Most people think being malnourished means not having access to enough food, but it's also a lack of nutrients, which is, unfortunately, the Western way

By Charlotte Hilton Andersen
July 10, 2015
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Americans are starving. This might sound ridiculous, considering we're one of the best-fed nations on earth, but while most of us are getting more than enough calories, we're simultaneously starving ourselves of actual, vital nutrients. This is the ultimate paradox of the Western diet: Thanks to America's wealth and industry, we are now producing food that is increasingly tasty but decreasingly nutritious, leading to a generation of malnourished people and an epidemic of disease-not just in America, but in many first-world countries, according to a study published in Nature.

"One of the defining characteristics of the modern Western diet is replacing fresh fruits and vegetables with refined carbohydrates and other processed offerings," says Mike Fenster, M.D., an interventional cardiologist, chef, and author of The Fallacy of the Calorie: Why the Modern Western Diet is Killing Us and How to Stop It, who was not involved with the study.

"This diet can be tremendously addictive in a most subtle and unconscious way," he explains. First, it robs us of nutrition, as foods are manipulated to remove critical nutrients and replaced with poor substitutes. Then, the constant exposure to tremendous amount of sugar, salt, and fat in these processed foods damages our sense of taste and seals our reliance on these unnatural and innutritious foods, he adds. (What's in that package? Learn about these Mystery Food Additives and Ingredients from A to Z.)

"These dietary choices directly disrupt our metabolism-in particular, our individual gut microbiomes-and produce a wide range of disabilities and diseases," Fenster says. For starters, this type of diet disrupts the natural sodium-potassium ratio in the body, which is a factor in heart disease, he explains. But one of the worst culprits of malnutrition, Fenster adds, is the lack of fiber in the modern diet. Not only does soluble and insoluble fiber keep us from overeating but, even more important, it's the food eaten by good bacteria that live in our gut. And, according to an explosion of recent research, having the right balance of healthy gut bacteria builds up the immune system, prevents inflammation, improves mood, protects the heart, and is essential to maintaining a healthy weight. Without enough fiber, the good bacteria can't survive.

The best sources of dietary fiber are not, it turns out, processed "fiber bars," but rather a wide range of plant-based foods. That junk food is bad and veggies are good isn't exactly news, but the researchers found that most people don't realize how much and how quickly this shift in diet effects our health, In fact, a brand new survey conducted by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) found that that 87 percent of Americans don't eat enough fruit and 91 percent of us skip veggies. (Try these 16 Ways to Eat More Veggies.)

And our over-reliance on processed convenience foods is not just causing big problems like diabetes and heart disease but also, according to the study, is responsible for a myriad of smaller issues like an influx of catching colds, exhaustion, skin conditions, and stomach problems-all things that in the past have mainly been seen as the problems of people who couldn't afford enough food.

In a twist of scientific irony, our diets are now living up to their depressing descriptor of S.A.D., or Standard American Diet. And according to the study, our unhealthy foods are becoming one of our main exports to the rest of the world. "We have a whole new group of people who are malnourished because they eat foods that are no good for them, that have no nutritional benefit," said lead study author David Tilman, Ph.D., professor of Ecology at the University of Minnesota.

The source of the problem is just how cheap and easy it is to eat junk food. "Increased time demands coupled with increasing discretionary income leads us to the convenient and tempting choices offered by the modern Western diet," Fenster adds.

Fortunately, while the solution to a S.A.D. diet isn't easy, it is simple, all the experts agree. Ditch the processed junk for a more natural and whole foods-based diet. This starts with taking responsibility for our own choices of what we put in our mouths, Fenster says. He adds that the key to breaking the addiction to processed foods is to reclaim our taste buds by making wholesome meals using local, fresh ingredients. And don't worry, making healthy meals doesn't have to be expensive, time consuming, or difficult. Proof: 10 Easy Recipes Tastier Than Takeout Food and 15 Fast and Easy Meals for the Girl Who Doesn't Cook.

"More so now than at any time in the past, we must use our money and our voices to choose quality over quantity," he says. So the next time hunger pangs strike, instead of thinking of what you're craving, perhaps start by thinking about what nutrients you haven't gotten enough of today. You'll be surprised by how much happier and more energetic it'll make you feel. Even better, consistently eating healthy foods will nix junk food cravings, starting a cycle of better habits and better health.