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How Can We Suffer Micronutrient Deficiencies When There’s So Much Food?

abundance dilemma

It’s called the well-fed, but undernourished epidemic1. That an average, overweight American sits down to 3,600 calories2 of snacks and meals each day, but still eats a less nutritious diet than a monkey3. The Department of Environmental Science at University of California, Berkeley discovered that the fruits and leaves that monkeys consume are loaded with nutrients, minerals and vitamins — something that is largely lacking in the foods we eat today.

To live a healthy lifestyle, we must fuel our bodies with vitamins and nutrients for our physical, emotional and mental wellbeing. While you may be under the assumption that you’re eating a healthy diet with the daily recommended doses of fruits and vegetables, the truth is that your diet may be severely lacking in vital nutrients.

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It’s no secret that many citizens of developing countries are facing food shortages that affect their health. However, citizens of the U.S. and many of the other developed countries, aren’t subject to a scarcity of food. Westerners suffer from over abundance and have a plethora of food choices. In fact, a typical American citizen2 eats 25% more calories than what was consumed in 1961.

an image of a teen with too many snacks

How Can an Excess of Food Still Lead to Nutritional Deficiencies in Our Diet?

Unfortunately, based on changes to farming, growing, preparing and consuming food over the last 60 years, the nutrients our ancestors were able to enjoy have been largely depleted4. This means that while we have an abundance of food and can satisfy our hunger, we are far from satisfying our body’s true needs.

This modern day paradox can be traced to three specific changes in our lifestyles:

  • The soil used to grow our foods
  • Preference for processed and pre-prepared foods
  • Increased shelf life of fresh foods in markets

Let’s look at each one closer to truly understand the causes and long term effects of this epidemic, and find out what we can do to address and overcome these concerns.

What Are Micronutrient Deficiencies?

Micronutrient is not a word that is heard every day, so it’s helpful to learn what they are in order to understand the gravity of what a deficiency can lead to. Although the body produces a lot of nutrients that we require to function, but it is not completely self sufficient. We need vitamins and minerals from our diet to help us grow and function, ward off diseases and promote our health.

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The reason they are call micronutrients is because our bodies really only need small amounts of these key ingredients. However, they are also called essential nutrients because insufficient levels can lead to detrimental consequences. On the other hand, our bodies require larger amounts of macronutrients such as carbohydrates, proteins and fats.

Examples of Micronutrients

  • Iron: Assists with motor and cognitive development.
  • Folate: Promotes healthy fetus growth in pregnant mothers.
  • Vitamin A: Supports a healthy immune system and eyesight.Iodine: Important for cognitive development.
  • Zinc: Encourages a healthy immune system and supports the nervous system.

How Do Micronutrient Deficiencies Affect Our Health?

Each tiny nutrient has a specific and important role that regulates almost every single body function. Minerals support healthy bones, growth and fluid balance. Vitamins promote immune function to keep us healthy and avoid diseases, control our energy levels and prevent blood clotting. Insufficient nutrient levels hinder specific processes that are meant to upkeep our health and promote our growth and development.

An image of a man passing gas

Although in the U.S. we do not see as many cases of problems with growth and development as in developing countries, a clear example of vitamin deficiency is low energy. It’s no secret that many Americans complain of fatigue and feel like they can never get enough rest. Although one source of this problem is our increasing work hours and familial obligations; another, possibly larger reason for this is micronutrient deficiency. Nutrients such as Vitamin A, D, E and K are responsible for energy metabolism, and not getting a sufficient amount will lead to fatigue and exhaustion.

Why Should We Care?

It’s undeniable that there are some Americans who simply don’t care about their dietary choices, but this is not a fair characterization of most people. In fact, it’s likely that many of us make poor eating choices due to a lack of knowledge about nutrition. Simply understanding what our bodies require to function properly and promote our health is the first step to making actionable steps to lead a better life.In addition to helping us develop and function, micronutrients play a role in preventing Alzheimer’s disease, certain types of cancers, heart disease and death. These nutrients are “small, but mighty” because they play such pivotal roles in helping us thrive.

