America is suffering from an epidemic of malnutrition. But it’s not what you think.
If you check the World Health Organization for malnutrition, you will find many studies about, and programs for malnutrition in children. It’s as if malnutrition doesn’t exist in adults? We’re all children. And many of us are suffering from malnutrition. If you search, you can find a few references where the definition of malnutrition includes ‘eating too much’. But that’s not it either.
America is suffering from an epidemic of obesity. There is no question about that. The only questions are about the causes. Few notice that obesity is easily caused by starvation.
It’s a common mistake, assuming that obesity is caused by too much junk food, combined with too little exercise. All to simple, and all too simplistic. The conclusions are easy to accept: judgement of people for their behaviors. People who are fat, especially people who are obese, are themselves at fault. If they would just eat less, and exercise more – they could solve their own problems. But that’s simplistic nonsense. No one wants to be obese.
Obesity, in America, is a disease of malnutrition. Cheap food makes us all poor, unhealthy, and fat. Obesity often results when your body is starving. When the food you eat does not provide the nutrients you need. Your body knows you are starving, no matter how much you are ‘eating. It reacts ‘hungrily’, trying to eat more food, to get the necessary nutrients. At the same time, because it senses ‘famine’, because the required nutrients are not available, it initiates a fat storage system to save calories, ‘until the famine passes’.
The (obese) body is doing it’s best to get the nutrients it needs, and to store extra food that is not needed. It urges you to eat more, you get fatter. But you are still starving all of the time. Because the food you are eating does not provide the nutrients you need.
Have you noticed? Obese people are often ‘starving’.
How can this be happening? Why is this happening? There are several factors:
In the past, there were lots of ‘healthy, nutritious foods’ around. Even if you ate cake every day, most of the other food you ate met your biological needs, so you didn’t need to keep eating and eating. Because your dietary needs were being met, your body was not ‘starving’. It didn’t push you to eat more. Because your body was not starving, it did not need to ‘store food’ for the famine.
In the past, foods were ‘seasonal’. People were forced to eat different foods in winter than in summer, different in spring than in fall. These dietary changes forced you to consume a wider variety of foods, more likely to meet your nutritional needs – over the year. Even foods like beef, chickens, eggs, and milk changed with the seasons, because the animal’s diets changed.
Today, it is possible to eat the same foods, day in and day out, with no seasonal changes, for many years. It is easy to ‘fill up’ several times a day on foods that do not meet your nutritional needs. Your body senses famine, stores fat for the famine, and urges you to eat more, to address your malnutrition, your starvation.
This also exacerbates the accumulations of toxic chemicals from your foods. When we eat the same foods, day after day, month after month, season after season, year after year, the toxic chemicals in those foods accumulate. When our diet was changing with the seasons, we consumed different toxic chemicals in different seasons, and left others behind. Our bodies had months to recover. But today, we seldom change our diet consciously, and even if we do, the market ensures that we pick many similar foods, developed by similar growing and manufacturing processes with similar toxic chemicals.
There is a second factor at play, which is often important. When you become obese, you don’t just ‘gain fat. Your stomach, and the rest of your digestive system grows. It takes more to make you ‘feel full’, you become more reliant on ‘feeling full’ to know when to stop eating. As soon as you feel ‘not full’, you start eating again. When you are ‘feeling full’, there’s always room for desert. Your body is starving. When you feel stomach discomfort, your body urges you to eat – because it knows you are starving.
As a result, even if you start eating the right foods, you will still feel hungry – and it might take a very long time to shrink your body, and your digestive system back to a ‘healthy’ size. For all of that time, it will be easy to think you are hungry, when you don’t need food. It can take a long time to learn that you are not ‘hungry’ whenever your stomach hurts, and you are not full when your stomach hurts. Those are lessons learned through malnutrition – hard to unlearn.
It’s ironic, that most of the treatments for obesity include some type of starvation. Cut back on calories, don’t eat this food, don’t eat that food. Fat loss diets range from rabbit food to lion food – but they seldom work. And sticking to them is almost impossible for anyone who has become obese. It’s hard to stick to a diet when you are malnourished. It’s hard to stick to a diet that doesn’t meet your nutritional needs, when you are starving.
The other ‘treatment’ suggested for obesity is exercise. There are a variety of reasons why exercise is a high risk for obese people, from high blood pressure to dehydration, to breathing problems because of their larger chest wall. But add to that, the fact that their bodies are not healthy, their bodies are starving, and thus more susceptible to, and more likely to be damaged by the stress of exercise.
There are people who can quit smoking in a day – I did it (after 5 or so unsuccessful attempts). And there are a few obese people who can ‘fix their eating’ almost overnight. But those are few, and far between. And perhaps more important, many who succeed have no idea what worked, what didn’t work, and how to proceed afterwards. If they want to remain ‘thin’, they are stuck in whatever rut that helped them lose weight, even if it was an unhealthy technique. They are unable to escape, for fear of becoming obese again. Dreaming about chocolate cake. I still dream about smoking sometimes….
You hear a lot about the epidemic of obesity in the USA. Is it really an epidemic of obesity?
- Smoking: 467,000 deaths.
- High blood pressure: 395,000 deaths.
- Overweight-obesity: 216,000 deaths.
- Inadequate physical activity and inactivity: 191,000 deaths.
- High blood sugar: 190,000 deaths.
- High LDL cholesterol: 113,000 deaths.
- High dietary salt: 102,000 deaths.
- Low dietary omega-3 fatty acids (seafood): 84,000 deaths.
- High dietary trans fatty acids: 82,000 deaths.
- Alcohol use: 64,000 deaths.
- Low intake of fruits and vegetables: 58,000 deaths.
- Low dietary poly-unsaturated fatty acids: 15,000 deaths.
It’s clear that high blood pressure, overweight-obesity, high blood sugar, high LDL cholesterol, high dietary salt, low dietary omega-3 fatty acids, high dietary trans fatty acids, alcohol use, low intake of fruits and vegetables, and low dietary poly-unsaturated fatty acids are all malnutrition – and most are nutritional deficiencies. Most of these diseases are caused by starvation, even though obesity is near the top of the list.
What about smoking, it’s not nutrition, or is it? People smoke to take nutrients – drugs – into their bodies. People smoke because if they stop, they’ll gain weight. Smoking is a substitute for eating. Smokers need more nutrients, to help their bodies heal and clear the toxic chemicals, but instead, they eat less. And what about alcohol? Both smokers and alcoholics are prone to malnutrition, because they substitute smoking, and alcohol for food.
There is an epidemic of malnutrition in America. That’s why so many people are so fat.
Tracy Kolenchuk is the founder of Healthicine.org and author of: Introduction to Healthicine: Theories of Health, Healthiness, Illness and Aging.