For a human such as yourself to keep walking, talking, and generally going about your day, you need nutrients. They’re the magical collection of substances that give us energy, repair our bodies, and allow us to grow.
If you’re living in a prosperous first-world country, you’re lucky to have access to a wide range of foods, packed with the nutrients you need to be healthy. And if you have a good understanding of which foods make up a healthy diet, and follow the diet consistently, you will have a positive nutritional status that can help you to achieve excellent health.
Nutritional status is a critical indicator of health. It’s defined as your body’s physiological state based on the number and quality of nutrients you’re able to absorb. When someone has a bad nutritional status, they’re suffering from malnutrition or undernutrition, which run the gamut from not getting enough nutrients, to getting too many.
With nutrients playing such an important role in our health, how do you measure nutritional status to determine whether you’re healthy, malnourished, or undernourished? In this article, we’ll provide an overview of the five techniques used to measure nutritional status. This will give you a general idea of the processes involved in completing a nutritional assessment, but it’s important to note that only nutritionists and medical professionals will be able to provide an accurate diagnosis of malnutrition.
1. Nutrition testing
Nutritional testing is used to identify the levels of macronutrients (proteins, fats, carbohydrates, and water) and micronutrients (minerals, vitamins, and antioxidants) in your body, to diagnose nutritional deficiencies. These tests use blood samples from the patient, and are broken down into particular areas such as vitamin tests, mineral tests, calcium tests, iron tests, sodium tests, electrolyte tests, and more.
Nutrition response testing is an alternative method that analyses the body to determine the causes of ill health. A qualified practitioner will do a form of muscle testing in which they will apply pressure to an extended arm while touching reflex points on the head. This engages the body's nervous system, causing the arm to lose strength and drop if there is underlying weakness or dysfunction.
2. Dietary methods
An assessment of a person’s dietary intake is a useful tool for determining their nutritional status. By assessing what they’ve eaten over a period of time (often 24 hours), we can get a better idea of whether they’re eating enough foods (and in the right amounts) from the five main food groups:
- Breads, cereals, rice, pasta, noodles and other grains
- Vegetables and legumes
- Milk, yoghurt, cheese and/or alternativesLean meat, fish, poultry, eggs, nuts and legumes.
By regularly eating the right amount of food from each group, a person is able to achieve good dietary diversity—an indicator of a healthy nutritional status.
Dietary assessment can also include:
- Number of meals per day
- Amount of salt intake
- Monitoring changes in appetite
- Alcohol and caffeine consumption
Anthropometry is the study of the measurement of the human body. One of the things that defines a species is the body structure of its organisms, which have a similar shape and size, and whose measurements are likely to fall within a certain range. When these measurements are breached, it can be an indicator of poor nutritional status. For example, someone who consumes too much sugar and saturated fat may develop a large belly, breaching the “standard” measurement that we would expect from someone healthy. Similarly, a child with limited access to food may have a smaller head size than expected, which can be measured as part of a nutritional assessment.
More specifically, anthropometry uses a measurement index to determine a person’s nutritional status, which can include a person’s height, length, weight, body mass index (BMI), head circumference, skin fold thickness, and arm circumference.6 When tracking a person’s nutritional status over a period of time, multiple measurements are taken. A common example of this is measuring the differences in a person’s weight between one date and the next.
Anthropometry can be used to measure the nutritional status of an individual, or a group of people. A common usage is measuring the nutritional status of a community of people living in a third-world country, who have limited access to food.
4. Biochemical methods
The human body contains 60 different types of chemicals, which must remain within a certain range to keep us alive and healthy. Biochemists are able to measure the chemical status of our bodies to determine whether we may have nutritional deficiencies, which can help to identify our nutritional status. They measure certain proteins, cells, and other chemical markers including:
- White cell count
- Urea and creatine
For example, in the case of the protein albumin, the normal range is 3.4 to 5.4 grams per decilitre of blood. If albumin is measured outside of this range, you may have malnutrition (or a liver disease, or inflammatory disease). Similarly, if your lymphocyte count is lower than expected, this is also an indicator of malnutrition.
By measuring these biochemical markers, we are uncovering evidence of possible nutritional deficiencies.
5. Clinical methods
Clinical assessment is the physical examination of a patient, to identify problems. If a person has a nutritional deficiency, it can manifest itself in a number of different ways on the body, and also be identified by asking the patient to describe any symptoms they might be experiencing.
The most obvious sign of malnutrition is muscle wasting, which can be identified on various areas of the body, including the shoulders, arms, thighs, and buttocks. An illustrative example of muscle wasting can be seen in somebody suffering from anorexia, who fails to get enough calories from fear of being overweight. There are lots of easily-identifiable signs of nutritional deficiencies, including:
Anaemia: pale skin, fatigue, short breath, and dizziness are symptoms of anaemia, which is commonly caused by iron deficiency.
- Edema: fluid retention in the body, which can be caused by insufficient protein or vitamin B1 intake in a person’s diet. This can be identified by swollen, stretched, or shiny skin; skin that doesn’t “bounce back” when pressed; puffiness around the ankles, face, or eyes; an aching body, and more.
- Bitot’s spots: creamy-coloured spots that appear on the white of the eye (sclera), and are a sign of vitamin A deficiency. This may be accompanied by poor night vision.
- Goitre: an enlarged thyroid that creates a swollen throat, sometimes extreme. This is a sign of iodine deficiency.
- Brittle hair and nails: indicates a lack of vitamin B7 (biotin), which helps the body to convert food into energy.
- Mouth ulcers: these can be a result of low iron or vitamin B levels.
- Dandruff: this can be caused by a nutrient-poor diet, particularly low levels of zinc, vitamin B3 (niacin), vitamin B2 (riboflavin), and vitamin B6 (pyridoxine).
- Bleeding gums: can be caused by low levels of vitamin C.
It’s important to note that many of these clinical signs may be a result of other diseases, and not necessarily due to malnutrition.
Nutrients are critical for our health and wellbeing. They provide us with energy, repair our bodies, and help us to grow. If you’re unfortunate enough to be suffering from a nutritional deficiency, it can lead to a variety of health problems such as digestive issues, skin disorders, stunted growth, and dementia. This is why they’re so important to detect, and with the techniques above, nutritionists and medical professionals are able to identify them for their patients, and recommend dietary changes that will help them to resolve the issue, and get back to good health.
- Benefits of Blood Testing for Nutritional Deficiencies, My One Medical Source
- https://nutritionchiropractic.com/nutrition-response-testing, Metroeast Natural Healing Center
- Albumin (Blood), University of Rochester
- Yvette Brazier, 2017, Edema: Types, causes, symptoms, and treatment, MedicalNewsToday
- About Nutrition Response Testing, ULAN Nutritional Systems Inc
- Nutritional Assessment, Bapen