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How Malnutrition Causes Obesity

How Malnutrition Causes Obesity

Americans are overfed and undernourished. That’s right, the most obese children and adults in the country are also the most nutritionally deficient!(1)

How can those two things possibly co-exist?

The mistake is to think that if you eat an abundance of calories, your diet automatically delivers all the nutrients your body needs. But the opposite is true. The more processed food you eat, the more vitamins you need.

That’s because vitamins and minerals lubricate the wheels of our metabolism, helping the chemical reactions in our bodies run properly. Among those biochemical processes greased by nutrients is the regulation of sugar and burning of fat.

The problem is that the standard American diet (SAD) is energy dense (too many calories) but nutrient poor (not enough vitamins and minerals.) Too many “empty calories” confuse the metabolism and pack on the pounds.

A Nutritionally Deficient Culture

After reviewing the major nutritional research over the last 40 years and doing nutritional testing on over 10,000 patients—I can tell you that Americans are suffering from massive nutritional deficiencies. What I see in my office is reflected in the scientific literature.

Upwards of 30 percent of American diets fall short of such common plant-derived nutrients as magnesium, vitamin C, vitamin E, and vitamin A.(2) More than 80 percent of Americans are running low on vitamin D.(3)  And 9 out of 10 people are deficient in omega-3 fats, which are critical for staving off inflammation and controlling blood sugar levels (for more information, plus a quiz on where your nutritional imbalances lie, see The Blood Sugar Solution).

So, what happened? Why are we so undernourished?

Food is less nutritious. Processed foods, stuffed with high fructose corn syrup, refined flours, and trans fats–are a modern phenomenon. These foods crowd out more nutrient-dense foods because they are inexpensive and convenient.

Your grandmother wouldn’t recognize most of the foods filling the center aisles of our grocery stores today. Imagine what early humans would think of “Lunchables”! Our species evolved eating foods that contained dramatically higher levels of all vitamins, minerals, and essential fats.(4)

Wild game is leaner and healthier than animals raised in factory farms. Plus, the meats and fish eaten by hunter-gatherers were almost always fresh. Most store bought meat today are laced with chemicals, such as nitrates, used to process and preserve.

Soil is being squeezed. There is a reason our food is less nutritious.  Industrial farming is depleting the nutrients in the country’s farmland. As a result, most vegetables harvested today have fewer nutrients than those plucked from the ground just two generations ago.

One of the largest and most compelling studies on this topic was published in 2004 in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition. Using data from the USDA’s archives, a team of scientists looked at the nutrient content of 43 fruits and vegetables—everything from rutabaga to honeydew—grown in 1950 and compared them to the identical fruits and veggies grown in 1999.

Their findings were disturbing. Levels of calcium were down 16 percent, iron 15 percent, and vitamin C 20 percent.(5) Not a single nutrient had increased in the past 50 years!

Because those foods contain fewer nutrients, the servings we do eat don’t deliver as much nutrition as they once did. Fewer nutrients means lowered immunity and increased vulnerability to chronic disease and obesity.

When your body doesn’t get the right nutrition, it just keeps asking for more food. The endless cycle of craving is a Catch-22; people are eating more, getting fatter, but still not feeling satisfied—it’s a nightmare from which they can’t escape.

Refining kills nutrients. In general, foods are stripped of their nutrients during the refining process. One of the most telling examples of this mistake is wheat. The process of refining whole wheat flour into white flour reduces the fiber by 80 percent and slashes levels of essential minerals, vitamins, and phytonutrients.(6)

Eventually, food manufacturers started adding synthetic versions of the most important vitamins and minerals back into food and call the food “enriched.” But the idea that you can process out nutrients, such as B vitamins in the making of white flour, and then add them back is reductionistic and neglects the synergistic qualities of food. Food makers call these “enriched foods” but that’s only because they are so impoverished in the first place!

