Can You Be Both Overweight and Malnourished?


By: , SparkPeople Blogger
  :  88 comments   :  39,993 Views

By Suzanne W. Dixon, MPH, MS, RD, the scientific adviser for

It sounds contradictory, but a significant number of people in the United States today are simultaneously under- and overnourished. How can that be? If youíre significantly overweight, surely you canít be malnourished, right?

As a former overweight person myself, a registered dietitian who has worked with many people on weight loss issues, and someone who studies the science of body weight regulation, I know firsthand that it's all too easy to be both overweight and malnourished.

The key to understanding this paradox is to understand the difference between macro- and micronutrients. Macronutrients provide the body with energy in the form of calories. Think carbohydrate, protein, and fat. Thereís also alcohol, which isnít an ideal source of calories, but which provides them nonetheless. Being a fan of a nightly glass of wine or a beer, I'd be remiss if I didnít mention that alcohol provides calories!

Tiny Nutrients, Enormous Benefits
Micronutrients are indeed ďmicro," meaning that we need them in small quantities for good health. This includes vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients, or phytochemicals, such as carotenes and polyphenols. Vitamins and minerals are vital for life Ė itís right in the name Ė vitamins. Without them, weíll end up with a deficiency.

Phytonutrients are different. Many are found in fruits and vegetables and give these foods their bright red, yellow, purple, green, and orange colors. Most of us are familiar with the phytochemical beta-carotene, the nutrient that makes carrots orange. Others hide inside whole grains, beans, and nuts.

Unlike vitamins and minerals, phytonutrients arenít vital for life: you wonít die of a beta-carotene deficiency. But you can have major health problems, including serious difficulty losing weight and maintaining weight loss, if you donít get enough of these phytonutrients.

Whatís the Connection?
Most people donít give much thought to micronutrients and body weight. Many people figure if itís not a calorie, it doesnít matter. The truth is more complex. Sure, calories are one key to weight loss. But dig a little deeper, and you'll see how adding in the right foods, rich in micronutrients, will aid weight loss, help your body function better, and keep overeating in check.
  • Stronger and Leaner: Phytonutrients appear to help people maintain muscular strength, lean body mass, and muscle function. And if thereís one thing that anyone whoís tried to lose weight understands, itís that more muscle means more calorie burning, even when youíre not moving. Who knew an apple, a blueberry, or broccoli could fuel your muscles?

  • Better Body Chemistry: Many obesity experts now consider obesity to be a state of chronic, low-grade inflammation. This matters a lot if youíre trying to lose weight, because inflammation makes it harder for you to shed fat and much harder for you to build lean, healthy muscle. Itís a vicious cycle: carrying extra body fat promotes inflammation and inflammation makes it harder to lose weight.

    Phytonutrients dampen inflammation. By including plenty of phytonutrient-rich, anti-inflammatory foods in your diet, you fight the low-grade inflammation that results from being overweight and that keeps you overweight. By dampening inflammation, phytonutrients appear to improve body chemistry, and improve the odds of weight loss success.

  • Less Overeating: If thatís not enough to convince you to change your dieting ways, consider this: noted nutrition experts now suspect that when we're overnourished in terms of calories, but undernourished in terms of micronutrients, our bodies have a harder time judging how much food we truly require to satisfy nutritional needs.

    We have basic needs for micronutrients Ė vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients. Our bodies will tell us to keep eating until we meet those basic needs. If you eat foods that are low in micronutrients, which not surprisingly includes many ďdietĒ foods, you need to eat more of them to reach the point where your body senses that youíve gotten enough micronutrients.
Low on the Food Chain
In order to nourish your body properly, you need to eat real food, not count calories. Eating "low on the food chain" gives your body the micronutrients it needs to build muscle, keep fat-promoting inflammation in check, and prevent overeating and bingeing.

