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Nutrient Deficiency and Hidden Hunger: Why Eating Organic and Exercise is Not Enough for Most Americans (And What You Can Do About It)

Posted by Greg Kester on


Since the dawn of time, we have heard this phrase as the benchmark advice to ward off poor health and disease. Is a healthy diet and exercise important for health and well being? ABSOLUTELY. 

So you might ask, “Great! What does this mean for me? Is that all I need to know?” 

Nutrient Deficiency and Hidden Hunger: Why Eating Organic and Exercise is Not Enough for Most Americans - (And What You Can Do About It)

There’s a lot more to this discussion than the conventional wisdom might suggest. Let’s hear from Dr. Tieraona Low Dog, M.D., an internationally recognized expert in the fields of dietary supplements, herbal medicine, women’s health, and natural medicine.  She was appointed by President Clinton in 2000 to serve on the White House Commission of Complementary and Alternative Medicine among many other prestigious accolades over her 35 year career.  Her newest best-selling book Fortify Your Life addresses this very topic. She states: “These days, even if you’re eating organic, choosing local, and doubling up on fruits and vegetables, you’re probably still not getting the nutrients you need. We live high stress lives, prescription drugs deplete our reserves, processed foods are convenient but not that nutritious.”

So what now? Let’s start by understanding why we need nutrients.

Essential Nutrients

“Nutritious” is a key word in Dr. Low Dog’s quote above.  Nutritious food is crucial in providing your body with the nutrients (vitamins, minerals, amino acids, fatty acids, and other bioactive compounds) it needs to function optimally. Without these nutrients, basic bodily functions wouldn’t be possible, and when you don’t consume enough, your health will suffer.  For example, if you don’t eat enough zinc, you’ll lose your ability to taste. If enough time goes by and you still don’t eat enough zinc, you’ll lose your hair and start to experience neurological symptoms. The point is, nutrients play a critical role in many of the body’s routine or “normal” processes like taste, the capacity to think straight, or the ability to create energy from food.

What about the role of nutrients when your health isn’t “normal”? Let’s take high blood sugar for example. When your blood sugar level is high, this is actually a “stress” on your body (specifically your pancreas, adrenals, and liver, which bear the brunt of this stress). To deal with this stress, your body needs several nutrients in higher amounts than under “normal” conditions. These include vitamin D, magnesium, and chromium, which are not only required for blood sugar regulation but for many other biological functions. Thus, if your nutrient account is already low, your body will not have the resources it needs to effectively deal with the stress, in this case high blood sugar.

“Ok, so now I know these nutrients are important. Don’t I get enough of these in food?”

Many people share a widely-held belief that eating a well-balanced diet will ensure an adequate amount of all essential nutrients.  However, “well-balanced” is a vague term that means very different things to different people. Furthermore, evidence suggests that a majority of Americans do not meet adequate intake requirements for multiple essential nutrients. Combined with evidence that the vitamin and mineral content of many fruits and vegetables has fallen in recent decades, this provides a very good reason to believe that quality multivitamins and supplements can at least fill nutritional gaps if not improve certain health outcomes.  There is simply too much data to ignore the case for supplementation in today’s society.

What is a “Well Nourished Adult?”

Every year, the National Center for Health Statistics conducts a massive survey called the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, or NHANES for short. As the name implies, the purpose of the survey is to collect nationally representative data on the health and nutrition status of the population. This data can then be analyzed for trends or associations that may shed light on a particular health issue. Last year, a team of researchers published their findings from analyzing NHANES data collected between 2001 and 2008. They found that a significant percentage of the population did not meet the estimated average requirement (EAR) or adequate intake (AI) level for several nutrients. In particular, over 90% of Americans consumed less than the EAR or AI for vitamin D, vitamin E, choline, and potassium, 50% for vitamin A, and 40% to 60% for vitamin C, calcium, and magnesium. Seemingly, a majority of Americans may not actually be “well-nourished.”