Which Nutrient Deficiencies Affect Americans?

While Americans enjoy a calorically-dense diet, it doesn’t provide us with the complete spectrum of essential nutrients and vitamins. The stats5 reported by experts6 are alarming and grim:

  • A third of the population is deficient in at least one vitamin.
  • About a quarter of Americans are deficient in B vitamins.
  • Approximately 95% of adults and 98% of teenagers are deficient in vitamin D.
  • About 61% of adults and 90% of teens are deficient in magnesium.

Limitations to the Required Daily Allowance (RDA) Recommendations

Medical professionals advise patients to follow The Institute of Medicine of the National Academies’ RDA recommendations to meet nutrient requirements. However, this practice has several limitations7, including:

  • Addressing only the minimal requirements to avoid serious health conditions and acute symptoms rather than the amount needed to help our bodies function at their best levels.
  • Not taking into account a person’s age, health conditions and activity levels, all of which dictate how many nutrients that may need.
  • Not considering that the body may require one nutrient to process another one, and how the nutrients work together.
  • Not considering geographical implications into the RDA, such as added Vitamin D levels for those situated above 37 degrees north latitude.

What Causes Nutritional Deficiencies in Today’s Diet?

an image of men spraying pesticides

Agricultural Practices

The main villain in our story is nitrogen-based fertilizer, which is most commonly used in developing countries to grow crops. In order to truly understand why it’s harming our health, we need to understand how plants grow as well as take a look back at the history of agriculture and farming.

It may seem like simply sowing a seed in soil is enough for plant to grow, but optimal agricultural practices require a few specific ingredients. One of the main components is nitrate, which is formed from nitrogen. While nitrogen is readily available in our environment, with 80% of our air consisting of this chemical element, plants cannot use it in this form. Plants require nitrate, which is an ion made from nitrogen that’s bonded to three oxygen atoms.

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For the last 10,000 years, farmers have been trying to figure out ways to create nitrate and add it to the soil. One solution was adding animal and human waste to the soil because it contains nitrate.

A drastic change to agricultural practices was made in the 1800’s, as the industrial revolution pushed many Europeans to abandon their farms and move into the cities. Scientists had to figure out a way to feed a mass of city dwellers from a shrinking number of farms. Fritz Haber, a German chemist, was able to solve this need in 1909 when he created a process that took nitrogen from the air and synthesized it into nitrate for plants. Thus, nitrogen-based fertilizer was born!

An interesting side fact is that the same process that was used to fuel food production was also used to make bombs in Europe and the U.S. While rare, fertilizer has been known to lead to explosions in the modern day.

an image of tractors farming

This fertilizer is what made today’s large scale, corporate farms possible and led to the creation of mass produced food because it created easily available and cheap methods for food growth. However, with the benefits also came detriments and a host of problems for humans, animals and the environment.

Current research tells us that this “miracle” solution to modern day farming —“brings with it a whole bevy of environmental liabilities: excess nitrogen that seeps into streams … feeding a massive annual algae bloom that blots out sea life8; emissions of nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas 300 times more potent than carbon; and the destruction of organic matter in soil9,” according to Mother Jones10.

In addition to destroying our ecosystem, synthetic nitrogen also depletes the earth of vital micronutrients and minerals that humans have enjoyed since the beginning of farming. As a result, our food has anywhere between 5 and 40% less “protein, calcium, phosphorus, riboflavin, and vitamin C content” than in 1950. The addition of other chemicals and pesticides during the farming process only intensifies the problem, leading to a true food and health epidemic.

Preference for Processed and Pre-Prepared Foods

Fewer and fewer Americans are preparing their own food due to their busy lifestyle. The drive-through window or vending machines have made it convenient to subside hunger on a low budget. But when did this trend evolve, and when did human feeding patterns change from eating what we hunt or gather to buying ready made foods?

an image of a food truck with bad food

Food preservation started as long as 4,000 years ago, when Egyptian royalty was buried with salt-cured fish to help them during their journey into the afterlife. People all over the world preserved foods to get through long and harsh winters or far away travels.

