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Starving to Death in the Land of Plenty

Friday, February 17, 2017

A study just published in Population Health Metrics suggests that dietary studies indicate diets rich in ultra-processed foods are grossly nutritionally unbalanced. Unfortunately, most population nutritional-status studies focus on individual nutrients rather than the overall nutritional quality of the diet.

This study evaluated dietary intakes of 9,317 participants from 2009 to 2010  from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), which is a survey conducted by the National Center for Health Statistics.

They first examined the average dietary content of macronutrients, micronutrients, and fiber across quintiles of the energy contribution of ultra-processed foods.They then identified a nutrient-balanced dietary pattern to enable the assessment of the overall nutritional quality of the average diet.

The average content of protein, fiber, vitamins A, C, D, and E, zinc, potassium, phosphorus, magnesium, and calcium in the US diet decreased significantly across quintiles of the energy contribution of ultra-processed foods, while carbohydrate, added sugar, and saturated fat contents increases substantially.
This study conclusion is that decreasing the dietary share of ultra-processed foods is a rational and effective way to improve the nutritional quality of US diets.

Does anyone find this conclusion surprising?

According to the study authors, "Ultra-processed foods are formulations manufactured using several ingredients and a series of processes. Most of the ingredients in ultra-processed foods are lower-cost industrial sources of dietary energy and nutrients, and additives used for the purpose of imitating sensorial qualities of minimally processed foods or of culinary preparations of these foods, or to disguise undesirable sensory qualities of the final product. They are made to be hyper-palatable and attractive by the use of many additives, with long shelf lives, and are able to be consumed anywhere, anytime."

Ultra-processed foods include soft drinks, sweet or savory snacks, reconstituted meat products, many grain products and prepared frozen dishes.

While few studies have looked at the impact of levels of food processing on the nutrient contents of the US diet, one 2012 report of the Food and Nutrition Science Solutions Joint Task Force of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, American Society for Nutrition, Institute of Food Technologists, and International Food Information Council, found that together, mixtures of combined ingredients and ready-to-eat, which are mostly ultra-processed foods, contributed to more than 51 percent of total energy intake in the average US diet.

How sad is that?

The bottom line: Since nutritional deficiencies are linked to health problems, stay out of the center of the supermarket where the ultra-processed food lives, and spend your food dollars on vegetables, fruits, unprocessed meat, eggs, limited dairy and somewhat limited high-quality grains.

Ellen Troyer with Spencer Thornton, MD, David Amess and the Biosyntrx staff


Given the lack of government supported health care and the ever-rising cost of sick care, staying healthy becomes imperative. One of the ways we create health is through lifestyle choices that include access to and intake of unprocessed nutrient-dense vegetables, and a smaller amount of fresh fruit.

Something to think about

The US fresh vegetable supply is dependent on manual labor mostly performed by migrant and seasonal agricultural workers on truck farms. Should these hard-working people be deported for a short time or permanently, vegetables will become scarce and prices will skyrocket. One would hope that the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act (revised in July 2008) will protect these workers and farm owners. Migrant and seasonal labor is not much of an issue on enormous, frequently nutrient-lacking, corn and grain multi-national commodity crops in the mid-west.

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