Overnutrition or hyperalimentation is a form of malnutrition. This may come as a surprise to some people because we tend to think of malnutrition as not eating enough. In reality, malnutrition is not about quantity, but rather about quality. It literally means “poor nutrition,” not “insufficient nutrition.” Overnutrition occurs when the supply of nutrients exceeds a person’s personal requirements.
Overnutrition is the overconsumption of one or more nutrients to the point where it becomes harmful. The condition tends to be associated with self-indulgence and gluttony, and people think of unhealthy foods such as salty, sweet, and fatty treats. But these items aren’t always to blame. A person can eat adequate food portions at regular intervals and still have a diet much too rich in certain nutrients. Even having too much of a single essential nutrient such as folic acid can result in overnutrition. Iron, copper, and fluoride poisoning are also good examples. The same goes for vitamins. Too many vitamins in the diet can lead to hypervitaminosis. However, an imbalance in minerals and vitamins may have more to do with metabolism and less to do with food. Hypervitaminosis is quite rare; when health organizations refer to the overnutrition epidemic, they usually mean excess weight and obesity.
Signs of Overnutrition
Overnutrition goes much deeper than easily identifiable signs like waist girth. Because overnutrition is an imbalance in nutrients, it can weaken the immune system and make people vulnerable to disease. So, fatigue and frequent infections can be signs of overnutrition, as well. Unhealthy eating habits can also indicate overnutrition. Some people eat for comfort, resorting to unhealthy meals when they feel under the weather or unhappy. This type of behavior is associated with binge eating disorder.
Overnutrition and Obesity
Overnutrition can develop into excess weight. This, in turn, can escalate into obesity, which increases the risk of serious health conditions. Cardiovascular disease, cancer, hypertension, and type 2 diabetes are also linked to obesity. It’s widely believed that overnutrition only affects developed nations, but this epidemic is a global problem. In developing countries and low-income areas in richer countries, where undernutrition is the leading cause of the spread of chronic diseases, cases of overnutrition are increasing. Lack of access to home-grown food and a shift to less active and more complacent lifestyles are affecting people worldwide.
Some people are aware of unhealthy habits but lack the resources to correct the issue. Whenever nutrition and weight start to affect health and well-being, interfering with work, personal lives, or basic tasks, it is time for assistance from a medical professional.
To diagnose this condition, some hospitals use a malnutrition screening tool (MST), a set of questions about weight and nutrition. This tool detects both undernutrition and overnutrition and can help the doctor develop a personalized care plan. Other healthcare professionals use a BMI calculator to determine obesity, and additional tests can rule out other serious conditions. Prader-Willi syndrome, which manifests in relentless hunger, can be diagnosed in early childhood through blood tests. Digestive conditions can cause pain that people mistake for hunger pangs, and genetic disorders can affect satiation. In most cases, experts link poor nutrition to poor eating habits, whatever the ultimate cause.
Overnutrition in Children
Many parents today have a very different approach to mealtime than their parents. Access to a larger variety of foods and readily available research on healthy eating habits can help them make informed decisions. On the other hand, the stress and fast pace of many families today can make it difficult to prepare regular healthy meals or ensure children are eating well. Obesity is on the rise in school-aged children.
Overnutrition in Teenagers
Hormonal changes in puberty can affect appetite, but overnutrition is more likely to be caused by sedentarism and easy access to unhealthy foods. Like children, teenagers are also more likely to be overweight and obese these days. These issues can be compounded by the self-consciousness that often comes with excess weight in both children and teens.
Overnutrition in Pregnancy
“Eating for two”’ is an outdated and sometimes dangerous adage. Healthcare professionals don’t recommend doubling your intake, even if you’re expecting twins or triplets. Instead, pregnant women can put a greater variety of healthy foods on the menu and increase the number of portions they consume. Persistent hunger in pregnancy may indicate underlying medical conditions like digestive issues. As food cravings and food aversions develop, pregnant women may need to change their eating schedules or diet. To avoid overnutrition in pregnancy, women are advised to have foods with a low glycemic index (GI), eat healthy meals regularly, eat small snacks between meals, and get plenty of rest, and not go shopping on an empty stomach.
Overnutrition in Older Adults
Some older adults are prone to indulging in salty, sweet, and fatty food due to metabolic changes, sedentary lifestyles, and medication. With age, people experience a reduction in the number of taste buds and nerve cells that send signals to the brain. This can make them crave spicier food or eat more because they receive less satisfaction from their usual meals. Fortunately, as an integral part of a geriatric team, a dietitian can understand food habits for this particular age group and make a personalized care plan that helps people make the most of later years.
Coping with Overnutrition
It’s easy to underestimate the problems people have due to overnutrition. These can be overarching issues, hard to attribute to a single factor. It helps to understand nutrients, learn about your body’s nutritional requirements, check food labels, replace some types of food with others, and look objectively at bad habits. For those unsure of how to begin, nutritional therapists and dietitians can offer personalized, timely, and well-targeted solutions.