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Is Obesity and Malnutrition really mutually exclusive?

Updated: Feb 12

People typically associate malnutrition with poverty or food insecurity. However, malnutrition does not only include the deficiency of nutrient intake. In fact, it also refers to excesses or imbalances in a person's intake of energy and nutrients. This is why the malnutrition and overweight could co-exist and it is a phenomenon known as overnutrition.


Overnutrition occurs when people consume sufficient calories, but obtain these calories from nutrient-poor foods that are missing essential vitamins and nutrients [1]. In less developed countries, nutritious foods such as fresh fruits and vegetables can be expensive and scarce. This has forced people to adopt a high-carb diet dominating by grains and cereals, which is affordable on one hand, yet lack of micronutrients on the other hand. Not only does it occur in less developed countries, overnutrition is even more common in developed countries, where modern lifestyles and the prevalence of fast food restaurants have promoted the consumption of nutrient-poor foods [2]. Both examples of overnutrition as described above could harm healthy metabolism and cause diseases such as obesity and type 2 diabetes [3] [4].



To prevent overnutrition, it is important to consume an adequate amount of nutrient-dense foods and limiting the intake of nutrient-poor foods. According to the National Institute of Health, nutrient-dense foods are high in nutrients and moderately low in calories. These foods contain essential vitamins, minerals, and other important nutrients for maintaining good health. The distinction between nutrient-dense and nutrient-poor food choices has become increasingly more important and research in this area has increased since 2005. In 2005, a new scoring system was developed to help compare the nutritional values of different foods. The system is referred to as the naturally nutrient rich score (NNR) and ranks foods according to their nutrition density [5]. Scoring systems like this can help people identify nutrient-dense foods and make more healthy consumption choices.



Foods with low nutrient density include soft drinks, desserts, sugars, salted snacks, coffee, and tea [5]. These foods contain refined grains, added sugars, and added fats, all of which offer little nutritional value and can be energy dense with high calories. The consumption of foods with high energy density and low nutrient density can lead to overnutrition [3]. Therefore, to avoid overnutrition, nutrient-dense foods such as milk, eggs, vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and certain meats should be sought out [5].


Healthy eating isn’t about cutting out foods, it’s about making wise food choices and eating a right balance of a wide variety of foods. Let’s put health as a priority and try make healthy food choices to give your body what it needs.



References:

[1] Tanumihardjo, Sherry A., et al. "Poverty, obesity, and malnutrition: an international perspective recognizing the paradox." Journal of the American Dietetic Association 107.11 (2007): 1966-1972.

[2] Troesch, Barbara, et al. "Dietary surveys indicate vitamin intakes below recommendations are common in representative Western countries." British Journal of Nutrition 108.4 (2012): 692-698.

[3] Troesch, Barbara, et al. "Increased intake of foods with high nutrient density can help to break the intergenerational cycle of malnutrition and obesity." Nutrients 7.7 (2015): 6016-6037.

[4] Cai, Dongsheng. "Neuroinflammation and neurodegeneration in overnutrition-induced diseases." Trends in Endocrinology & Metabolism 24.1 (2013): 40-47.

[5] Drewnowski, Adam. "Concept of a nutritious food: toward a nutrient density score." The American journal of clinical nutrition 82.4 (2005): 721-732.

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