- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 3, 2009

It’s a strange dichotomy. On one hand, most of us eat too much. In fact, it is projected that by 2012, as many as 70 percent of Americans will be overweight or obese. Yet, many of us are undernourished. How can that be?

“It’s an intriguing question,” says Dr. Henry Anhalt, an endocrinologist, obesity expert and spokesman for the Endocrine Society.

The answer is not as easy as you might think, because it’s not just about consuming “empty calories” - think, for example, soda - although that has a lot to do with it. It’s also a matter of a decreased ability - primarily among obese people - to use food’s nutrients, Dr. Anhalt said.

In other words, if a person of normal weight and an obese person eat the exact same thing, research shows the obese person’s body is likely to extract less of the food’s crucial nutrients.

Those nutrients include vitamin D - 20 percent of the general population has a vitamin D deficiency, while more than 40 percent of obese people are deficient in the vitamin - Dr. Anhalt says, adding that researchers are still unlocking the mystery of the discrepancy and the extraction problem.

So, you might think, vitamin D deficiency? What’s the big deal? It’s not like a protein deficiency, which is more traditionally associated with undernourishment and malnourishment. Protein deficiency was a common problem in the U.S. 100-plus years ago and still plagues parts of the developing world.

“Symptoms include things like stunted growth,” says Jim Hill, an obesity expert and the president of the American Society for Nutrition.

Stunted growth? That clearly is not our problem - but where we get our protein can be. In other words, Americans tend to favor red meats over fish. Some research indicates that we are deficient in Omega-3, a fatty acid prevalent in fishes such as salmon that has been linked to heart health, Mr. Hill said.

But back to vitamin D.

As it turns out, vitamin D is important for everything from bone growth - a lack of vitamin D is linked to osteoporosis - to diabetes - a deficiency in vitamin D has been associated with an increased incidence of type 1 diabetes - according to Dr. Anhalt.

Some research even indicates that vitamin D can help in the prevention of certain cancers.

Dr. Anhalt says research on various nutrient deficiencies is in its infancy, and he expects more findings to surface soon.

Mr. Hill agrees and says he thinks Americans are short on certain antioxidants - such as flavonoids, which are found in plants, including vegetables - whose beneficial properties are being studied.

“But they seem to contribute to health,” he says, echoing Dr. Anhalt by adding that “nutrition is an evolving science.”

“We’ve known for a long time that these nutrients are important,” Mr. Hill says. “But now we’re starting to understand why and how they are important.”

The fact still remains that Americans overall consume way too many calories in general and too many calories from fat in particular.

“So, we need to not only cut down on calories, but make sure we up the nutrients at the same time,” Mr. Hill explains.

Skim milk is a perfect example, he says. Not only does it have just a fraction of the calories of whole milk, but it also is rich in other nutrients, including vitamin D.

Dr. Anhalt also suggests taking a daily multivitamin to make up for any vitamin D deficiency that our food intake does not ameliorate. The deficiency can be exacerbated by not spending enough time in the sun. Vitamin D is produced when the skin is exposed to sunlight.

Other recommendations include - and boy, have we heard them before - eating green leafy vegetables, lean meats and fish, low-calorie dairy products and whole grains.

“We need to move away from a nutrient-poor, high-calorie diet,” Dr. Anhalt says. “Because ‘junk in’ will always mean ‘junk out.’ ”

• Gabriella Boston can be reached at gboston@washingtontimes.com.

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