Eating ďlow on the food chainĒ means eating mostly whole, unprocessed, plant foods. The closer a food is to its natural form, or what it looks like when it comes out of the ground or off the tree or vine, the more micronutrients it contains. Itís also helpful, of course, that these foods tend to have the fewest calories per amount of food. You get more micronutrients with fewer calories Ė a win-win all around.

Iím living proof this approach works, and I "walk the walk" every day. At my heaviest, I carried about an extra 50 pounds on a 5í4Ē frame, which I lost for good about eight years ago to reach a healthy body mass index (BMI) of 20.9. Check your own BMI here.

Work with the Plate
To best understand the proportions of different phytonutrient-rich foods you need, visualize a typical round plate. Divide that into quarters. Three of those quarters should be filled with plant foods. Keep the balance tipped toward eating mostly vegetables, followed by slightly less fruit, and a small amount of whole grains.

The other one-quarter is left for lean protein. Focus on beans, tofu, and fish for most of your protein. Enjoy organic, free-range/grass-fed chicken, beef, or pork a few times per week at most. And if you have a sweet tooth, save room in that last quarter for dessert! (For more information about this method of eating, read about SparkPeople's Bikini Diet.)

Suzanne Dixon, MPH, MS, RD, is an internationally recognized expert in nutrition, chronic disease, cancer, and health and wellness as well as the Executive Editor of Nutrition Intelligence Report, a free natural health and nutrition newsletter. For more information or to sign up for a free subscription, click here.

Do you agree? Can we be both under- and over-nourished?

Click here to to redeem your SparkPoints
  You will earn 5 SparkPoints
Got a story idea? Give us a shout!
NEXT ENTRY >   Mom's Dieting Leads to Daughters' Eating Disorders


  • 88
    I donate and volunteer with my local Second Harvest food bank. They see this in children very often. To stretch their food budget, underprivileged families are buying packages of mac'n'cheese and other cheaper, carb-heavy, processed foods. The children are staying a larger weight, and often teachers and other people in the community don't realize that they are suffering from hunger and malnourishment.

