Most people draw a connection between malnutrition and a lack of food, but that's not always the case. Many factors contribute to malnutrition, and the condition can develop despite an abundance of available food. Malnutrition is a global problem. Some people cannot afford nutritious food or do not have access to it. Foods high in sugar, fat, and salt are cheaper and readily available, but these options do not provide the nutrients our bodies require for optimal health.

What Is Malnutrition?

Malnutrition occurs when the body lacks the vitamins and minerals it needs to function properly. The condition can result from being undernourished or overnourished. It is a common misconception that someone who is malnourished is not eating enough food. While this is one cause, it is not the only cause. Malnutrition can be brought on by deficiencies, imbalances, or excesses.

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Undernutrition is one type of malnutrition and has several subgroups. Wasting occurs when a person has not eaten enough food or is coping with an illness that leads to dramatic weight loss. This is also known as low weight-for-height. Low height-for-age is also called stunting and is a common form of malnutrition seen in children. Their bodies are not getting what they need to grow, both physically and cognitively. Underweight children may be experiencing wasting, stunting, or a combination of both.

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Micronutrient-Related Malnutrition

Micronutrient-relation malnutrition describes a lack of essential micronutrients such as iodine, iron, zinc, vitamin A, and folate. These vitamins and minerals help maintain normal organ function and contribute to overall health, development, and general well-being. Iodine, vitamin A, and iron deficiencies are particularly common worldwide. This type of malnutrition affects more than two billion people globally.

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Overweight and Obesity

Being overweight or obese can signify another form of malnutrition and is defined as someone heavy for their height. Weight is classified by body mass index (BMI), which is measured by dividing the weight of a person in kilograms by the square of their height in meters. An adult with a BMI greater than 25 is considered overweight; above 30 is considered obese.

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Diet-Related Non-Communicable Diseases

Diet-related non-communicable diseases are the final form of malnutrition. The most common of these are stroke and heart attacks. These have a clear link to high blood pressure, which in turn relates directly to poor nutrition. While being obese can be a contributing factor, people of normal weight can also have poor nutrition that leads to these diseases.

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Who Is at Risk?

Malnutrition exists in every country. When taking all its forms into consideration, it is clearly a serious global health issue. Women, adolescents, children, and infants are at greater risk of developing malnutrition. Poverty also increases this risk because it is a significant barrier to healthy, nutrient-rich food.

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Scope of Malnutrition

According to the World Health Organization, 462 million adults are underweight, while 1.9 billion are overweight. Of children under the age of five, 52 million experience wasting; another 17 million are considered severely wasted. In addition, 155 million are stunted, and 41 million are obese or overweight. In low and middle-income countries, about 45% of childhood deaths before age five are related to malnutrition. This includes obesity, the childhood rates of which are also on the rise.

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Symptoms of malnutrition vary depending on what nutrients are lacking but can include rashes, achy joints, bleeding gums, bruising easily, night blindness, and a swollen or cracked tongue. Malnourished children are often short compared to their peers and may have weak immune systems. Malnutrition can affect all body systems and cause psychiatric symptoms as well.

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A doctor may recognize malnutrition during a regular exam by examining body fat distribution, overall appearance, and behavior. If he or she suspects the condition, the patient may be asked to keep a food journal and write down everything they eat so the doctor can carefully analyze their diet. Blood and urine tests can provide specific information about which vitamins and minerals are deficient.

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Ideally, treatment for malnutrition should include lifestyle changes and eating a more nutrition diet, but treating malnutrition is not always that simple. If severe, patients may require a feeding tube inserted through the nose, which will deposit nutrients directly into the stomach or small intestine. Parenteral (intravenous) nutrition is also an option if the patient cannot absorb nutrients in a more natural way.

Feeding Tube Nutrition Martinbowra / Getty Images


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