How Your Nutritional Status Affects Your Health

Your diet determines your nutritional status, which is a measure of the state of your health. For example, people who are starving do not get the dietary nutrients or calories they need to maintain their health. These people are said to be malnourished (mal = bad), which means their nutritional status is, to put it gently, definitely not good.

Malnutrition may arise from:

  • A diet that doesn’t provide enough food. This situation can occur in times of famine or through voluntary starvation because of an eating disorder, or because something in your life disturbs your appetite. For example, older people may be at risk of malnutrition because of tooth loss or age-related loss of appetite or because they live alone and sometimes just forget to eat.

  • A diet that, while otherwise adequate, is deficient in a specific nutrient. This kind of nutritional inadequacy can lead to — surprise! — a deficiency disease, such as beriberi, the disease caused by a lack of vitamin B1 (thiamine).

  • A metabolic disorder or medical condition that prevents your body from absorbing specific nutrients, such as carbohydrates or protein. One common example is diabetes, the inability to produce enough insulin, the hormone your body uses to metabolize (digest) carbohydrates. Another is celiac disease, a condition that makes it impossible for the body to digest gluten, a protein in wheat.

Doctors and registered dieticians have many tools with which to rate your nutritional status. For example, they can

  • Review your medical history to see whether you have any conditions (such as dentures) that may make eating certain foods difficult or that interfere with your ability to absorb nutrients.

  • Perform a physical examination to look for obvious signs of nutritional deficiency, such as dull hair and eyes (a lack of vitamins?), poor posture (not enough calcium to protect the spinal bones?), or extreme thinness (not enough food? An underlying disease?).

  • Order laboratory blood and urine tests that may identify early signs of malnutrition, such as the lack of red blood cells that characterizes anemia caused by an iron deficiency.

At every stage of life, the aim of a good diet is to maintain a healthy nutritional status.

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