Three Ways to Grab More Nutrient-Rich Calories

  • Eat more plant-based foods: Fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, beans, and whole grains are the foundation of a lifelong “ultraprevention” diet. They are high in vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, anti-inflammatory compounds, fiber, and essential fatty acids. These foundation foods also eliminate the many triggers of chronic illness, such as saturated fat, trans-fat, sugar, and toxic food additives.
  • Prioritize healthy plant-based fats: The best way to eat most of your fat is in the form of extra-virgin olive oil, flax, nuts, and seeds with minimal amounts of properly processed (expeller-pressed) vegetable oils. Avoid oils that do not state the method of extraction or have a bitter aftertaste or rancid flavor.
  • Dine on modest amounts of lean animal protein: The best sources are small cold-water fish that don’t contain high levels of metals and other contaminants. Healthy fish choices include sardines, herring, mackerel, salmon, trout, and arctic char. Wild game, such as wild elk and deer, are also rich sources of omega-3 fats because of the wild plants they eat.

Remember, food is your best medicine! Whole foods are naturally packaged with a vast array of nutrients that work synergistically to optimize your health. They ripple throughout our entire physiology reducing inflammation, boosting detoxification, balancing hormones, and providing powerful antioxidant protection—all things that repair the underlying causes of disease.

To learn more please see The Blood Sugar Solution. Get one or get two books and give one to someone you love – you might be saving their life. When you purchase the book from this link you will automatically receive access to the following special bonuses:

  • Special Report—Diabetes and Alzheimer’s: The Truth About “Type 3 Diabetes” and How You Can Avoid It
  • More Delicious Recipes: 15 Additional Ways to Make The Blood Sugar Solution as Tasty as It’s Healthy!
  • Dr. Hyman’s UltraWellness Nutrition Coaching – FREE for 30 days!
  • Hour 1 of The Blood Sugar Solution Workshop DVD

Now I’d like to hear from you…

Do you feel nutrient-starved?

Is the majority of your diet processed foods?

Are you overweight from eating empty calories?

Please leave your thoughts by adding a comment below – but remember, we can’t offer personal medical advice online, so be sure to limit your comments to those about taking back our health!

To your good health,

Mark Hyman, MD

(1) Gillis L, Gillis A. Nutrient inadequacy in obese and non-obese youth. Can J Diet Pract Res. 2005 Winter;66(4):237-42.
(2)Compiled by Dr. Gerald Combs, USDA, Agricultural Research Service (ARS), Grand Forks Human Nutrition Research Center, as viewed in Linda Pollak and Philipp Simon, “Strategic Goal 5: Improve the Nation’s Nutrition and Health,” presentation at “Plant Breeding: A Vital Capacity for U.S. National Goals,” workshop, Raleigh, North Carolina, February 2007.
(3)Reis JP, et al. Vitamin D status and cardiometabolic risk factors in the United States adolescent population. Pediatrics. 2009 Aug 3.
(4)Cordain L, et al.. Origin and evolution of the Western diet: Health implications for the 21st century. Am J Clin Nutr. 2005 8 (2):341-54. Review.
(5)Changes in USDA Food Composition Data for 43 Garden Crops, 1950 to 1999,” Journal of the CAN, vol23, no6
(6) Jonnalagadda SS, et al. Putting the whole grain puzzle together: Health benefits associated with whole grains—summary of the American Society for Nutrition 2010 Satellite Symposium. The Journal of Nutrition. 2011 March 30

Mark Hyman MD is the Medical Director at Cleveland Clinic’s Center for Functional Medicine, the Founder of The UltraWellness Center, and a ten-time #1 New York Times Bestselling author.

Comments (32)

  • I encourage you to look into the work of Weston A. Price. I think your recommendations are great, but plants and lean proteins only get you part of the way. In looking at traditional cultures, Price found that all healthy groups ate one or more of 1) dairy and dairy products from grass-fed cows, 2) animal products including organs and bone broths (nose to tail), 3) seafood (especially shellfish), and/or 4) entire small animals (like frogs) or insects.

    These foods provided essential fat-soluble vitamins but they were also great sources of other nutrients (like vitamin K2) that worked synergistically with the rest of the diet.

    Food most definitely is your best medicine, but it’s important to avail yourself of the entire spectrum!

    • The dairy may be fine for some in moderation but some people, depending on genetics don’t do dairy well so these are things that each individual has to test out and come to the conclusion about what is right for them.

