Malnutrition results from a poor diet or a lack of food. It happens when the intake of nutrients or energy is too low, poorly balanced, or too high. This will focus mainly on under nutrition which 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.

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. Malnutrition 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. 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.



For children under five, three types of malnutrition:

- Acute malnutrition (wasting)

- Underweight

- Chronic malnutrition (stunting)


Signs and symptoms of under nutrition include lack of appetite or interest in food or drink; tiredness and irritability; inability to concentrate; always feeling cold;  loss of fat, muscle mass, and body tissue; higher risk of getting sick and taking longer to heal; longer healing time for wounds; higher risk of complications after surgery; depression; reduced sex drive and problems with fertility.

In more severe cases, breathing becomes difficult; skin may become thin, dry, inelastic, pale, and cold; the cheeks appear hollow and the eyes sunken, as fat disappears from the face; hair becomes dry and sparse, falling out easily.

Eventually, there may be respiratory failure and heart failure, and the person may become unresponsive. Total starvation can be fatal within 8 to 12 weeks.

Children may show a lack of growth, and they may be tired and irritable. Behavioral and intellectual development may be slow, possibly resulting in learning difficulties.

Even with treatment, there can be long-term effects on mental function, and digestive problems may persist. In some cases, these may be lifelong.

Adults with severe undernourishment that started during adulthood usually make a full recovery with treatment.


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. Celiac disease is a genetic disorder that involves a gluten intolerance. It may result in damage to the lining of the intestines and poor food absorption. Persistent diarrhea, vomiting, or both can lead to a loss of vital nutrients.

5) Alcoholism

Addiction to alcohol can lead to gastritis or damage to the pancreas. These can make it hard to digest food, absorb certain vitamins, and produce hormones that regulate metabolism. Alcohol contains calories, so the person may not feel hungry. They may not eat enough proper food to supply the body with essential nutrients.

6) Lack of breastfeeding

Not breastfeeding, especially in the developing world, can lead to malnutrition in infants and children.


Prompt diagnosis and treatment can prevent the development and complications of malnutrition. There are several ways to identify adults who are malnourished or at risk of malnutrition. For children under five, the diagnosis is based on anthropometrical measurements to screen wasting, underweight, and stunting and a physical exam to identify clinical signs of kwashiorkor and/or marasmus.


The type of treatment will depend on the severity of the malnutrition, and the presence of any underlying conditions or complications.

The healthcare provider will prepare a targeted care plan, with specific aims for treatment. There will normally be a feeding program with a specially planned diet, and possibly some additional nutritional supplements.

People with severe malnourishment or absorption problems may need artificial nutritional support, either through a tube or intravenously.

The patient will be closely monitored for progress, and treatment will be regularly reviewed to ensure their nutritional needs are being met.


To prevent malnutrition, people need to consume a range of nutrients from a variety of food types. There should be a balanced intake of carbohydrates, fats, protein, vitamins, and minerals, as well as plenty of fluids, and especially water.

People with ulcerative colitis, Crohn's disease, celiac disease, alcoholism, and other health issues will receive appropriate treatment for their condition.


In some parts of the world, widespread and long-term malnutrition can result from a lack of food. In the wealthier nations, those most at risk of malnutrition are older people, especially those who are hospitalized or in long-term institutional care; individuals who are socially isolated; people on low incomes; those who have difficulty absorbing nutrients; people with chronic eating disorders, such as bulimia or anorexia nervosa; people who are recovering from a serious illness or condition.

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