When you hear the word “malnourished,” you likely think of hunger—suffering from a lack of calories or nutrients. However, as award-winning food journalist, Mark Bittman, shares on this episode of the mindbodygreen podcast, malnutrition isn’t only about the quantity of calories: It’s about the quality as well.

“Say 60 percent of the calories in our food system are junk food calories,” says Bittman (meaning, produced from corn or soy). “They’re calories that don’t nourish you.” Once the lesser 40 percent of healthy food is gone, someone has to eat that remaining 60 percent. “So you may not eat 60 percent of your calories from junk food, but to the extent that you eat less, it means someone else is eating more,” Bittman notes.

And even if you do manage to eat that 40 percent of healthy produce, Bittman says the veggies aren’t even as healthy as they could be. Because of monoculture (or growing one crop at a time versus many), the soil is stripped of its nutrients and injected with fertilizer that will work for that particular crop. “That’s not real farming,” says Bittman. “That’s some kind of techno-creation that’s going to turn into techno-food, which is basically junk food.”

Why food isn’t as nourishing.

We don’t need to tell you that highly processed food is at an all-time high in the U.S. To which many people say: Make the right choices, and just don’t eat the junk! “But there’s a limited amount of right choice to be made,” says Bittman. See, he says most of the farmland is used to produce corn and soybeans, since it’s so profitable (nearly all processed foods are made from either corn or soy, and both are pretty easy to grow). Since those big farms dominate such a large chunk of land, there’s not a ton of room to grow other nutrient-dense crops.

What can you do about it?

It’s a complex, loaded topic that doesn’t have an overnight solution. But on a top-down level, says Bittman, here’s what needs to happen: “We need to be growing more diverse crops. We need to be making real food affordable to more people. We need to regulate the amount of junk food that’s produced and sold. We need to regulate how animals are raised or grown and processed and sold. We need to make sure that our children eat well and learn about food at a young age.”

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