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What is Malnutrition?

By Laura Evans
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Malnutrition occurs when the body does not get enough nutrients. This can mean not getting enough food overall, which can lead to starvation, or can be the lack of a single nutrient, such as vitamin C deficiency, which can lead to scurvy. Causes of malnutrition include not having enough food to eat, not being able to eat a balanced diet, having medical problems that prevent food from being absorbed properly or having psychological problems, such as anorexia nervosa.

Symptoms vary according to the type of malnutrition and the severity of the problem. If an individual's case is mild, the person may not show any symptoms at all. General symptoms of this condition can include dizziness, tiredness, or weight loss. A person should contact a physician when the individual experiences fainting or hair loss. In addition, a woman should contact her doctor if her menstrual cycle stops, and parents should contact a pediatrician if their child is not growing properly.

The problem is more difficult in areas of widespread poverty or famine. First, there may not be adequate supplies of food. Second, people may not have the money to purchase food that is available. Third, there may not be enough doctors and physicians available to treat not only malnutrition, but any underlying causes beyond lack of food that may be leading to this condition.

Getting adequate nutrition is critical for growing children. Children can develop a condition called marasmus, where the child's growth is stunted and the child's body is thinner than it should be, if there is a severe lack of food available. Another condition that children can develop is called kwashiorkor. Kwashiorkor occurs when the child gets enough calories, but not enough protein when eating. Symptoms of kwashiorkor include apathy, delayed development, and an enlarged liver.

While the elderly do not need as much food as they did when they were younger, the elderly can be prone to developing malnutrition. Some older adults lose their sense of smell, which can make eating unappetizing. The elderly sometimes produce less stomach acid, making absorbing nutrients more difficult. In addition, it just may be more difficult physically to prepare and eat healthy meals.

Treatments vary according to the cause of the problem. For example, if the root cause is a medical condition, the medical condition has to be diagnosed and treated before the person can return to health. Not all of the symptoms can be "cured." For example, damage to bones and to nerves may not be reversible.

The Health Board is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Discussion Comments
By healthy4life — On Sep 30, 2012

@shell4life – I worry that my husband may develop malnutrition, because his diet is so poor that it doesn't even include cereal or juice. I've tried getting him to eat healthy by cooking meals, but he just grabs a snack instead.

He eats cake, ice cream, cheese, and chips with dip. He usually gets so full on these things that he conveniently has no room for what I've cooked.

I am concerned that he may develop scurvy or some other form of malnutrition. It won't be from lack of food, but it will be from poor choice of diet.

By shell4life — On Sep 29, 2012

It seems like it would be hard for a person in a developed country today to suffer from malnutrition. Many common foods are fortified with vitamins, so even if a person doesn't eat fruits and vegetables, they get some vitamins through fortified breakfast cereal and orange juice.

By cloudel — On Sep 29, 2012

Anorexia is one of the main malnutrition diseases. My best friend developed anorexia because of the psychological damage her mother inflicted upon her about her weight, and she wound up being fed through a tube in a hospital.

Parents don't realize the profound effect their attitudes toward their children can have. Even after my friend nearly died of malnutrition and weight loss, her mother didn't see what she had done.

Thankfully, the physical problems could be reversed. The psychological scars required years of therapy, and they may always be with her to some degree.

By lighth0se33 — On Sep 28, 2012

Everyone is aware of malnutrition in developing countries, but few people realize that there are people suffering from malnutrition right here in the United States. Food pantries are in great need, and people are going hungry.

I really wish that our government would focus on its own citizens before sending out help to other nations. Really, shouldn't we feed our own people before worrying about the malnutrition of people overseas? It doesn't make any sense to me to take food from our needy and give it to foreigners.

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