In 1810, French innovator Nicolas Appert invented the canning process; this marked the very first time food preparation was done in a factory and not in an individual home. This discovery led to the mass production of canned foods and reinvented the way people all over the world consumed food. Although canning solved many problems, people soon discovered that certain foods spoiled in the can, leading to food poisoning and other issues.

In 1913, American canning company giants, such as Heinz and Campbell’s, created the Research Laboratory of the National Canners Association to find ways to improve this process. They tried to prevent spoilage by heating foods for a long time at high temperatures, but found that it compromised on flavor. They then added salt to the foods, which reduced the time required to cook and didn’t change the color of the food. That was a successful solution, and one the food industry still uses today, leading to health problems such as hypertension and heart disease.

an image of spam on a shelf

Although the industry doesn’t can much of the pre-packaged food today, over half of all Americans eat processed and previously made foods. While these methods extend shelf life and destroy disease-causing microorganisms, they also lead to extreme nutrient deficiencies.

During preparation, foods that are quickly heated or steamed at high temperatures experience a high loss of water-soluble vitamins, such as the B vitamins and vitamin C. Vegetables or fruits that are extremely trimmed loose key nutrients that are located close to the skin. The ingredients in processed foods are also problematic because they contain industrial oils, polyunsaturated fats and refined carbohydrates with no nutritional value1. Add to that artificial flavors, colors and preservatives, and you have a recipe for disaster.

There are many shortcuts to offering affordable foods, such as using concentrates for juice, artificially fortifying lost nutrients and so on. However, nothing can replace the natural enzymes, vitamins and nutrients from fresh, traditional foods.

an image of a hungry fat kid

Processed foods tend to have a myriad of disadvantages11, such as:

High levels of  high-fructose corn syrup. Both “lead to insulin resistance, high triglycerides, increased levels of the harmful cholesterol and increased fat accumulation in the liver and abdominal cavity,” as well as “heart disease, diabetes, obesity and cancer.”

Artificial ingredients. Compounds like texturants, flavors, colors and preservatives.High in refined carbohydrates: Simple, refined carbs are digested too quickly by the body, which leads to blood sugar and insulin spikes that leave us feeling hungry faster than usual and can lead to chronic health problems.

Synthetic nutrients. To “make up” for the lost nutrients during processing, manufacturers add synthetic nutrients to make consumers believe they are making healthy choices. However, these additives not only lack vitamins and antioxidants found in whole foods, but may actually harm your health even more.

High in trans fat. Seed and vegetable oils can cause inflammation and oxidation in the body, leading to problems such as heart disease.

Increased Shelf Life of Fresh Foods in Markets

It’s very hard for Americans to imagine not having access to apples or tomatoes on any given day, but this is how the human species lived for thousands of years. Food is meant to be consumed fresh and when it is in season. Big agriculture utilizes specific methods to accommodate the need to have foods available year round.

an image of watermelons being shipped

Delayed Ripening

Farmers utilize delayed ripening to give fruits and vegetables a longer shelf life. They pick produce prior to ripening, and deliver it to grocers who ignite ripening and then sell the produce. Because unripened produce is sturdier when it hasn’t ripened, it’s easier to transport and prevents damage.

While regulating a plant’s ripening hormones and genes allows consumers to enjoy their favorite produce whenever they want, it sacrifices the plant’s taste, smell, texture, color and health benefits.

To turn on the ripening affect, the produce industry uses chemicals12, such as terylene, calcium carbide, acetylene, propylene, ethrel (2-chloroethyl phosphonic acid), glycol, ethanol, etc. Chemicals such as arsenic and phosphorus, once dissolved in water, produce acetylene gas, which can lead to problems such as “headache, dizziness, mood disturbances, sleepiness, mental confusion, memory loss, cerebral edema, seizures and prolonged hypoxia.”

Man made changes to the ripening process, as well as the time required to ship the product control how much nutritional value is lost, as found by Jennifer Wilkins13 of the division of nutritional sciences of the Cornell University College of Human Ecology.

