Overfed and Undernourished: Nutrient Deficiency in Our Modern Diet

Many Americans’ diets are deficient in seven key nutrients. The reasons? Industrial agriculture’s push for high yields at the expense of nutrient density, plus a food industry conspiring to addict us to processed junk.

| June/July 2013

Bags of Groceries

Diets heavy in processed foods have left Americans overfed yet undernourished.

Photo By iStockphoto/fstop123

It’s a paradox of modern culture: Though more than a third of us are classified as overweight or obese, and though more than 3,700 calories of food are available daily for every person in the United States, many of us still don’t get enough of some essential nutrients, including potassium, calcium and vitamin D. This paradox, in which we are overfed and undernourished, is sometimes called nutrient deficiency.

In its latest update of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (2010), the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced that our average intake of some of these “nutrients of concern” is so low as to be a widespread public health issue. How is it that we eat so much, yet lack key nutrients?

The answer to that question is complex, encompassing everything from food distribution to the failings of industrial agriculture. One thing is clear: We now eat too much of the wrong kinds of food. We consume too many sugary soft drinks and fat-laden desserts and not enough nutrient-dense fruits and vegetables, beans, and whole grains. As our waistlines expand, diet-related diseases and their associated costs grow along with them. Science has linked nutrient deficiencies to a variety of diseases and unhealthful conditions. For example, a recent study in Australia that compared five types of diets found a direct link between women who preferred nutrient-poor foods and increased osteoporosis and fractures, which indicates calcium deficiencies. Few consume the recommended daily amount of potassium — a nutrient that helps lower blood pressure — and one in three of us suffers from hypertension.

Increasing evidence shows that our consumption of fats, sugars and fluffy white foods contributes to the incidence of degenerative, age-related diseases such as cancer, cognitive decline, cardiovascular disease and stroke. Biochemist Bruce Ames — who has won numerous prestigious awards, including the National Medal of Science — argues that widespread vitamin and mineral deficiencies in modern diets result in chromosomal damage that leads to cancer and accelerated aging.

Some of the harm from nutrient-poor diets can occur in the earliest stages of human development. A major new study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that mothers who took a supplement of folic acid (the more stable, supplement form of folate) were 40 percent less likely to have a child later diagnosed with autism. A key finding in this study of more than 85,000 mothers was that the supplement has to be taken prior to conception. Folate contributes to prenatal brain and spinal development, and most of that development occurs during the first 28 days of pregnancy — before most women know they’re pregnant. So the researchers determined that women should begin taking folate even before becoming pregnant.

Shifting to Unhealthy Food Choices

If the solution to these problems seems obvious — eat more fruits and vegetables — why is it so difficult to achieve? According to pediatrician and former FDA commissioner David Kessler, author of The End of Overeating, we have been trained to prefer foods high in sugar and fat. Eating and the desire to eat release dopamine, a brain chemical associated with “reward” feelings, Kessler writes. He cites a study in which people tracked the food they ate and rated it for pleasure. They gave the highest ratings to foods high in fat and sugar. Unsurprisingly, they also ate more of them, consuming 44 percent more of the pleasure foods. Because we prefer foods high in fat and sugar, our spending on processed foods and sweets has nearly doubled — from 11.6 percent of our grocery budgets in 1982 to 22.9 percent in 2012 (see “We’re Spending Less on Meat, But Way More on Junk” in the Image Gallery).

jason pete
10/8/2013 5:00:43 AM

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8/20/2013 7:19:26 AM

http://www.hungryforchange.tv/ Worthwhile viewing. Did you know that the milk sold in schools has sugar added?

7/19/2013 9:14:27 PM

Magnesium is the major mineral that is deficient. Most people get calcium in their diet. Selenium also depleted from soil. Please read up on Mg at mgwater.com and elsewhere. Needed in the body for hundreds of reactions every day. Can't make vitamin D without it.

7/19/2013 5:18:20 PM

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7/19/2013 5:16:40 PM

Damn it's pretty sad what this world has ended up being to. Apperantly we need lots of money to afford good health. Or shop <a href="http://www.empowernetwork.com/amgt333/blog/nutrition-overfed-and-undernourished-part-3/" title="Nutrition" target="_blank">smarter</a>.

7/5/2013 11:22:57 AM

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6/4/2013 2:33:14 PM

I could not allow this glaring error to pass without comment: "Unlike most evolutionary processes, this shift to an overwhelming preference for sugars and fats didn’t occur over a span of centuries or millennia. We went from relying upon staples, such as meat, eggs, dairy products, and fruits and vegetables, to processed foods — often called “convenience” foods — in just a few decades."


This is completely backward. Our inborn preference for foods high in fat and sugar is a trait that developed when food was scarce, not when it was plentiful. In a food-poor environment, a taste for high-calorie foods would be an adaptive trait, one that would improve our chances of surviving and reproducing. It was the relatively sudden shift to a food-rich environment that made this trait a maladaptive one, since in modern society, we face greater threats to our health from too many calories than from too few.

Your writer has obviously conflated the evolution of human tastes with the shift to processed foods that began in the 40s and 50s. But that was actually a response to humans' taste for fats and sugars, not the cause of it. Manufacturers sought to exploit the human predisposition to enjoy sugar and fat by adding more of these foods to their products. It was a social change, not an evolutionary one.

Evolutionary changes do not—cannot—take place "in just a few decades." That is because evolution is, by definition, a process that takes place over many generations of breeding and natural selection. Anyone with even the most basic understanding of biology would know this. The fact that your editorial board allowed such a blatant error to pass into print makes me wonder whether any scientific claims I see in your magazine can be trusted.

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