Malnutrition doesn’t only occur in parts of the world plagued with famine. In fact, urban elites living in cities also suffer from malnutrition, because of insufficient, excessive or imbalanced nutrient-intake.1
Diseases like diabetes, arthritis, heart disease and cancer are all on the rise, and nearly all their underlying causes are a result of today’s lifestyle – including malnutrition.
Luckily, that’s something we, ourselves, can control.2
Our body requires two types of nutrients in order to function properly:
(i) Macronutrients are the nutrients we need in large amounts: protein, carbohydrates and fats.
(ii) Micronutrients are the vitamins and minerals we need from our diet, in relatively smaller amounts.
Too much or too little of any of these tips over our nutrition balance, disrupts the systems that depend on it, and causes problems.
Balance of Macronutrients
Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins. Some of them can’t be created by our body, which is why we must get them from our diet through foods rich in protein. They are then used to build our body’s proteins.
Inadequate protein in our diet results in ‘protein-energy malnutrition’.3
This also occurs in extreme low-calorie weight-loss diets (especially those with less than 1000 calories per day), because the diet’s amino acids are used up to supply energy, instead of building protein.3
Fats are a very important part of our diet, since they are required for energy, vitamin absorption and insulation. Some also have specific roles. For example, omega-3 and omega-6 (unsaturated) fatty acids are required to regulate our immune response. Too much of omega-6 fatty acids, and not enough omega-3, causes inflammation: a major cause of lifestyle diseases.4
So, how can we get the right balance of macronutrients?
For starters, we can eat balanced diets – without overeating. A 2000-calorie daily intake is the estimate of a regular diet.
Having plenty of fibre-rich food, like whole grains, keeps us full for longer and our guts healthy.5
We should also include loads of healthy fats in our diet. While saturated fats aren’t all bad, it’s better to choose foods that have more unsaturated fats for “good” cholesterol. Omega-3 rich foods include flaxseeds, walnuts, avocadoes, and fatty fish.
While it’s recommended that we eat about 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight, this really depends on how much we exercise each day.6 You can get protein in your diet through legumes, soy, and meats; the combination of legumes, grains and starches delivers all the amino acids that your body needs.
Balance of Micronutrients
When a person is addicted to sweetness, he or she tends to eat foods that are high in calories and low in micronutrients.
India is the highest consumer of sugar in the world.7 Unsurprisingly, India alone accounts for nearly half of the world’s micronutrient-deficient population.8
Even obesity plays a role in micronutrient malnutrition, not only because of the low-nutrient food choices, but also because it is accompanied by chronic inflammation, which can slow down the absorption of some nutrients like iron.9
Vitamin D3 is lower in obese people for one more reason: it is a fat-soluble vitamin, which means that it needs to be absorbed by the fat in our body in order to carry out its functions. When there’s too much fat, however, the vitamin gets diluted.2
Most lifestyle diseases are so multi-factorial that it is sometimes difficult to pinpoint what exactly is going wrong – but it’s safe to say that they’re linked to the nutritional quality of our diet.
Here are a few tips to avoid some of the significant deficiencies we encounter in India:
– Vitamin A
Being deficient in Vitamin A affects our night vision, immunity, growth and development, and brain and reproductive function.
Needless to say, it’s important to get enough of this vitamin in your diet. Beta-carotene is a form of carotenoids that our body converts to vitamin A. 10 Carrots, red peppers, broccoli, leafy greens, and peas are all rich in beta-carotene – so eating plenty of them would definitely help.
Carotenoids also have antioxidant properties that fight inflammation. As a general rule, look out for yellow, orange, red and green plant-based foods, since these are all rich in carotenoids.11
– Vitamin C
Vitamin C is also an important antioxidant to deter inflammation-related diseases. The telltale signs of a vitamin C deficiency are skin and hair issues, bleeding gums, slower wound-healing, easy bruising and nosebleeds.
Get vitamin C in your diet through citrus fruits, bell peppers, dark leafy greens, kiwis, broccoli, berries, tomatoes, peas, and papayas.
– Vitamin B12 and D3
Vitamin B12 is needed for the proper functioning of our nervous system and for blood formation – that’s why being deficient can cause anaemia as well as neurologic disorders like depression, memory loss and Alzheimer’s disease. 2, 12
Vegetarians have consistently lower vitamin B12 amounts than non-vegetarians, because meat is a major source of this vitamin; what they can turn to, instead, are dairy products and supplements. Fish and eggs are other great sources of B12 for non-vegetarians.
Keep in mind that some antacids and antibiotics can affect B12 absorption – having a healthy diet will hopefully help you avoid these in the first place. 13
A vitamin B12 deficiency can also arise from a vitamin D3 deficiency, because that interrupts our body’s absorption of calcium, which is needed to transport B12.13
Calcium is crucial for several other functions, including strengthening bones, making D3 a very important micronutrient. Mushrooms, beef liver, cheese, egg yolks and fatty fish contain small amounts of D3. However, supplementation and spending time in sunlight are the most effective ways of raising your D3 levels.
– Iron and Iodine:
Iron and iodine deficiencies are rampant in India, causing problems like goitre (enlargement of the thyroid gland) that lead to other conditions.14 Beans and meat have lots of iron, while bananas, strawberries, prunes, yogurt, eggs and seafood are iodine-rich.
In general: a compound in black pepper called piperine increases the absorption of nutrients from the diet. This simple addition to your dishes can help manage any mineral and/or vitamin deficiency.15
As you can see, small interventions in our eating habits can go a long way in helping us live healthier, happier lives!
1. Mehta S. Urban malnutrition’ is a major cause of concern, say health experts. The Times of India. 2013 2nd September 2013.
2. Troesch B, et al. Nutrients 2015, 7(7): 6016-6037.
3. Grover Z, Ee LC. Pediatric Clinics of North America 2009, 56(5): 1055-1068.
4. Simopoulos AP. Exp Biol Med (Maywood) 2008, 233(6): 674-688.
5. Lichtenstein AH, et al. Circulation 2006, 114(1): 82-96.
6. USDA. Protein and Amino Acids. Dietary Reference Intakes 2015 [cited]Available from: http://www.nal.usda.gov/fnic/DRI/DRI_Energy/589-768.pdf
7. Gulati S, Misra A. Nutrients 2014, 6(12): 5955-5974.
8. Deka MK, et al. Journal of Family Medicine and Primary Care 2015, 4(3): 364-368.
9. Cepeda-Lopez AC, et al. Int J Vitam Nutr Res 2010, 80(4-5): 263-270.
10. Litwack G. Vitamin A; Vitamins and Hormones, vol. 75. Elsevier: London, UK, 2007.
11. Rodriguez-Amaya DB. Food Carotenoids: Chemistry, Biology and Technology. Wiley, 2015.
12. Antony AC. Am J Clin Nutr 2003, 78(1): 3-6.
13. Gehi R. Vitamin B12 eludes 8 out of 10 Indians. The Times of India. 2012 7th September 2012.
14. USAID. USAID’S OMNI Micronutrient Fact Sheets.: U.S. Agency for International Development; 2005.
15. Meghwal M, Goswami TK. Phytother Res 2013, 27(8): 1121-1130.