An Produce Is Harvested Weeks Before Ripening

When we buy an apple from a grocery store, we likely don’t put too much thought into the journey it took for that piece of fruit to get into our shopping cart. However, it’s important to truly understand the steps to see how far we have come from just picking and eating produce14.

Farmers typically pick apples between August and November, and then submerge them in water. They sort through the apples, removing rotten or defective ones. Then, they clean them with soap and chlorine and dry them off with brushes.

an image of apples on a conveyor belt

Manufacturers coat apples with wax, which gives them that shiny and “fresh” look, and dry them with hot air to seal in the wax. They load boxes of apples onto pallets and place them in cold storage to slow their respiration rate. Apples can be stored for up to 12 months — so that delicious red apple you are buying can be over one year old! Manufacturers don’t limit this extended storage process14 to apples — potatoes can also be stored for up to 12 months, carrots for nine months, tomatoes for six weeks, bananas for two weeks and lettuce for up to four weeks. Next time you buy fruits and vegetables in the “Fresh Produce” section of the supermarket, you will know just how fresh that produce really is.

Consumers don’t always know how long foods should be stored to maintain nutritional value. The goal of the recommended storage is to avoid spoilage and safety issues, not to account for nutrient loss.

Due to this, Americans eat foods that are so transformed from their natural qualities that they are completely depleted from nutrients. While we are extremely fortunate that our food supply is not affected by changes in seasons, natural disasters or limited by time or distance, we end up eating food that is harvested too early, has traveled too far and has been chemically processed to change its biological makeup and the associated vitamins and nutrients.

How Can You Correct Micronutrient Deficiencies?

Now that you truly understand the importance of micronutrients for our bodies, and how deficiency can lead to long term consequences, you are likely wondering what you can do to reclaim your health! Don’t passively wait for the government or big agriculture to do something about this, as changes on a mass scale are extremely difficult and not likely in the near future.

an image of organic produce

However, consumers can make meaningful changes to improve their health and that of their loved ones with these steps.

1. Get a Blood Test

Check your micronutrient levels and take steps to address any deficiencies with diet changes.

2. Grow Your Own Fruits and Vegetables

You don’t need a lot of space to grow tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and strawberries. Simply buying or building a raised bed or carving our some space in your yard is sufficient to control the quality of soil and fertilizers and how you grow your plants.

3. Buy Organic

Organic farming practices don’t use synthetic fertilizers, plus organic produce has been found to contain much higher levels of antioxidants15.

4. Visit Your Local Farmers Market

The farmers who sell food at farmers markets are typically the ones who grow it. These fruits and vegetables are usually freshly picked, so you can be sure they didn’t suffer from a long shelf life.

5. Buy Local and Raw Produce at the Supermarket

Learn about what you buy and where it comes from. Some supermarkets have a special section in the fruit and vegetable aisles that is marked local, which likely means the food didn’t have to travel as far of a distance and tends to be more fresh.

6. Learn About Produce Seasonality

To concentrate on eating foods that have the most nutritional value, buy what’s in season. This way, you will know that the foods haven’t been preserved to outlast their natural life cycle.

7. Learn About Ways to Prepare Foods

You may not be able to do much about the levels of micronutrients in your foods, but you can prevent further losses during food preparation. Research how to cook and store fruits and vegetables; for example, water soluble vitamins are often lost during cooking at high temperatures so pressure cooking may be better.

8. Advocate for Change

While making individual changes to how you buy, prepare and eat foods is beneficial, don’t forget that your voice matters, as well. Contact your local representatives and urge them to pass laws to protect our soil. Email big agriculture corporations and urge them to switch to more sustainable practices. And, finally, start the conversation at work or with your friends to educate others about what you have learned!

Transform Your Health With Supplementation

It can seem like the odds are stacked against us when faced with economic and social forces that impact our health in ways that we still don’t fully understand. From corporate influence on food production to the hidden histories behind our diseases, the legacy of poor health in the U.S. is one that is suffered by too many for too long .

