Lifestyle

Chronic malnutrition may cause dire consequences later in life | Gustafson

Large parts of the American population are diagnosed as overfed but malnourished, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

It's called the obesity paradox. While we have easy access to calorie-dense, highly processed foods, a balanced, nutritious diet is much harder to come by.

"The mistake is to think that if you eat an abundance of calories, your diet automatically delivers all the nutrients your body needs," says Dr. Mark Hyman, author of "The Blood Sugar Solution" (Little, Brown & Co., 2012). "The problem is that the Standard American Diet (SAD) is energy dense (too many calories) but nutrient poor (not enough vitamins and minerals)." As a result, "Americans are suffering from massive nutritional deficiencies," Hyman adds.

Dietary deficiencies may aggravate age-related health problems

For years and years consumers were told by the food industry that it really doesn't matter where calories come from.

"A calorie is a calorie" is an often-heard mantra. Not so, says Dr. David Ludwig of Boston's Children Hospital. In his studies, he found that from a metabolic perspective, all calories are not alike. Wholesome, nutrient-rich foods offer innumerous health benefits their high-fat, high-sugar, high-salt, highly processed and refined counterparts cannot match.

New research suggests that the adverse consequences of malnutrition due to calorie-dense but nutrient-poor diets become even more evident as we age.

One study from Sweden concluded that the "consumption of fat laden foods can have huge implications for the risk of malnourishment in older age." Participants in the study who had the highest fat intake during middle age showed the greatest risk of malnutrition as seniors.

Many of the symptoms of malnutrition worsen when people reach an age where they become more frail and vulnerable to diseases. These are not isolated instances. Surveys have found that about 25 percent of Americans age 65 and older suffer from some degree of malnutrition. Common results are unhealthy weight loss and diminishing muscle strength, weakening of the immune system as well as declining mental health.

Malnutrition also becomes of greater concern with age because of changes in body composition, according to studies by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). As muscle mass decreases, the percentage of body fat often rises, therefore elevating the risk of stroke, diabetes, heart disease and hypertension.

Involuntary loss of weight caused by dietary deficiencies may lead to negative energy balances. Low energy may be compounded by loss of appetite or inability to maintain a healthy diet regimen.

Other risk contributors can be a diminishing sense of smell and taste, gastrointestinal disorders (e.g. malabsorption), interactions with medications, physical disability and other inhibiting factors. Psychological components like suffering from social isolation, depression, bereavement and anxiety can make things worse. Lifestyle issues such as lack of knowledge about food, cooking and nutrition facts, reduced mobility and financial constraints may also play a role.

The key to prevention or treatment of malnutrition is early diagnosis and appropriate countermeasures, including adherence to sound dietary guidelines and regular physical exercise for muscle strength and enhancement of metabolic health. Implementing these cannot start too soon but is also never too late.

Timi Gustafson RD, LDN, is a registered dietitian, newspaper columnist, blogger and author of the book "The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun," which is available on her blog, "Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.", and at amazon.com. You can follow Timi on Twitter and on Facebook.

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