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  • Writer's pictureTatiana Phillips

Beyond the Scale: Understanding Malnutrition and True Nutritional Balance


A little boy wearing a blue tee shirt who is pointing out his missing tooth.

At the top of the new year, roughly 60 million people join gyms. The start of a new year typically indicates a desire for change, a chance to start over and to make better decisions and healthier choices for your body. However, most people don’t realize that your weight loss goals can do more harm than good without proper education. 


Many assume they can achieve their weight loss goals by cutting out or cutting back food. However, if you do not have access to healthy produce, fresh meat, whole grains, or legumes, there is a good chance you are reaching for processed food high in fat, sugar, starches, salt, and preservatives. By cutting back on unhealthy food but not replacing it with healthy, fresh food, you deny your body the proper nutrients it requires to keep you healthy. When you cut back on unhealthy, processed food, your body will drop some initial weight. However, the initial weight loss that you experience does not equal being healthy. Instead, you are causing a deficit in your body that is not met with the proper diet to stay fueled and healthy. Relying on unhealthy food to achieve adequate nutrition will have the opposite effect in a way that you might not notice at first: malnutrition.


Malnutrition is a “lack of proper nutrition, caused by not having enough to eat, not eating enough of the right things, or being unable to use the food that one does eat.” Let’s take a closer look at the different types of malnutrition.


Understanding Malnutrition and Symptoms

One common misconception is malnutrition equals being too thin; however, you can be obese and be considered malnourished. Because of this misconception of malnutrition, it is crucial to dive into the topic further.


Undernutrition

Undernutrition occurs when a nutritional deficiency occurs due to consuming processed food, cutting out essential nutrients such as protein or vitamins, or malabsorption. Most people identify undernutrition as malnutrition due to the lack of weight a person might have. However, undernutrition results in weight loss of fat and muscle and can be as damaging to one's health as being overweight.


Undernourished people may exhibit the following symptoms:

  • Low body weight, prominent bones, depleted fat and muscle.

  • Thin arms and legs with edema (swelling with fluid) in your belly and face.

  • Stunted growth and intellectual development in children.

  • Weakness, faintness, and fatigue.

  • Irritability, apathy, or inattention.

  • Dry, inelastic skin, rashes and lesions.

  • Brittle hair, hair loss, and hair pigment loss.

  • Frequent and severe infections.

  • Low body temperature, unable to get warm.

  • Low heart rate and blood pressure. 

Overnutrition

Based on the above definition, you can probably guess what overnutrition is. Overnutrition occurs from consuming excessive nutrients, often leading to obesity. Overnutrition is a leading cause of diabetes, heart conditions, and stroke.


Overnourished people may show signs such as:


Micronutrient Deficiencies

Micronutrient deficiencies are a typical concern for those who may be vegetarian or vegan; however, others may develop this type of malnutrition. An insufficient supply of nutrients such as vitamins and minerals causes micronutrient deficiencies.


The Myth of “Ideal” Weight vs. Nutritional Health

Do you know how to achieve your ideal weight while maintaining nutritional health? One of the biggest challenges many face while attempting to achieve their ideal weight is nutritional health disparages. But what defines “ideal” weight?


In recent years, many experts have felt that BMI (body mass index) does not accurately represent health since the original measurements do not account for different races and ethnicities and women versus men. Body mass index equals weight divided by height (squared) to determine a person's health level. “There are some drawbacks in using BMI alone to determine ideal weight because muscle weighs more than fat. The BMI may overestimate body fat in very muscular patients, such as bodybuilders or professional athletes. Conversely, older patients who lose muscle mass due to aging may have their body fat percentage underestimated.”


Rather than paying attention to a scale, it is more beneficial to look at other factors such as bloodwork from a doctor’s visit, how you feel in your body, how your clothes feel, if you are eating whole fruits and vegetables, lean proteins and fats, and healthy carbohydrates. Once you can measure the factors that play a role in nutritional health, you may find your “ideal weight” is different than what you initially thought or planned. 


Discrepancies Between Weight and Nutritional Habits

It is important to remember that weight is just a number. You may find a healthy person with healthy nutritional habits but is overweight by BMI standards. Conversely, you may find an unhealthy, thin person who engages in eating junk food regularly. In the ladder case, factors such as hyperthyroidism sometimes cause weight discrepancies. “You cannot determine a person’s health and eating habits based on body size or weight. Judging someone’s health or eating habits based on their weight is not only stigmatizing; it ignores people who fit society’s thin ideal standard of beauty but who are engaging in unhealthy behaviors.” Because of the discrepancies between weight and nutritional habits, it is imperative to look at whole body health when determining if you are malnourished or finding a true nutritional balance.


Achieving True Nutritional Balance

While following a balanced diet of healthy, fresh food is the best method for obtaining a healthy weight, realistically, junk food will come into play eventually. Celebrations such as holidays, birthdays, anniversaries, etc., are typically the root cause of throwing off nutritional balance. Since you might not want to cut all junk food out of your diet, the best method to achieve true nutritional balance is to follow the recommendations from physicians and nutritionists as much as possible. Sticking to a healthy balance of nutritious foods may be challenging. However, being aware of what makes a food nutritious is key.


How to Eat A Balanced Diet

According to the USDA’s recommendations, half of a person’s plate should contain fruits and vegetables. The other half should contain grains and protein. They recommend accompanying each meal with a serving of low-fat dairy or another source of the nutrients found in dairy.” Most importantly, the fruits and vegetables you consume should have little to no preservatives or added salts and sugars. Grains refers to whole grains and refined grains. Our bodies digest whole grains more slowly than refined grains since refined grains are highly processed and typically do not have as high amounts of fiber or protein as whole grains. The type of protein you select as part of your balanced diet also makes a difference. Nutritious proteins include lean beef, pork, chicken, turkey, fish, beans, peas, and legumes.  Additionally, paying attention to serving sizes does make a difference in achieving true nutritional balance. 


As you learn more about what nutrients will serve you best and look less at the numbers on a scale, we recommend you speak with your primary care physician or a nutritionist to ensure you select the proper nutrients to fulfill your body’s needs and fuel your energy. If you are unsure where to begin and could use assistance scheduling an appointment, contact one of our trained Community Health Workers today!

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