You can reclaim your vigor and wellness today through intelligent supplementation. UMZU provides a wide variety of clinically-proven, dynamic health products designed to correct micronutrient deficiencies that are responsible for sleep disorders, obesity, reproductive problems, sexual dysfunction, poor blood circulation and depression. Learn more about UMZU’s powerful health solutions in our online showroom, and visit our nutrient library to research how you can transform your life with vitamins, minerals and herbs.

Citations and Sources

1.
Well Fed but Undernourished: An American Epidemic. Kresser Institute. https://kresserinstitute.com/well-fed-but-undernourished-an-american-epidemic/. Published April 28, 2018. Accessed May 13, 2019.
2.
Food per Person. Our World in Data. https://ourworldindata.org/food-per-person#the-global-perspective-on-caloric-supply. Accessed May 13, 2019.
3.
05.18.99 – Monkey diet is richer in vitamins and minerals than human diet, UC Berkeley anthropologist discovers. Berkley.edu. https://www.berkeley.edu/news/media/releases/99legacy/5-18-1999.html. Accessed May 13, 2019.
4.
Thomas D. The mineral depletion of foods available to us as a nation (1940-2002)–a review of the 6th Edition of McCance and Widdowson. Nutr Health. 2007;19(1-2):21-55. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18309763.
5.
D T. The mineral depletion of foods available to us as a nation (1940-2002)–a review of the 6th Edition of McCance and Widdowson. – PubMed – NCBI. National Center for Biotechnology Information. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18309763. Accessed May 13, 2019.
6.
Appendix B: Vitamin and Mineral Deficiencies in the U.S. EWG. https://www.ewg.org/research/how-much-is-too-much/appendix-b-vitamin-and-mineral-deficiencies-us#.Ws0A_0xFzIW. Accessed May 13, 2019.
7.
Risk of Deficiency in Multiple Concurrent Micronutrients in Children and Adults in the United States. PubMed Central (PMC). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5537775/#app1-nutrients-09-00655. Accessed May 13, 2019.
8.
We’re Sorry. Scientific American. http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm. Accessed May 13, 2019.
9.
New research: synthetic nitrogen destroys soil carbon, undermines soil health. Grist. http://grist.org/article/2010-02-23-new-research-synthetic-nitrogen-destroys-soil-carbon-undermines/. Published February 24, 2010. Accessed May 13, 2019.
10.
A Brief History of Our Deadly Addiction to Nitrogen Fertilizer. Mother Jones. http://www.motherjones.com/tom-philpott/2013/04/history-nitrogen-fertilizer-ammonium-nitrate. Published April 19, 2013. Accessed May 13, 2019.
11.
Processed foods: Health risks and dangers. Medical News Today. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/318630.php. Published August 1, 2017. Accessed May 13, 2019.
12.
Physico-chemical properties and toxic effect of fruit-ripening agent calcium carbide Asif M – Ann Trop Med Public Health. Annals of Tropical Medicine and Pubic Health. http://www.atmph.org/article.asp?issn=1755-6783;year=2012;volume=5;issue=3;spage=150;epage=156;aulast=Asif. Accessed May 13, 2019. [Source]
13.
Claiborne Ray C. Does Underripe Fruit Offer Less Nutrition? New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/08/science/08qna.html. Published February 7, 2011. Accessed May 13, 2019.
14.
Just how old are the “fresh” fruit & vegetables we eat? the Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2003/jul/13/foodanddrink.features18. Published July 13, 2003. Accessed May 13, 2019.
15.
Are Organic Vegetables More Nutritious After All? NPR.org. https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2014/07/11/330760923/are-organic-vegetables-more-nutritious-after-all. Accessed May 13, 2019.
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Renata Ilitsky

Renata Ilitsky is a professional content writer and editor with over a decade of experience. Although she writes for various industries, she is the most passionate about health and holistic niches. Aside from her personal blog, Simple Natural Solutions, she has created content for Healthline, Dr. Willard's, Westside NeuroTherapeutics, EC3 Health and more!
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