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 socioeconomic class. The definition of malnourished is insufficient nutrition, which in the U.S. results from low levels of much-needed nutrients.
For only the third time in history, U.S. life expectancy has declined since 2015. Previous drops were driven by wars and epidemics. This time, the change is being driven by societal trends, including malnutrition and sedentary lifestyles.
According to the American Medical Association, almost half of Americans have at least one chronic disease, with 13 percent having more than three.
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.
Because the standard American diet is very low in nutrients, most patients have moderate malnutrition. 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. 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.
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 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 our outcomes?
In the Greek EPIC trial, a large forward-looking cohort study, the Mediterranean-type diet decreased mortality significantly – the better the compliance, the greater the effect. 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 epidemic. By shifting our eating focus to a high-nutrient intake, we should lower the incidence of chronic illness and improve quality of life and longevity for millions of Americans.