Malnutrition is generally seen as a developing world issue, but surprising as it may seem, many more people in Britain and the USA may be in danger of this than they think. Malnutrition has increased sharply in Britain in recent years. It is estimated that more than 3 million people are now malnourished or at risk of malnutrition, with health conditions such as rickets (caused by a lack of vitamin D) on the rise.

So what are the risk factors for malnutrition? You might be surprised to learn it’s not simply a case of not having enough to eat, but can also stem from eating the wrong kind of foods or your body being unable to digest the foods you do eat.

white-breadThe average diet in the UK and USA is often loaded with high-fat and high-sugar processed foods but lacking in fruits and vegetables, fresh lean meats and fish that provide much-needed nutrients. Unfortunately food companies often exploit our liking for sugary and fatty foods by offering cheap but low-nutrient products. This can lead to people who are overweight or obese, but also malnourished, which can be difficult to diagnose. Muscle wasting and a loss of appetite are possible indicators of this type of malnutrition.

Heavy alcohol consumption can also lead to malnutrition, as his is high in calories and often carbohydrates, but lacking in proteins, vitamins and minerals. Long-term heavy alcohol use can damage organs, preventing the absorption and metabolism of the nutrients that are consumed. Also, as the alcohol is a toxin and needs to be processed by the liver, this in itself uses up nutrients, including thiamin and zinc, which further depletes the body’s reserves. Symptoms such as skin lesions, bleeding gums and slow wound healing can be indicators of this type of malnutrition, followed by low body weight and muscle wastage.

A more surprising reason for malnutrition is smoking. A smoker’s requirements for vitamin C is double that of a non-smoker, because their body needs more of this nutrient to repair the damage caused to cells by free radicals.

Certain kinds of extreme weight-loss diets can trigger malnutrition. Severely restricting your food intake (below 1,000 calories a day for more than a few days), avoiding whole food groups or restricting yourself to only a few foods can soon cause problems. Of course, there is a time and a place for very strict diets, and if these are followed under medical supervision then potential problems are minimal. However, any sensible diet plan should take into account nutrients as well as calories.

It is also important to remember that not all vegetarian and vegan diets are healthy. I have known vegetarians who dislike vegetables, for example, who need to take care that they are obtaining adequate vitamins in their diet. A diet heavy in cheese and potato dishes but lacking in pulses, nuts, seeds and green vegetables is likely to lack nutrients. Vegans need to take greater care to ensure adequate nutritional intake, particularly where vitamins B12 and D, calcium, iodine and selenium are concerned. B12 is the biggest issue here, as it cannot be obtained solely from plant products. Yeast extract, fortified breads and cereals are the best vegan sources of this vitamin.

[to be continued]