  • Dr. Hyman, I love that you have taken this up, but it’s more than malnutrition. You have to look to the kidneys…how well they function. Diabetes affects the system, not just one organ, right? So when you consider it on the cellular, diabetes can be more of a mitochondrial disorder than we know. I am currently looking at purine metabolic dysfunctions and I think the overproduction of uric acid is also a factor. Ultimately, it comes back to how the kidneys process uric acid. This would explain why we develop fat pads in our abdomen…as opposed to people who don’t accumulate weight on their bellies. I am gluten intolerant, but asymptomatic…been diagnosed with hypoglycemia, borderline gestational diabetes in a pregnancy…I’ve lived it. My father had gout. To solve for diabetes, you need to under purine metabolism. About 20 to 25% of autistic kids could have purine metabolic disorders, yet we know nothing about it.

  • “These foundation foods also eliminate the many triggers of chronic illness, such as saturated fat, trans fat, sugar and toxic food additives.”

    Nothing like perpetuating the myth to support the PETA agenda, eh? Show me one bit of level 1 evidence supporting the theory that saturated fat and even trans fat trigger an sort of illness. Why would God make your brain 2/3 fat then make fat bad? Why would God require our bodies to use cholesterol and saturated fat for life-sustaining maintenance and then make the stuff bad for us? Why would God evolve us over millions of years on animal diets and then make it bad for us while also making only extremely recent, man-made fats good for us? Is your God the real god, or is it the olde greenback?

    Oh, I forgot. The world is only six thousand years old.

    • John
      To answer; “Why would God evolve us over millions of years on animal diets and then make it bad for us while also making only extremely recent, man-made fats good for us?”
      1) GOD did not put cattle in dirt yards eating corn, or chickens, turkeys and pigs in large wharehouses so crammed in they can hardley move, and GOD did not pump them full of ultra high doses of hormones and antibiotics! People did! So the meat our ancestors ate was a whole different animal than what we get at the grocery store or butcher shop today.
      2) And I don’t recall anyone saying anything about man-made fats being good for us. It’s obvious from your statements that you haven’t done much research into good or bad fats. Trans-fats are the man-made fats and are very bad for you and there is a ton of research out there on trans-fats and saturated fats. Try google sometime.

    • Did God make the foods that are mostly in our food environment today? Of course not. Your argument has not basis of logic at all. Blessings to you.

  • So a diet that emphasizes vegetables with a little amount of meat is good, but when soy is a problem, keep it out of the diet. Soy is a bean and it’s also a source of phytoestrogens. Again, it’s about the kidneys, where a bit of progesterone is made. Watching my diet carefully reduces bloat and migraines.

  • I keep hoping you’ll finally admit to the lie that is “whole grains” and stop promoting them.

    Almost every item labeled “whole grain” available to us in grocery stores today is unhealthy for one reason or many.

    I was glad to see your piece on wheat, and was hoping that you would finally admit that the real science is just not there to support the ingestion of grains as a necessary dietary practice for humans. We’d all (except maybe one or two multinational argicorps) be a thousand times better off to skip the bread and pasta, and replace that weight on our plates with leaves and stems, which have the proper fiber/carb ratio for human health and move us toward the lower calorie diet that will extend our lives. Small amounts of animal foods properly raised and not denatured will provide the essential fatty acids and amino acids. Plants will do the rest.

  • Based on personal experience and some extensive experimentation, I’ve concluded that Dr. Eades is right: there is no such thing as an essential carbohydrate and grains and vegetables are carbs with precious few available nutrients. What the body craves more than anything is good, saturated fats from animal sources and proteins. Everything the body needs is found in the diet that helped us evolve and become human: meat and fats. Fiber irritates the colon (as any gastroenterologist will tell you if you are scheduled for a colonoscopy) and does little but feed billions of bacteria that have no business in the human gut. Millions of people are finding from direct experience that Paleo is the way to go, and the purer the paleo diet, the more effective it is for healing the body. You don’t even need vitamin C when you are fully transitioned to a low carb paleo diet as there is a completely different detox system that comes back online. Read Nora Gedgaudas’ book “Primal Body, Primal Mind” and Lutz’s book: “Life Without Bread”. Then, read “The Vegetarian Myth” by Lierre Keith. Vegetables and grains kill not only people, but the planet as well.

