Research indicates that Americans are significantly deficient in many critical nutrients due to the Standard American Diet (SAD). The SAD diet is high in processed foods and empty calories, leading to a decline in essential nutrients.
The lack of nutrient balance in our diets turns on our hunger hormones as a survival mechanism, forcing us to keep eating in an attempt to get more vitamins and minerals into our bodies. When we overeat empty calories, we become overfed and undernourished, leading to micronutrient-related malnutrition.
Micronutrient malnutrition is a term used to refer to conditions caused by a dietary deficiency of vitamins or minerals. Our bodies require micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) for healthy cell function, immunity, growth, metabolism, and development.
Long-term micronutrient malnutrition predisposes one to many chronic diseases, including neurological disorders, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer, and osteoporosis.
Percentage of Americans with Common Micronutrient Deficiencies
94.3% are deficient in vitamin D
91.7% are deficient in choline
88.5% are deficient in vitamin E
66.9% are deficient in vitamin K
52.2% are deficient in magnesium
44.1% are deficient in calcium
43.0% are deficient in vitamin A
38.9% are deficient in vitamin C
These are crazy numbers for such a developed country. But how did we get here? It’s no secret that the Standard American Diet isn’t fueling us properly, but surprisingly that is only one piece of the malnutrition puzzle. Chronic disease, soil depletion, and prescription medications all play a significant role in micronutrient depletion as well.
The Standard American Diet
The Standard American Diet is full of chemical-laden, processed foods, and it’s killing us. One hundred million Americans are overweight, and 40% of Americans have one or more chronic diseases. This is no coincidence; the way we eat has changed drastically over the last century. We have swapped nutrients for convenience and it’s taking its toll on our health. Over 55% of SAD’s calories are processed foods, and 33% are low-quality animal products. This makes the Standard American Diet very deficient in the micronutrients, antioxidants, and phytochemicals that are needed for normal immune function, maximizing brain health, and protecting against chronic illness, cancer, and premature aging.
Chronic Disease and Inflammation Affect Nutrient Absorption
RDAs (Recommended Daily Allowance) of micronutrients are established based on the needs of “healthy” individuals. Considering that more than 40% of the total population of this country has one or more chronic diseases, the RDAs based on “healthy” individuals aren’t an accurate measure of nutrients required to promote optimal health. The more inflammation you have in your body, the less micronutrients you are absorbing.
Our Soil is Depleting Our Nutrients
Today’s agricultural methods harm our health by exposing us to cancer-causing inflammatory pesticides and stripping vital nutrients from our soil. Studies conducted in the United States and the United Kingdom show that cultivated vegetables and fruits have experienced nutritional declines of up to 40% in protein, calcium, phosphorus, riboflavin, and vitamin C over 50 years.
A comparable study done showed that organic produce including apples, potatoes, pears, wheat, and sweet corn, averaged 63% higher in calcium, 73% higher in iron, 118% higher in magnesium, 91% higher in phosphorus, 125% higher in potassium, and 60% higher in zinc than their conventional foods counterparts. But organic food is much more expensive, making it a tough choice to buy when money is tight.
Nutrient Depletions Associated with Common Pharmaceuticals
Almost 50% of American adults currently take one prescription pharmaceutical drug, and nearly 20% take three or more.
Pharmaceuticals can contribute to nutrient depletions even when they are prescribed according to the label instructions. Some medications can decrease the absorption of nutrients in the digestive tract, accelerate their metabolism, or impact their excretion.
Commonly Prescribed Pharmaceuticals and the Nutrients They Deplete
Other Factors Affecting Absorption of Micronutrients
Typically, older adults need more RDA’s of nutrients versus younger adults. Women of reproductive years have increased requirements for certain nutrients, including iron, iodine, and folate, and both, women and men over 50 require higher amounts of B12, Vitamin D, and Calcium.
Many nutrients require the presence of other nutrients to be utilized by the body. Vitamin C enhances the absorption of iron, and vitamin D assists in the intestinal absorption of calcium. Eating small amounts of healthy fat with your vegetables helps your body absorb their protective phytochemicals, like lycopene from tomatoes and lutein from dark-green vegetables, as well as fat-soluble vitamins. But many people aren’t aware of these synergistic effects and therefore are not getting the full benefits of the nutrients they do consume.
Where you live and the color of your skin affects vitamin D absorption
When exposed to the sun, your skin can make its own vitamin D. We each have vitamin D receptor cells that produce vitamin D3 when exposed to ultraviolet B (UVB) from the sun.
People living above 37 degrees north latitude will need more dietary vitamin D than those living further south due to the significantly reduced ability of the skin to make vitamin D from sun exposure at higher latitudes. Vitamin D deficiency is more prevalent among darker-skinned people due to melanin reducing the ability to synthesize vitamin D.
How to Increase Micronutrient Absorption
Eating organic whole nutrient-dense foods is critical. Paleo, Nutritarian, Whole 30, and Pegan Diet are nutrition plans commonly used by functional medicine practitioners. Each of these plans encourages increased whole foods consumption and comes with extensive literature and research to back the science behind treating health conditions with nutrition.
Test don’t guess! The cardinal rule in functional medicine. Some vitamins and minerals in high doses can be harmful. Knowing exactly what micronutrients are lacking gives you complete control in fixing the deficiencies in a safe and responsible way.
Once you have tested and know which micronutrients are lacking, it may be necessary to supplement along with diet to get adequate levels of nutrients. Most over-the-counter supplements are of poor quality and full of fillers. Utilizing high-quality medical-grade supplements will give you the best chance at absorbing and increasing your micronutrient levels.
Make sure to retest around three months after you start supplementation. If the absorption of nutrients doesn’t change, it’s encouraged to make a more extensive plan to help with absorption.
Remember, your best chance at fighting this micronutrient epidemic is taking care of your health. Try your best to stay active and eat as much high nutrient organic food as possible.
Note: The information provided in this content is based on a review of the literature available at the time of publication. While the content is considered to be accurate at the time of publication, new or updated research released after the publication date may impact the accuracy of the information.
Please use your discretion when using this resource and if you’re not a practitioner, always consult with your practitioner first when considering how to address micronutrient depletions.
By: Dr. Shawn Greenan, DACM, CFMP®
Dr. Shawn Greenan, DACM, CFMP® holds a Doctorate in Acupuncture and Chinese Medicine from Pacific College of Health Science San Diego and a certification in Functional Medicine from Functional Medicine University. She is the Content Creator for Rupa Health’s Magazine and is on a mission to help people become the healthiest versions of themselves. Dr. Greenan specializes in healing the body from the inside out, focusing on gut health, skin health, and nutritional deficiencies in her private practice.