    And it looks like Jeannette59 beat me to the punch. Totally agree with all of your points. :) - 12/8/2010   11:02:33 AM
    First a heart felt thank you. I am one of the founders of Feast of Justice a non-profit social service agency in Philadelphia. Our roots are in an emergency food cupboard, which means that we provided food to help people over short term situations, illness or the loss of a job etc. In recent years the term "emergency food cupboard" has become obsolete. Many people who have lost jobs can no longer find new employment. Many folks are under-employed and most people live paycheck to paycheck, one unexpected emergency, a leaky roof, an accident or a hospital stay can have devastating effects.
    Much of my time is spent on advocacy and education. Here is the hard truth that many people don't understand, even those with the best intentions. All food is not created equal and food cupboards that were once concerned with making sure that people had "something" to eat now need to consider the fact that we are feeding people long-term. The result can be that the food that is distributed can in fact be part of the problem. Poor quality food greatly increases childhood and adult obesity, hypertension, diabetes and a multitude of other health issues.
    Children that are consistantly malnourished have lower grades, more absences and higher drop-out rates. Unemployed and under-employed families are more likely to receive poorer medical care, they seek care later and often at an emergency room.
    The cycle continues, hunger/nutrition, education and health care can not be separated. They are interrelated and until we make the necessary changes the downward spiral will continue.
    My plea is that you will support your local food cupboard or food bank and that when you donate food, first ask yourself would I serve this to my family? - 10/4/2010   11:32:02 AM
  • 86
    Very good article. Needs to be brought to the general public's attention just how prevelent malnutrition is in obese people. - 2/24/2010   7:34:08 PM
  • 85
    This was a great article. I agree. It is so important to eat the foods that are good for your body. - 2/23/2010   10:36:31 AM
  • 84
    Thank you for this information. - 11/29/2009   7:14:44 AM
    I know first hand that it is true. When I was a younger womanI found out the hard way that I was not only overweight but very malnourished. As hard to believe as it was I learned to realize that it was true and took care to correct the problem. To this day i have to watch myself carefully as I still fall back into bad habits. Just try to remember that it is not how much you eat but WHAT you eat. - 11/25/2009   1:01:49 AM
  • 82
    Not only would I eat low on the food chain, but also add to it, eating organic, heritage variety, local produce and grass-fed raw milk, meats and eggs. Big Agra has unfortunately concentrated on designing plants that look good on the shelf, last a long time and ship well. As a result, the nutritional content of conventional produce today is at least 50% or less than 50 years ago. - 11/16/2009   2:28:10 PM
  • 81
    It would be so much easier for everyone to eat more healthfully if the organic fruit, veggies, grassfed meats were cheaper than junk foods. In the current economics times, the truth is that fast food is much cheaper and more convienent than groceries from Whole Foods. So sad. - 11/14/2009   6:51:02 PM
  • 80
    This is how I ended up here...the doctor sent me to a nutritionist, where I learned to eat properly. The nurse practitioner suggested And here I am...about 50 lbs lighter and still going! My goal now is to never go back. - 11/14/2009   6:26:40 PM
  • 79
    yeah great blogg... i do think you could be n be heathly... being healthy involves alot of workt ....
    - 11/13/2009   8:01:48 PM
  • 78
    Awesome information. - 11/13/2009   2:18:37 PM
  • 77
    This article is not only interesting, it gives more detail to the "why's" of proper eating and the vitamins and nutrients needed to keep healthy. Even on my best days, I know I don't get everything I need so I try to take a good multivitamin pack regularly (I personally use Usana). It not only makes you feel great, but keeps you "regular" and helps your body use up what you do digest. It keeps everything in balance for me and makes me feel better about how nourished my body is. Great article! :o) - 11/13/2009   7:44:09 AM
  • 76
    I agree you can be malnourished especially if you don't eat the proper foods. Last year I was found to have a Vitamin D deficiency. A few years ago, they found a magnesium deficiency.

    Becky - 11/13/2009   5:02:26 AM
  • 75
    i knew it, i'm not fat,....... i'm inflammed............. - 11/12/2009   8:01:15 PM
  • 74
    I have learned the lesson about malnutrition. People like Raymond Francis and Gillian McKeith have opened my eyes to eating wholesome foods. A calorie is a calorie but it can be spent on veggies and fruit or ice cream and junk. I prefer to eat real food. - 11/12/2009   4:09:52 PM
    This was a very interesting article, however it would be nice to see references regarding some of these studies and health claims for those of us who would like to look at the research cited. - 11/12/2009   11:08:21 AM
  • 72
    oh I'm definitely overweight and undernourished. But now I'm working on that problem! - 11/12/2009   10:37:10 AM
  • 71
    Great blog and of course you can be malnourished and overweight if you are not eating the food your body needs to be fit
    But think you can be overweight and fit too but that is another blog - 11/12/2009   10:21:14 AM
  • 70
    This says what I've suspected for some time. Thanks. - 11/12/2009   9:04:35 AM
  • 69
    I think people may believe that it is not possible to be malnourished and overweight because they don't understand the meaning of "malnourished". Simply...the word means poorly nourished = poor nutrition. It doesn't mean "under" nourished or under fed or not enough food. Poorly nourished is lacking in essential nutrients (vitamins, minerals, etc).

    Inflammation is a classic sign of malnourishment, particularly protein deficiency. I'm sure most, if not all, of you have seen advertisements for helping to feed under nourished children...the picture of the small child with the protruding belly, but clearly is not "fat"...that's kwashiorkor.