  • I suspect I am nutrient-starved despite eating a good diet. Recently, I had some nutrients levels tested, and my Omega-3 levels were seriously low despite taking a high quality fish oil and flaxseed oil supplement daily. A doctor who approaches things from an alternative medicine standpoint once told me that if you do not have a gallbladder (which I do not), you will not be able to absorb fats well. Is this true, and could you address this in a future email, please?

  • We have discovered that our two daughters have low stomach acidity. One was tested for nutrient levels and was deficient in everything and had multiple food intolerances. The other had leaky gut (we haven’t tested her for nutrient levels or food allergies). We have avoided processed and junk foods their whole lives. We eat nutrient rich foods. Despite a very healthy diet, they weren’t well nourished because they couldn’t absorb their food properly. Low protein levels have led to adrenal problems and mental illness. We are on a slow road to recovery. I suspect my husband also has this problem, and can’t take weight off despite eating well and exercising.

    This topic would be another one people might appreciate. So many are on anti-acids, thinking that their heartburn is caused by high stomach acidity, when they are really only making the matter worse. It is likely at the root of a lot of problems – gut issues, food intolerance and inflammation.

  • I am a 45 year old woman who has lived with epilepsy for the past 10 years of her life. Recently, I finished writing a book on the experience entitled SEIZED. I hope to have it published soon. In my journey with illness, I not only experienced and observed the reprecussions of a corrupted, for-profit healthcare system. I also directly experienced the enormous impact our relationship to basic aspects of life have on our health and well-being. Not only does our relationship to food impact our health, but our relationship to things like time also impacts our health enormously. Americans live in an unhealthy culture of excess. We eat too much, but are starving. We’re always busy, yet we get nothing done. We have access to innumerable communication tools, yet we’re longing for meaningful social connections.

  • I can not wait to receive your book. I am hopeful that once and for all I can get my health problems under control. I have Metabolic Syndrome w/ Polycystic Ovaries. I also have Hidradenitis Supprativa and am a Kidney Cancer Survivor. I know that there has to be something more beneficial then taking

    one med after another. I was on Avandia for at least 9 yrs until it was black boxed . I made the decision at that time that I do not want to take meds to control the Metabolic Sydrome.

  • Dr Hyman, I have read the Ultra-Simple Diet and several other things that you have written. I believe that you have the right idea. I have also ordered your new book, the Blood Sugar Solution. But I am very, very discouraged. I don’t think I’ll be able to follow many of your recommendations due to their cost. I have to feed seven people for $200 per week, and that includes clothes, cleaning supplies, shampoo, etc. When I tried to do the Ultra-Simple Diet I gave up in despair because it would have taken most of the family’s budget just for me to be on that diet by myself. There was no hope of getting the supplements. Yet I feel I have to do something because I am 100 lbs. overweight and have no health insurance (it was a choice between that and putting food on the table). I think your plan is a good one–just not realistic for those with limited means.

    • Hi Linda,

      Thank you for your interest in Dr. Hyman’s work. We are so glad you are joining The Blood Sugar Solution community. Here you will undoubtedly meet countless others just like you who have similar interests re: making the program affordable.

      And Dr. Hyman wants you to succeed regardless of your financial situation as he envisions a medical system where everyone has access to honest and effective healthcare! To this end, there is an entire chapter dedicated to program preparation and ways to achieve your personal goals while still honoring your unique needs (lifestyle, financial, family etc.)

      When you get the book you can be excited about all the useful information as well as the community you will become part of! Pay particular attention to the part on how to take action: Eat well for less. This is in Chapter 19.

      Should you be interested in a bit more assistance tailoring this program to meet your needs the nutrition team is standing by and ready to guide you!

      In good health!
      Nutrition Coaching Team

  • Hi Hyman:

    I am 54 years old, Ido have a Osteoporotic, I like to know what should I use for it
    AP Spine -3.1
    Total Hip(left) -1.0


  • Every since I learn about how plant based foods help fight cancer and have high nutrition to calorie ratio, I started eating more vegetables.

