The Nutrient Deficiency Theory of Obesity

The purpose of this page is to describe the “nutrient deficiency theory” of obesity.

Table of Contents

I’m overweight/obese. What should I do?

I have not (yet) specifically reviewed any evidence of the exact vitamins/minerals which should scientifically help someone lose weight. However, the philosophy from the /health page is far more important (for overall context to be healthy), and after understanding that, you might want to review the /pills page. /Contact me if it’s important to you that I comment specifically on obesity, but please know that I’m going to make sure you’re actively working with your doctor. I’d be proud to know that I’m helping people safely lose weight, but I have no interest in ever being a medical doctor, and it’s important that the more serious your health condition is, the more actively you work with your doctor.

Just take his/her opinionated advice with a pinch of himalayan salt.

The primary nutrient I’d recommend obese patients be aware of is /lithium, because it’s a nutrient not yet recognized as such by the government or medical community. I haven’t (yet) seen any specific evidence that nutritional lithium supplementation might help obese patients lose weight. However, the overall idea that adipose tissue (fat cells) in obese patients is storing certain molecules makes total sense to me. Since lithium isn’t yet recognized as a nutrient, it could well be that adipose tissue in obese patients is storing lithium in that tissue, and that lithium is a single smoking gun for the entire obesity problem. I highly doubt that, of course, but we won’t know until the nutrient is recognized as such and we look into it. (See the /hypothesis page for more.) Or there could be a genetic anomaly which causes adipose tissue to store higher levels of certain nutrients when they exist in the food system. Or something else.

Indeed, I believe there is a little evidence that prescription (high dose) lithium actually caused some bipolar patients to gain weight. That actually makes logical sense to me: the body recognizes a high dose of an important nutrient (not normally consumed in sufficent quantities) and attemtps to store the nutrient for future use. Weight levels rise. Patients might think that the lithium itself caused them to gain weight, but actually, low levels in their regular diet followed by an extremely high prescription dose caused the weight gain. Nutritional supplementation is the far better strategy for the long term.


What to do?

Review and understand the idea on this page.

When you think you have a good understanding of the “nutrient deficiency theory” of obesity, schedule an appointment to discuss the idea with your doctor. If s/he is reluctant, offer to buy a short lunch (i.e. no more than 30 minutes) on a weekend. Most open-minded doctors understand that our scientific knowledge regarding obesity is extremely lacking, and they’ll discuss the idea with you. If not, remind them that in the past few decades, as our understanding of obesity has gone up, obesity rates have also gone up! A “missing nutrient” (lithium) could be an extremely important puzzle piece.


  • Increase macro-nutrient intake:
    • Increase protein intake. I do have a /protein page for those who want to supplement.
    • Eat reasonable levels of healthy fats. That’s an intentionally loaded/subjective sentence, because it’s complicated to figure out which fats are best for you. Should you load up on coconut oil or whole avocados or nuts or olive oils and salads, or might butter actually help you lose weight? It’s complicated, and each person needs to experiment. Be conservative.
  • Increase micro-nutrient intake:
    • See the /pills page, and consider beginning vitamin D, calcium, magnesium, and lithium supplementation at conservative levels. Salt is also important (sodium and chlorine ions). Don’t let your doctor’s irrational fear of salt guide you away from using a high quality salt to taste.
    • Overweight or obese Americans may find value in a multivitamin, so keep that in mind when you read the multivitamin section of my /pills page. Ideally, you would cease using the multivitamin after 3-12 months.
  • Build muscle mass.
    • “Build muscle in the gym, lose fat in the kitchen,” as I’ve heard.
    • Walking is king. Lifting heavy weight is very important, but don’t stress getting into a gym when you’re just beginning this stuff. Get outside before making any decisions about gyms or fitness plans or spending a lot of money. Walk around the block, then make early decisions outside the house (see the air section on /health). Eventually, remember that many nutrients are stored in muscle tissue, which is one reason that you’ll lose fat as you gain muscle.

Disclaimer: Personal Biases

I believe in the nutrient deficiency theory of obesity. I believe in the theory in that I think that it explains global pandemics of obesity far better than other ideas do (like genetics or neuroscience alone). That word — believe — indicates that this is a hypothetical page, even if, in my opinion, the theory is logical and strong.  As such, this is not a “scientific page” like the /lithium page is.

This is slightly dangerous in the scientific world, as it’s a strong bias: I can’t objectively look at the evidence regarding obesity or think about nutrients without “seeing” how various studies and patterns point to micro-nutrient cravings and storage being the primary cause of obesity.

