Malnutrition: Symptoms, causes, diagnosis, and treatment

Malnutrition results from a poor diet or a lack of food. It happens when the intake of nutrients or energy is too high, too low, or poorly balanced.

Undernutrition can lead to delayed growth or wasting, while a diet that provides too much food, but not necessarily balanced, leads to obesity.

In many parts of the world, undernutrition results from a lack of food. In some cases, however, undernourishment may stem from a health condition, such as an eating disorder or a chronic illness that prevents the person from absorbing nutrients.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), malnutrition is the gravest single threat to global public health. Globally, it contributes to 45 percent of deaths of children aged under 5 years.

This article will focus mainly on undernutrition.

What is malnutrition?

older man watching TV alone
Older people can be at risk of nutrition if they are isolated and have mobility problems.

Malnutrition involves a dietary deficiency. People may eat too much of the wrong type of food and have malnutrition, but this article will focus on undernutrition, when a person lacks nutrients because they do not consume enough food.

Poor diet may lead to a lack of vitamins, minerals, and other essential substances. Too little protein can lead to kwashiorkor, symptoms of which include a distended abdomen. A lack of vitamin C can result in scurvy.

Scurvy is rare in industrialized nations, but it can affect older people, those who consume excessive quantities of alcohol, and people who do not eat fresh fruits and vegetables. Some infants and children who follow a limited diet for any reason may be prone to scurvy.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 462 million people worldwide are malnourished, and stunted development due to poor diet affects 159 million children globally.

Malnutrition during childhood can lead not only to long-term health problems but also to educational challenges and limited work opportunities in the future. Malnourished children often have smaller babies when they grow up.

It can also slow recovery from wounds and illnesses, and it can complicate diseases such as measles, pneumonia, malaria, and diarrhea. It can leave the body more susceptible to disease.

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Causes

Malnutrition can result from various environmental and medical conditions.

1) Low intake of food

This may be caused by symptoms of an illness, for example, dysphagia, when it is difficult to swallow. Badly fitting dentures may contribute.

2) Mental health problems

Conditions such as depression, dementia, schizophrenia, anorexia nervosa, and bulimia can lead to malnutrition.

3) Social and mobility problems

Some people cannot leave the house to buy food or find it physically difficult to prepare meals. Those who live alone and are isolated are more at risk. Some people do not have enough money to spend on food, and others have limited cooking skills.

4) Digestive disorders and stomach conditions

If the body does not absorb nutrients efficiently, even a healthful diet may not prevent malnutrition. People with Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis may need to have part of the small intestine removed to enable them to absorb nutrients.

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