Commentary: Overweight yet undernourished? The hidden effects of junk food consumption
Despite societies around the world getting more affluent, problems related to lack of essential nutrients in our diet are creeping back, says NUS Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health’s Mary Chong.
SINGAPORE: The recent news of a teenager going blind from living on chips and crisps for years have taken readers by storm.
Is this just an extreme case of a food oddity, or could this happen to more individuals?
From the eyes of a nutrition professional, this is a classic case of micronutrient deficiencies, or simply put, a lack of essential vitamins and minerals required by the body for proper growth and development.
THE PENDULUM SWINGS TO THE OTHER SIDE
While shocking to see in this day and age, micronutrient deficiencies was commonplace a century ago, when our forefathers lived on a staple diet of mostly refined white rice and little meat.
Treating medical conditions arising from insufficient intake of various vitamins and minerals was the norm. This included impaired vision, night blindness from vitamin A deficiency, anemia from iron or folate deficiencies, neurological impairments from vitamin B12 deficiency, to name a few.
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As society progressed, food became more abundant and affordable, allowing people to consume a greater variety more likely to meet their needs for these micronutrients. Ironically, this has also swung the pendulum to the other end.
Plentiful food choices have also led to overconsumption of calories, particularly from highly processed foods, which are high in added sugars and fats and low in micronutrients – otherwise known as “junk food”.
Intake of micronutrient-rich fruits and vegetables have meanwhile been sorely neglected. While issues of malnourishment from insufficient vitamin and minerals intakes have been sidelined, looming concerns of lifestyle-related conditions like obesity, diabetes, heart disease, cancer have taken over.
In recent years, problems related to micronutrient deficiencies are creeping back.
Typical diets in both developed and developing countries are falling short of nutritional recommendations, and while inadequate micronutrient intake was typically observed in underweight and undernourished individuals, there is now evidence this is also increasingly occurring in overweight or obese individuals.
UNDERNOURISHED BUT OVERWEIGHT
As such, the World Health Organisation (WHO) now recognises the coexistence of undernutrition along with overweight and obesity - the double burden of malnutrition - as a global health issue.
The challenge faced in dealing with micronutrient deficiencies is that they are not easily recognised. Unlike changes in body weight, which can be noticeable through clothes or from a weighing scale, signs of a lack of micronutrients are less visible.
There may be tell-tale signs such as dry skin, hair loss, fatigue, slower wound healing, but these are often brushed off as passing inconveniences.
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As the body taps into its own reserves, it can sometimes take extended periods to become depleted of certain micronutrients.
For example, it can take as long as three years to deplete the liver of vitamin B12. However, during this time, the diminishing amounts of B12 can gradually damage vital functions, including the permanent damage of our nervous system, traveling up from the spine and into the brain.
The only way to reveal one’s levels of vitamins and minerals is through blood tests, but these are not typically included in routine blood checks, which test for test for high blood cholesterol and blood sugar levels, unless requested.
EXCESS NUTRIENTS CAN BE PROBLEMATIC TOO
Can taking dietary supplements solve the problems related to micronutrient deficiencies?
Taking multivitamin and mineral supplements can help supplement our diet, particularly for vegetarians or vegans who exclude meat from the diet and are thus at higher risk of vitamin B12 deficiency.
However, dietary supplements should not be a substitute for eating a healthy, balanced and varied diet.
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Too much of certain micronutrients may interfere with nutrient absorption, cause side effects or lead to toxicity, which can be dangerous.
In fact, unlike micronutrients and other substances found in fruits, vegetables, fish and other healthy foods that work together to keep us healthy, those found in pills will not provide the same synergistic effect.
TOO MUCH REFINED STARCHES AND SUGARS
Today, we are constantly being bombarded with new, trendy food products including fast foods, snacks and fanciful sweetened drinks being advertised and rolled out into the market.
It is easy to be swept away and live on a diet rich in refined starches and sugars and lacking in nutrient-dense foods. Ironically, despite the abundance of food, the quality of our diet have regressed to standards similar to decades back.
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When faced with too many food choices, we have to be even more discerning and conscious of what we choose to have on our plate.
Trendy foods can often blind us from good “old-fashioned” meals comprising of a staple, some meat, some vegetables and fruits – a varied, balanced combination more likely to help us meet our nutritional needs.
As the adage goes “You are what you eat”. If we eat junk constantly, why should we expect our health to turn out any differently?
Mary Chong is a nutritional expert and assistant professor at the NUS Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health.