In most “first world” societies, and especially in the US, people do not see malnutrition as a major health issue. “Malnourishment” is a term that seems distant to us, invoking images from foreign aid commercials showing severely starved children.  Such children are suffering from the most severe and obvious form of malnutrition—protein-energy malnutrition or kwashiorkor—which is caused by a chronic lack of calories and protein. Very sad indeed.  World hunger is a huge issue, but for most of us that are fortunate enough in America, this is not the biggest issue we face.  So what hunger issue are we talking about?

Hidden Hunger

There is a much more pervasive form of malnutrition, which is often referred to as “hidden hunger” (so called because its effects are subtler than those resulting from protein-energy malnutrition). The more technical name for hidden hunger is micronutrient malnutrition. Worldwide, and especially in the developing world, tens of millions of people consume sorely inadequate amounts of essential nutrients, most notably vitamin A, iron, zinc, iodine, and certain B vitamins. Vitamins and minerals are required for all kinds of chemical reactions and physiological processes that take place in your body—again, there’s a reason they’re called essential nutrients. We are fundamentally reliant on these nutrients and data shows that our current diets, habits, and lifestyles are constantly over-drawing our nutrient “bank account”.  What happens when we overdraw an account? Penalties, usually.

Here is a clear takeaway: Regardless of whether a person consumes enough calories from macronutrients (proteins, fats, and carbs), micronutrient deficiencies can have debilitating health consequences, including impaired immune function, blindness, neurological dysfunction, depression, and even death. Again, we are talking about the total long term effects of micronutrient imbalance in your body even though for the time being you may generally look great, feel great, and are attempting to pursue a healthy lifestyle by eating “well” and exercise.  

So we ask, “Are diet and exercise alone effective?”  Effective is defined as: successful in producing a desired or intended result.

Let’s consider some data from the World Health Organization and see if the data suggests America has been effective using diet and exercise alone.

  • As of May 2014, obesity has reached epidemic proportions globally, with at least 2.8 million people dying each year as a result of being overweight or obese. Once associated with high-income countries, obesity is now also prevalent in low- and middle-income countries.
  • 65% of the world's population live in a country where overweight and obesity kills more people than underweight.
  • Globally, 44% of diabetes, 23% of ischaemic heart disease and 7–41% of certain cancers are attributable to overweight and obesity.
  • Globally, 42 million preschool children were overweight in 2013.
  • More than 1.4 billion adults were overweight in 2008, and more than half a billion obese.​
  • In 2012, 86 million Americans age 20 and older had prediabetes; this is up from 79 million in 2010.
  • Diabetes remains the 7th leading cause of death in the United States.

This is staggering data and a sober message.  However, even though it is tough to swallow, let’s not end with a sad story.  Let’s learn what can be done.

The Case For Supplements

Though we believe that the pursuit of better diet and and continued exercise is an ongoing, lifelong endeavor, there is simply too much data to show that supplementation for most Americans could be an ally to our modern lifestyle.

A supplement by definition is meant to be just that - something that enhances something else when added to it. Supplements are definitely not health or dietaryreplacements. However, a growing amount of research shows that dietary supplements can enhance your pursuit of health through diet and exercise. Nutrients are essential to life, and adequate intake of nutrients is critical for good health. The unfortunate reality is that most Americans consume inadequate amounts of many nutrients.

Make the decision today to include a quality supplement to complement your pursuit of better health. Health is a most precious resource.

We’ve covered a lot of ground, so let’s take a moment to consider what we know to be true about nutrients and health.

Key Takeaways:
  1. Despite knowing that diet and exercise are critical components of health, most Americans are overweight or obese and struggle with health issues that often worsen over time.

  2. Essential nutrients are just that, essential for life. Without them we cannot function. Most Americans do not get enough of several essential nutrients.

  3. When nutrients are in short supply, your body will sacrifice long-term health for short term survival. So, even if a person never develops a severe nutrient deficiency disease, small deficiencies may, over time, have serious adverse health consequences.
  4. Supplements can improve health by providing the body not only with essential nutrients, but other bioactive compounds that can support physiological processes that lead to good health.

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