I do not believe that macro- or micro- nutrients are the only cause of obesity. However, scientists and the medical community are already researching genetic causes of obesity, neurological “addiction” to foods, and prescription drug use to minimize obesity. Few are looking into the idea of a brain-driven desire for nutrients as a potential cause of obesity, so I promote that idea here.

I’m also blessed: I’ve never been overweight. That could be due purely to genetics, something related to growing up in Hawaii, or many other factors. But two-thirds of our nation is overweight or obese, so clearly nothing we’re doing is working. Considering there’s a nutrient that the government hasn’t yet recognized as a nutrient ( /lithium ), the nutrient deficiency theory of obesity is extremely relevant, and it’s possible that it’s the strongest cause of obesity in western countries.

What is the “nutrient deficiency theory” of obesity?

Remember that macronutrients include proteins, fats, and carbohydrates. Micronutrients include vitamins and minerals, including under-researched minerals like magnesium and lithium. See the /pills page for more information on nutritional supplements or the /lithium page to read about nutritional lithium.

Simply put, the nutrient deficiency theory of obesity predicts that humans will eat enough overall food in order to consume the minimum necessary amount of both macro- and micro-nutrients.

Let’s take two scenarios:

  • Let’s say our hypothetical American in 1917 ate a few apples, a large piece of organ meat, and some fresh bread that day. All this food only provided 1,700 calories, but also provided, say, 75% of the RDI for most of their micronutrients. Over the course of their week and month, they would need to eat more food overall for calories, but they would be OK regarding nutrition in the long run.
  • Today a few apples, a large piece of meat (most modern Americans do not eat organ meat), and a serving of bread will leave most people starving! And that’s not to mention the micronutrients, which likely won’t even exceed 25%. This person will feel extremely hungry and will experience a powerful internal “need” or urge to eat more, not for calories, but for macro-nutrients like protein and micro-nutrients like dietary minerals.

That’s the nutrient deficiency theory of obesity: our foods have so little nutrition that we must eat 3,000-calorie, 4,000-calorie, or higher calorie diets in order to consume an acceptable level of nutrients. And since lithium doesn’t yet have an accepted RDA, nor is it tracked in our food supply, this idea is decades away from being disproven. See the /lithium page for more regarding that nutrient.

 How did you find out about this?

I first read about this idea from Dan Barber’s 2014 book The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food ( link). Here’s a quote:

“Of the diet-related diseases that have spiked in the past century, the obesity epidemic would seem to have been impossible to predict. And yet, in the 1930s, [Dr. William] Albrecht came close. He knew that cows grazing from well-mineralized soils ate balanced diets. But when kept in a barn and fed a predetermined grain ration, they never stopped eating, overindulging in a vain attempt to make up with sheer volume for what they weren’t getting in their food. Albrecht believed our bodies would likewise stuff themselves for the same reason. Starved of micronutrients, he said, we will keep eating in the hope of attaining them.” (p. 97, Kindle Edition, emphasis added)


“[John Ikerd, a professor emeritus of agriculture and applied economics at the University of Missouri] cites a damning statistic: from 1900 to 1950, Americans’ physical activity decreased, as did their caloric consumption. In the second half of the century, they became even less active but ate more. “The sedentary lifestyles of many Americans obviously contribute to the growing epidemic of obesity,” he conceded. “However, excessive eating and the resulting excessive weight also contribute to sedentary lifestyles. Many Americans may overeat because their food leaves them undernourished. . . . The human species obviously didn’t evolve that much over 100 years, but the food system most certainly did.”” (emphasis added)

And to close with a story:

“Eliot Coleman would agree. “I’ll never forget the night my wife and I sat down to a plate of carrots we had just harvested from the field,” he told me once. “We dug in. And then I just stopped, fork in hand. There was a glow to the orange—it was incredible. I mean, it really glowed, like it was lit up. I just had to sit there and look at it. Something was going on. How do you prove a glow? A nutritionist would say, ‘No, a carrot is a carrot is a carrot.’ A scientist would say, ‘No difference.’ But taste the damn carrot.”” (emphasis original)

Keep in mind the information on this page is not based on the following links. Still, here are a few supplementary pages:

Comments & Feedback

Comments on individual pages are disabled for multiple reasons. However, I’d love your feedback: 

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Update Log

[30 May: Moved “I’m obese” section to top and added a few comments there; overall edit of page.]
[17 April 2017: Created.]