  • I am very impressed with your emphasis on food–the real stuff! I also recommend the supplement Assurance (sold at Walgreens) and their published research, which is linked to their website This combines Ayurvedic knowledge with western science.
    I also think part of our problems are cultural, the de-emphasis on home cooking and our reliance on convenience foods. I am hopeful seeing the work of advocates like you, Dr Robert Lustig, Michael Pollan and many others urging a new food system, and a return to the sanity of chemical-free food.

  • I believe we are all nutrionally deficient to some extent based on soil depletions. I don’t always eat as well as I should, however I always take additional supplements/vitamins for what I think I may be lacking. Always purchase my supplements based on the reputation of the company and where the ingredients are sourced, not on the price of the bottle. Have been doing this for over 17 years now.
    Went for one of my annual checkups approx. 15 years ago and during the course of conversation with my physician was asked as a matter of routine whether I was taking or on anything he should know about. I recited 5 or 6 six diiferent items to him. I was then told the items were unnecessary as everything needed should be obtained from what I ate. I actually laughed out loud and told him he obviously didn’t know everything, degree or not. Needless to say I no longer say anything. Everyone believes what they are told by the mainstream media and to convince people of anything contradictory is a difficult task at best.
    That being said I do believe the chemical giants (Monsanto, Dupont, Dow)and the products they supply to the agricultural sector play a very large role in all of this.Roundup being a most pervasive substance which is now utilized world wide to the extent of an almost 80% participation rate in countries. A product which ends up in everything including groundwater although they want you to believe otherwise. And ask yourself this, Monsanto a leader in GMO and Terminator Seeds really started pushing their genetically modified seeds about what the mid 1980’s? Since that time GMO seeds/crops have become more & more prevalent. Has not the rate of allergies, cancers and diseases risen significantly during that same period?
    When I was in middle school there was only one girl in my class of 30 who had diabetes and noone had asthma or anything else (not sure about the whole school), this was around 1970 or 1971. I wonder how many per 30 these days have a condition?

      I have been saying the same thing for YEARS !!!
      Allergies are caused by the additives in our foods. Additives are there because of the money. Follow the money and you will find the ‘WHY’.
      It really stinks that if you wanted to buy seeds and plant your own garden and grow your own vegetables and have your own meats, that you cannot possibly do that without additives.
      They are everywhere and they are causing cancer, allergies, disease, etc.
      How many people of “3rd world” countries get cancer? They die of other diseases, yes, But cancer? No way!
      Why? Follow the money……

  • I have just purchased the book and am starting to read it. Also, am looking into the website. Like Linda, the financial responsibility is as overwhelming as all of the information. There is so much to process. I have spent thousands of dollars on diet gimmicks over the years and this is pretty much my last hope. While I eat less than 800 calories a day I am still overweight. I have no appitite whatsoever, likely due to the anti depressant I am on. I do not eat vegetables, I never have and there’s no way I can eat the strange things I have seen recommended so far not to mention tofu. I just really need some real help.

    • HI Marty,

      Thank you for sharing your journey with blood sugar and food. We understand how overwhelming the process is but want to applaud you for trying. Why dont you hop on over to nutrition coaching where we can offer you some individualized support so you have success this time around.

      In good health!
      Nutrition Coaching Program

  • Great article Dr. Hyman. I think “empty calories” are a very important [causal] factor in the obesity epidemic, but I also think that besides being nutrient poor (by definition), they also fail to adequately suppress appetite.

  • Hi Mark! I think I am nutrient-starved, and that the majority of my diet are processed foods. 🙁 I’m actually not good at cooking so I usually buy at fast foods. But I do take some vitamins, like vitamin C, and K2, and probiotics.

  • Dr. Hyman,

    This is a great article! Here at AWAREmed in Myrtle Beach, SC, we believe in the same concepts of eating whole, unprocessed foods to get the best nutrition. Getting the proper amount of vitamins daily helps your body feel better and your mind stay focused. We would love to see people gain more knowledge of how important and beneficial it is to eat fruits, fish, vegetables, fruit and REAL whole grains (not “enriched”). Have you ever heard of IV Nutritional Therapy? Here at AWAREmed we use this as a direct way to get our vitamins. Check out our website at

    Thank you, Fabulous Article!
    Dr. Akoury

  • Good post. I learn something totally new and challenging on websites I stumbleupon on a daily basis. It’s always useful to read through content from other writers and use a little something from their websites.

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