When we hear that an individual is malnourished, most of us would picture someone who’s starving - a wisp of a person who appears to be simply wasting away. Certainly people who lack adequate nutrients and calories are malnourished, but malnutrition can exist even when calories are plentiful. It just requires too much food with little nutritional value. So, here’s a new word for your vocabulary: malnubesity. A merger of malnutrition and obesity sounds like a conflict in terms, but in fact malnubesity is real. Many of us are overfat and undernourished.
How did we get here? We need to look at our evolutionary history for an explanation. Our prehistoric ancestors needed to eat a lot of food in order to meet their calorie needs. For one thing they were extremely active, burning thousands of calories a day in their constant quest for food. And their plant-rich diet didn’t have abundant sources of concentrated calories (think added fats and sugars) like we do today.
Our ancestors also had to eat a lot of plant foods in order to get vitamins and antioxidants that their bodies didn’t manufacture. Producing your own vitamins would be an expensive process, calorie-wise. So, we were designed to obtain our vitamins from the diet, rather than spending energy to make them, so that more calories could be put to better use in fueling energy-hungry brains.
Human evolution had to design a way to encourage us to take in highly palatable, high calorie foods in order to ensure that we’d meet our needs for nutrients and energy. So, we developed a sophisticated reward system, one in which the release of feel-good chemicals in the brain are stimulated by calorie-dense foods, encouraging us to eat more of them.
In other words, we’re hard-wired and rewarded to eat foods that will give us the most calories per bite, and to ensure we’ll get all nutrition we need. That’s fine if you’re roaming around in an environment laden with plant foods and low-fat protein sources. In fact, it’s actually hard to overeat on a diet like this, because the fiber and protein are so satisfying.
But in the modern world, our food supply is overloaded with highly processed, high calorie, appetizing foods that are lacking in vital nutrients. And since we have the neural pathways that encourage us to eat them and even reward us for doing so, we’re more than happy to comply.
As a result, many of us have become overfed and undernourished. With a diet that supplies an excess of calories and a shortage of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants, our health is going to suffer. A little extra padding is one thing, but malnubesity encourages fat to settle in places it doesn’t normally go. It surrounds vital organs like the liver or pancreas, then forces its way inside cells and significantly affects how these organs perform.
We’re designed to be incredibly active, but our calorie needs don’t hold a candle to those of our ancestors. Many of us work in situations that hardly require us to move at all. We’re also built to consume as much high quality food that nature can provide, but we live in what’s been called an ‘obesogenic’ environment. We’re surrounded by easy-to-get, highly processed, high calorie foods.
This mismatch between our genetics and our lifestyle is what has led to this paradox of malnutrition coupled with obesity. We eat exactly opposite of the way we’re supposed to. We should be taking in lots of plant foods and lean proteins that will maximize nutritional quality at a relatively low calorie cost.
And we’ve got to get off the couch, too. Most of us don’t burn 6000 calories a day, but we sure eat as if we do.