    Great information in this blog... - 11/12/2009   8:06:29 AM
  • 68
    I don't see why you couldn't be malnourished whether you are over-weight or under-weight. To get over-weight is because you are consuming more calories than your body needs it doesn't mean you are nutritional foods and the same goes with being under-weight.
    - 11/11/2009   10:46:37 PM
  • 67
    I personally think that most over weight people, keep eating and eating because their bodies are crying for nutrition. Their cravings for food can't be turned off because they are not getting calories with vitamins, minerals and the correct amounts of the fats that we do need. It is really sad because a little education about nutrition goes a long way on the road to health. - 11/11/2009   9:38:20 PM
  • FOX2566
    Another way of saying,"You are what you eat!" I surely don't want to be a donut!
    A glass of chocolate milk, would be OK! - 11/11/2009   7:59:19 PM
  • 65
    Food for thought.... - 11/11/2009   6:36:23 PM
  • 64
    Many Americans are overweight and malnourished also because they take in a large amount of calories but not an adequate amount of protein, since junk food is often lacking in quality proteins. These individuals are actually suffering from a form of malnutrition similar to that of the peoples in third world countries. Some of this is due to poverty both here and elsewhere, but much of it is due to our ignorance and the aggressive marketing by the junk food industry. Sparkers, we have a lot of work to do!

    Lynne - 11/11/2009   5:44:00 PM
  • 63
    I watched a TV program on one of the Health Chanels, about a man who was over 800lbs. They had to knock out a wall to take him to the hospital for treatment and to save his life. I was awed that he was malnurished.
    That is when I stopped focusing on food as bad. ...and started focusing on food as fuel for my body. Just the same as you would not put the wrong fuel into a car and expect it to run right...we should not expect to put the wrong things in our body and see that it runs right. Loved this blog. - 11/11/2009   3:04:49 PM
    so very true. one reason i was fat was because i was a bread, meat, and potatoes person and never ate veggies or fruit. lots of fat and sugar was my favorite stuff. no wonder i was so unhealthy also. - 11/11/2009   2:41:34 PM
    I know I was but I also have Celiac Disease and one of the things it does is cause mal-absorption of nutrients. Now that I know and getting healthy again I keep finding new things that my body is missing nutritionally. - 11/11/2009   2:36:28 PM
  • 60
    An inspiring article. It concentrates on what to do 'simply'. It makes dieting sound so simple and it can be if you follow a routine like the writer describes. - 11/11/2009   2:14:18 PM
  • 59
    I totally agree. I do believe many overweight people are malnourished. Of course, I could make that same statement for many normal weight people too. What I'd noticed is that many people don't pay attention to what they eat. Eating fast food is quick and convenient. Most people don't sit and eat their meals anymore. They eat on the fly. As a result, they don't realize the food they are eating is really bad for them.

    However, I can see how easy it would be for a person to be nourished and malnourished at the same time. As I said, most people don't pay attention to what they eat. if they did, they'd be in for a serious shock.

