What causes obesity? The obvious answer is “too many calories.” But increasingly researchers believe that too few nutrients could also play a role. Overfed — and undernourished? It sounds counterintuitive, until you consider that many commonly consumed foods highest in calories (pastries, chips, soda, etc.) are also lowest in nutrients.
One of the pioneers of this theory is Dr. Bruce Ames, who in his interview with the Dole Nutrition Institute, discussed his belief that nutrition deficiencies contribute to obesity by interfering with satiety. In other words, when you eat junk food you’re starving your body of nutrients; even though you’ve had “enough” calories, your brain gets the signal to go on eating in a vain quest to meet nutrition needs.
New research suggests that absent nutrients — not just excess calories — may be contributing to childhood obesity as well. In particular, one study from the University of Rochester demonstrated a significantly higher prevalence of iron deficiency among obese children, in a national sample of nearly 10,000 subjects, between the ages of 2 and 16. In fact, the obesity-iron deficiency link was so strong that the study authors recommended considering an elevated body mass index (BMI) as an independent risk factor in anemia screening.
Though common in the United States, iron deficiency is even more widespread globally, affecting over 30% of the world’s population. Symptoms of deficiency include lethargy, learning problems and impaired immune response. Plant sources of iron — cereals, soybeans, white beans, lentils, spinach, soy milk and raisins — are not as easily absorbed as animal sources, but absorption can be enhanced through consumption of foods rich in vitamin C (red bell peppers, kiwis, Brussels sprouts, strawberries, pineapple, etc.). Iron isn’t the only nutrient lacking in children’s diets; kids also get too little potassium, fiber, vitamin E, calcium and magnesium.
One last tip: Corral your kids around the supper table. Children who dine with their families not only have diets higher in a host of important nutrients, they’re also less likely to suffer depression.
Published March 1, 2007