Malnutrition masquerading as health; a modern problem.

There is one thing going wrong with what’s happening day to day in peoples eating habits in modern societies, that I will risk speaking out quite adamantly on. My intention is not to criticize anyone’s choice of actions for their health, but to describe a problem I see. It would be impossible for me to know all the circumstances under which someone makes their health choices, so please keep that in mind. The problem I see is a rather modern anomaly; malnourished individuals in an environment where food is readily available and who seem to be overly-informed on diets and nutrition, yet that information is not leading to robust health and sustainable nutrition habits.

There are many people who, can afford food, have access to high quality food and ingredients, know how to pick nutritious foods, yet do not consume sufficient calories and are experiencing symptoms of malnutrition, while thinking they are eating a healthier diet (“cleaner”) than the average individual.

This contradiction of malnutrition masquerading as health meets its opposite match in that other confounding modern diet contradiction: the obese poor. I would venture to say that poverty has not often been correlated with an excess of food, historically, until more recently (this century?). Yet now we find it; poverty and obesity walking hand in hand.

Malnutrition is defined as “lack of proper nutrition, caused by not having enough to eat, not eating enough of the right things, or being unable to use the food that one does eat” (Google). The first is an access problem, the second a habit or perception problem and the third a metabolic problem.

I want to talk about about the second problem mostly. A problem of habit and perception. The habits that keep someone in diet cycles, and the perception they may have of what is healthy. Malnutrition masquerading as health is a sneaky problem. For instance, I will would always consider salads “healthy” in the context of being a part of diet, but not the whole of the diet! “I eat pretty clean.” “I eat pretty good” is often said with confidence that is misplaced. What determines good? What information have you used to define what’s good? Magazines? Pubmed? Your friend? A Mom blog? Where you get your information will determine how you define what health is, and what a good diet is.

What is going on? How does someone maintain the idea that their diet is superior for health, yet have many of the signs and symptoms of poor health? Poor energy. Cravings. An excess of fat. Physical weakness. Susceptibility to sickness. Poor circulation. Poor dental, hair and nail health. Nervous habits. No one symptom can define poor health. I can’t really say that. But what I can identify as wrong, are some of the beliefs people have about food that are slowly damaging their health. Those beliefs that bear the title “healthy” and are, in fact, the opposite.

This is an ideological problem that needs unmasking.

As a trainer, I mainly teach exercise. But, I know that learning exercise is only one action that can improve someone’s health. Improved health allows for improved exercise performance. And my goal is always to help someone exercise better, harder, and reach their goals physically. Exercise is one action you take to maintain health and improve it, but while I teach someone how to squat, I know I must actively help them understand how to be healthier overall, so their exercise will “bear fruit” (pardon the Biblical reference, but I couldn’t think of an alternative). When you are healthier, you can exercise better. When you get healthier, you reach goals, aesthetic or performance based. When you get healthier, you can have more fun in exercise. And exercise is becoming an essential habit to build. We are beginning to know the dangers of being too sedentary.

Many people have spent years consistently doing what they label as “healthy habits”, yet develop poor health. Allow me to be more specific by what I mean by poor health. Here are some things I think are an indication of poor overall health. Again, nothing on it’s own can directly be called the biggest indicator of “bad health”.

An absence of basic cardiovascular endurance. An inability to move their body easily and fluidly relative to their age and needs. An inability to meet basic daily requirements for sleep and food. Compulsive or obsessive exercise and diet habits, without clear need for such extremes. A consistent feeling of tiredness. A difficulty with physical effort.

How health can be defined, and what “it” is, and what constitutes good health, is a complex topic. It involves many variables of mind and body, genetics and environment. But I’m going to start at the far, far, beginning. Super basic, or I risk stepping too far out of my knowledge zone.

Health starts with eating enough food. Yes, some people, many people nowadays, are eating too much food, and other people are maintaining diet and stress-eat cycles while throwing in random “healthy” spurts of dieting or exercise obsession. In environments where food is highly available (modern societies) we find this problem: the inability to self-regulate diet habits to maintain good health while living in an environment that has a heightened pace of life, and is more stress-inducing, but where food is freely available and daily living does not require physical strength to survive.

