important to the absorption and utilization of the vitamins and minerals we take in. Don’t be fooled into thinking man-made foods are a replacement for the ones made in nature.

30-Day Challenge

People often don’t realize how much better they would feel by consuming more nutrient-dense foods. Would you be willing to commit to maximizing your vitamin and mineral intake for 30 days? Rather than focusing on foods you shouldn’t eat, how about just focusing on more foods you should eat? Instead of thinking about dieting, make it a point to take a high-quality multivitamin and eat at least 9 servings of non-starchy vegetables and fruit (mostly vegetables) for the next 30 days.

Give the 30-day challenge a shot and share how it goes and how you feel below.

This article is not intended for the treatment or prevention of disease, nor as a substitute for medical treatment, nor as an alternative to medical advice. Use of recommendations in this and other articles is at the choice and risk of the reader.


[i] Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health. 65 million more obese adults in the US and 11 million more in the UK expected by 2030. ScienceDaily, 26 Aug. 2011. Web. 28 Aug. 2011.

[ii] Wikipedia. Daily Reference Intake. August 28, 2011. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dietary_Reference_Intake

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Reader Comments (13)

As a Pharmacist, I still question a little the use of multivitamin/multimineral when you eat a proper diet. The suggested 9 fruits and vegetables a day, combined with nuts (Brazil nuts, almonds, walnuts) and 2 to 3 low fat or non fat dairy portions should cover our daily intake of essencial nutrients.
Nevertheless, the article was very interesting showing us how people focus on starchy and processed foods and pay little attention to healthy fresh food.
Hopefully more articles of this kind and exercising + eating right incentives will change this scary scenario.

September 4, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterFlavia

"Half the population of the United States will be obese by 2030 if trends continue as they have in recent years. That’s 65 million people."

The current population of the United States is over 312 million people; half of that would be at least 166 million people. If half of the population in 2030 is only 65 million people, I think the death of 200 million people in the next 20 years is possibly a bigger concern than the percentage of the survivors who are obese.

While the current state of nutrition in the US is without doubt troubling, faulty information does nothing to help the problem and indicates an alarmist attitude that opens the door for doubts about the validity of rest of the article.

September 4, 2011 | Unregistered Commenter11thPenguin

11thPenguin, check your math.

September 5, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJG

It's 65 million MORE adults than we have today. My fault for neglecting to add the word "more" in the first paragraph. Thanks for catching.

September 5, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterTom Nikkola

Search Fathead-movie on Hulu.com. Non-starchy veggies are a good idea, but I would not trust govt guidelines in anything without independent verification!

September 5, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterKevin

I agree. Fathead is a great movie. It is educational and very entertaining, something hard to do in such a dry topic like nutrition and politics. Tom Naughton's blog site for the movie is www.fathead-movie.com

September 5, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterTom Nikkola

Tom, thanks for your comments. I recently have become aware of "Fathead" and also thought it was great. The only problem is I have become increasingly distrustful of all information so your comments help alot. Thank you.
Btw have lost 40 pounds low carbing since 4/11 ( 90 day weight loss challenge) and as a type 2 diabetic now have normal bloodwork all around and in process of getting off 5 different meds. It works and needs to be promoted!!!

September 5, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterKevin

Kevin, outstanding weight loss and improved health!!! I am a low carb enthusiast as well.

September 5, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterVanessa

The vitamins that Lifetime sells are quite pricy at $32.99 for a 30 day supply. I'm not doubting the quality but when Centrum is $10 for a hundred day supply and when money is scarce, it may be time for Lifetime to lower the price by 50%. They will still make money.

September 5, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBruce

Hey Bruce. You bring up an interesting discussion. It's probably worth writing an article about the difference between our multivitamin and the cheap ones found in many stores. We could certainly create one that was at a lower price point, but knowing what I know about product quality, differences in raw materials, differences in nutrient forms and differences in manufacturers, I wouldn't feel right creating something with cheap ingredients and having it a lower price. It's hard for many consumers to see the difference just looking at the label, but there is an enormous difference between the Life Time multivitamins and the one- to two-tablet per day multis out there. Rather than taking up too much space here, I'll save it for an article in the near future.

Kevin - way to go! Keep spreading the news of how you lost it.

September 6, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterTom Nikkola

@Flavia: While I understand your skepticism for someone consuming all the recommended amounts of fruits and vegetables, you're assuming that all whole foods are created equally, and more importantly that they're created equally with their counterparts from 50 years ago.

As we continue to produce food at faster and faster rates, the soil nutrients simply can't replenish themselves quickly enough for us to rely on whole foods for nutrition (even organic is no guarantee here). Some independent tests have found HUGE variations even among single harvests of produce when it comes to vitamin/mineral content.

Furthermore, any labeled food will be labeled with percentages referring to the government RDIs. The optimal amount of a particular vitamin/mineral varies greatly from person to person, and adding activity into your lifestyle almost GUARANTEES you need more than the RDI. Vitamin D is a prime example for this... currently the RDI is 400 IU. Most studies indicate the need for closer to 10,000 IU.

If in doubt, it may be a neat experiment to stick to foods for 30 days or so, perhaps have some blood work done and see where your levels fall. At least you could be more specific about which ones you decide to take afterwards.

Great article and discussions!

September 6, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRory

Tom, I am very interested in an article about the LifeTime vitamins -- specifically the Women AM/PM vitamins. I can't seem to find any information on why these are split into two types of capsules, and what happens if you don't take all 6 each day... which I just about never remember to do... or what happens if you only take the AM or only take the PM... Help! There is no information provided in the box with the capsules.

September 8, 2011 | Unregistered Commentermoguy

Moguy,

The separation of the capsules is to ensure better absorption and nutrient utilization. If you think about how our bodies are designed (going back to hunter/gatherer times) we would get small doses of vitamins and minerals from our food throughout the day as we ate. This maximized our absorption of the vitamins because we weren't taking in more than we could use at any one time. Any one-a-day vitamin is going to flood your system with your daily need of vitamins at once, most of which your body will process right back out. Our formulas are also slightly different in their make up, which you can find on the box. Certain vitamins are more necessary early in the day for energy and alertness, and others help you wind down at the end of the day and prepare for rest.

As far as effects of NOT taking them, I can't say specifically that there are adverse effects related to this, but you may suffer some vitamin deficiency throughout the day.

Very good question though! Feel free to comment if you have any questions or email me directly at RMiller2@lifetimefitness.com.

September 8, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRory

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