    - 11/11/2009   1:20:52 PM
    A great article, I agrre with your viewpoint. - 11/11/2009   1:09:45 PM
    Interesting article. You bring up some excellent points. Thanks!
    - 11/11/2009   12:41:10 PM
  • 56
    Wonderful article! Thank you for sharing. - 11/11/2009   12:29:50 PM
  • 55
    Absolutely! I think this is just as true as it's possible to be skinny and be in TERRIBLE health. - 11/11/2009   11:06:02 AM
  • 54
    Overweight or not... I think its very easy for many people to be malnourished. Its hard to nourish the body when your house is filled with junk or your driving thru McDonald's because its easier than going home to cook a healthy meal. - 11/11/2009   11:03:11 AM
    Very interesting. I didn't know that being overweight meant a constant state of inflamation. - 11/11/2009   10:46:46 AM
  • 52
    Very informative blog....I can see where a person can be under nourished. I love my veggies so those nutrients definitely aren't shorted here. Thank you for this super information.
    Ruth - 11/11/2009   9:55:16 AM
  • 51
    I totally agree, having been 400 pounds at my heaviest, and so many trips to the doctor for so many ailments! Now that I'm 240 pounds lighter, I've barely had even one cold in the past two years, since I started eating healthier and exercising regularly. I am probably healthier at 43 than I was in my 20s, when I was binge eating and first started gaining a lot of weight. I really can see how this must affect our kids, too. So many overweight kids are probably malnourished! We (DH and I) work with our kids daily (now that we've lost the weight) on healthy choices and treats in moderation. I'm lucky that our kids love trying new foods, and we eat healthier at home than we have in 7-8 years. It's a great article. Definitely puts that common sense approach into an easy explanation of what we should do to keep healthy. I like it! - 11/11/2009   9:19:55 AM
  • 50
    Thanks for a great article!!! - 11/11/2009   9:13:37 AM
  • 49
    I have absolutely found this to hold true in my own weight loss journey. Healthy, natural foods help me lose weight more efficiently than filling those same calories with processed stuff. And I feel more satisfied and more energetic. My body knows what it needs! - 11/11/2009   9:13:35 AM
  • 48
    I totally agree that many people who are overweight are also VERY malnourished. They eat calories but not HEALTHY calories. I know in the past I used to live on some very empty calories. But now I try to eat healthy- though even with eating healthy, I still don't always get enough of the micronutrients!! So I'm really glad to have Shakeology as part of my diet arsenal because it really makes up for the nutrients I still don't get in my foods. One yummy shake a day and I'm covered! My waist has shrunk by an inch and I didn't even have to change any of my foods!

    ~TuxBaby - 11/11/2009   9:12:35 AM
  • 47
    What about people who are on target with weight but also malnourished - or those who are underweight and malnourished? The reality is that most Americans are not eating correctly, not getting enough fiber, not enough protein, not enough vitamins from natural sources and are using junk food, packaged foods and convenience foods.

    I have seen plenty of "on weight" people snacking with junk, picking at food, or refusing to eat healthy portions. - 11/11/2009   9:11:52 AM
  • 46
    Thank you for this great blog! - 11/11/2009   9:04:09 AM
  • 45
    High fat, low nutrient foods (chips, fast food, fries, etc) can lead to malnourishment but sure can pack on the pounds! Great eye opening blog - 11/11/2009   9:02:27 AM
  • 44
    Very thought provoking! I know I am not getting enough micronutrients and I am losing weight slower than I would like, despite a disciplined exercise and weight training regimen. You have helped me see more clearly how these might be related. - 11/11/2009   8:57:54 AM
  • 43
    I agree that you can. - 11/11/2009   7:37:26 AM
  • 42
    Very interesting and educative article. Indeed it is possible to be undernourished yet over weight at the same time. - 11/11/2009   7:26:01 AM
    i agree that you can be undernourished when over weight as i was lacking iron and protein yet was gaining too much weight before i join spark. Now i have more colour and energy and am losing weight thanks to God. - 11/11/2009   6:32:15 AM
    Since starting a raw food lifestyle,my sugar cravings(aka chocolate) have disappeared. I have more energy. At this time I'm about 80% raw,it scary to think what 100% raw will do,but I'm going for it!!! - 11/11/2009   6:13:49 AM
  • 39
    um, actually the people I know who have food stamps can afford better food than I can. It's all about choice with what you have. I had a friend who was getting food stamps for just her, and she stayed with us for a while. While she was here our family ate more meat than we ever have. I mean like she would buy for one week what we would buy for a month or two(or three, depending on our budget). Of course that may be because I do buy more of the other staples and already had a basic pantry going. And it may be that I just wont (cant) buy much meat on our budget. I figure we are probably healthier without all that meat anyway.
    To the subject at hand, yes, you can be under and over nourished at the same time. Perhaps I'm missing some phyto-nutrients. this may be a factor that has been hindering me. I'll have to look into this. - 11/11/2009   5:41:31 AM

Please Log In To Leave A Comment:    Log in now ›