There is an idealogical problem, not just a food problem. And I don’t think the we can address the problem by trying to limit access to food, putting “healthy” restrictions on businesses and the agricultural industry. Those restrictions don’t teach people how to make better choices. They don’t help them understand the impact of their environment on their choices. A sugar tax will not make people make good health choices. The problem is no longer how to get enough food to not die, but how to not suffer poor health from too many wrong ideas about how to eat, what to eat, and when to eat.

Our problems with food have evolved into amazing conundrums, so our thinking about nutrition must be simplified. Everyone who wants better health, right now,  has to wander the jungle of information. Clearly, a lot of people are getting lost.

Vitamins and micronutrients, fibre and greens, matter after calories. After. You need enough or just enough calories on a day to day basis first, for health. You need to eat at regular times, most of the time. You need to eat enough food as much as you need to not eat too much. Get rid of all the diet language you use that is based on restriction, avoidance, punishment and limitations. You know, you can improve your diet and place limits on your habits without adopting a bunch of wrong beliefs about food . Food has no power to hurt you. Your habits have that power. Rather than risking starvation and extinction (now that’s a food problem) what are we risking now with such diversely wrong ideas consistently propagated everywhere? Nutrition and diet information needs to be simplified. Because simple works.

When I asked nutrition clients how I helped them most, the majority said: “You gave me permission.”, “You told me it was ok to eat.”

Chronic undereating is as unhealthy as chronic overeating, but often it’s more subtle, more sneaky in it’s effects on hormones, metabolism, energy, mindset. Its easy to see physical extremes. Its easy to label someone as obese, because they wear their nutrition habits on their body. Same with anorexics. But its not as easy to see the not-so-obvious signs of chronic bad diet beliefs. The subtle wearing-down of a metabolism. The aging that is sped up incrementally.

Malnutrition and poor dieting habits (dieting cycles of on-the-wagon-off-the-wagon are a bad habit!), do so much damage long term. Ideas like “cleansing” every once in awhile. That’s not necessary. Nor even helpful long term.  It serves no real purpose. Ideas like holding onto that desire to lose fat even when you clearly have none to really lose, and you’re just squishy (you need strength training).  If you want to be healthy and fit, try avoiding  a half-starving, half-binging cycle for years.  The last 10 pounds is never going to come off anyway with that sort of thinking. Ideas like sugar and dairy as the source of all problems, is ignorant and simplistic thinking (and not the same thing as reducing excess caloric intake, or improving the balance of your nutrition). You know what’s the cause of a lot of problems? Poor basic health and stress management. And you probably need some sugar in your life. In fact, I guarantee you do.

I hate waste. The waste of energy I see going into maintaining ridiculous dieting habits. The waste of feeling guilty about what tastes good. The waste of panicking every once in awhile and trying a new diet. The waste of talking about food with guilt.

We can’t, as of yet, judge health definitively by some list. But we can identify, with certainty, the bare minimum requirements for basic physiological health. A set of criteria that when acted on, will lead directly to improvements in your health. Perfect health is half subjective anyway. Aim for the basics of physiological health, and then leave the rest of “what health means” to discussions of semantics. Health, has to be to defined scientifically AND philosophically. But scientifically, it is guaranteed that your physiological health will improve with: sleep, balanced food intake, some form of exercise. Will your love life? Well, who can know. But I would bet yes. Research gives us the minimums. 7 hours of sleep for adults, baseline caloric intake, balanced macronutrients and micronutrients, some form of exercise. Hit those FIRST. Think a bit harder about what health should feel like (“I’m way less tired on a regular basis”), and less about what it should “look” like (“But I drink green juice, so I must be healthy”). When you truly feel healthy, you’ll know it. And it will be because you hit those basics better. First.


Get Fitness Baddies In Your INBOX

I write articles all over the web - subscribe here for updates on all my latest articles from the blog and elsewhere!


  1. Brilliant!

  2. Too true. Often times clients need to eat more to lose more weight.

    The healthier the body is, the more willing it is to perform for us.