Malnutrition: What Are the Symptoms and Treatments?

Malnutrition: What Are the Symptoms and Treatments?
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Malnutrition refers to getting too little, too much, amount of certain nutrients. It can lead to severe health problems, including stunted growth; eye problems; diabetes, and heart disease.

Malnourishment affects billions worldwide. Certain populations may be at a higher risk of developing certain types of malnutrition depending on their environment and lifestyle.

Malnutrition refers to three broad categories of conditions:Undernutrition, including wasting, stunting, and underweight; micronutrient-related malnutrition, including micronutrient deficiencies and micronutrient excesses; and overweight, obesity, and diet-related non-communicable diseases, including heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, and certain types of cancer.

This article discusses the different types, symptoms, and causes of malnutrition and offers information about prevention and treatment options.

Scope of the problem

Approximately 462 million adults worldwide are underweight, while 1,9 billion are either overweight or obese. An estimated 155 million children under five years old were suffering from stunting in 2016, while 41 million were either overweight or obese.

About 45% of deaths among young children are linked to malnutrition. They mostly occur in low-and middle-income countries. At the same time that rates of childhood obesity are rising in these same countries, obesity rates among adults are also increasing.

What is Malnutrition?

Malnutrition is a medical condition resulting from nutrient deficiencies or excessive consumption. Malnutrition includes different types of malnutrition.

2 types of malnutrition:

•Chronic malnutrition is characterized by delayed growth in children, who will not be healthy heights for their ages.

• Acute malnutrition is defined as insufficient weight concerning height. Acute malnutrition can be moderate or severe depending on the child’s body weight.

Malnutrition has serious consequences for the health of the child. Particularly in younger children. Undernourished people often have deficiencies in vitamins and minerals, especially Iron, Zinc, Vitamin A, and Iodine. (3).

Overnutrition can cause micronutrient deficiencies too. It's possible to be overweight or even obese from excessive calorie consumption, but not get enough vitamins or minerals at the same time as well.

That’s why foods that contribute to overnutrition, such as fried and sugar-laden foods, tend to be calorie-dense but nutrient-poor. (4).

What Are the Symptoms of Malnutrition?

The signs and symptoms of each type of malnutrition vary. Undernourishment usually occurs when you don't get enough nutrients in your diet. This can cause (5):

  • Weight and hair loss
  • Loss of fat and muscle mass
  • Hollow cheeks and sunken eyes
  • Dry brittle hair and skin
  • Delayed wound healing
  • Fatigue & Irritability
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Depression and anxiety

Undernourished people may experience one or more of these symptoms. Undernourishment has specific effects.

Protein deficiency causes fluid retention and a bulging belly. On the one hand, the condition maras­mus, which results from severe caloric deficiency, leads to the wasting of fat and muscle loss.

Micronutrient deficiencies can also occur when someone is undernourished. Some of the most commonly encountered deficiencies and their symptoms include: (3):

  • Vitamin A: Dry eyes, night blindness, and an increased risk of infections.
  • Zinc: Lack of appetite, stunted hair growth, delayed wound healing, diarrhea.
  • Iron: Impairment of brain function, issues with regulation of body temperature, stomach problems.
  • Iodine: Enlarged thyroid gland (goiter), decreased production of thyroid hormones, growth, and developmental issues (9).

Undernourishment can lead to serious physical issues and even cause death. Stunting, wasting, and zinc and vitamin A deficiencies contributed to up to 45%of all child deaths in 2011.

Diet-related Non-communicable diseases (NCDs) include cardiovascular diseases (like heart attacks and strokes), certain cancers, and type 2 diabetes. Poor diets and nutritional deficiencies are among the top risk factor for these diseases globally.


Overweight and obesity are the main symptoms of overnutrition, but they can also cause nutrient deficiencies.

Research shows that people with excess body fat are more likely to have insufficient intake and low blood levels than people who are not overweight or obese. One study in 285 teenagers found that blood levels of vitamin A and E in obese teens were 2–10% less than those of normal body weight participants.

Being overweight and obese may be caused by consuming too many calories and not enough nutritious foods. Those who eat fast food tend to consume less vitamin A and C and more calories, fats, and salt than those who don't eat fast food.

4 Major Micronutrient Deficiencies:

Iron deficiency can lead to growth problems, as well as problems with intellectual development, weakened immunity, and increased exposure to diseases present in disadvantaged areas: pneumonia, diarrhea, malaria, measles, and AIDS. Iron is found in foods such as red meats, some fish, dried fruit, some cereals, dark green vegetables, and beans.

An iodine deficiency can lead to irreversible brain lesions. These can result in mental retardation. If you're iodine deficient, you may develop goiter (swollen thyroid) and other thyroid problems. Salt, algae, fish, and seafood contain iodine. Some vegetables such as green beans also contain iodine.

Vitamin A deficiency can lead to blindness or death. Vitamin A (retinol) is found in animal products such as liver, oily fishes, or even in cod liver oil. Carrots, spinach, broccoli, orange, and mango contain vitamin A (a carotenoid). Long-term micronutrient deficiencies are often fatal for children under five years old.

Vitamin B1 and B2 deficiencies can slow down children‘s development. Nutritional deficiencies often cause concentration problems which lead to high numbers of children dropping out of school and high levels of literacy.

Here are some nutritional and mineral supplements you can take:

Bronson Vitamin A 10,000 IU

MegaFood Iron Supplement

Iodine Supplement

Nature Made Vitamin B1

Nutricost Vitamin B2

Nature's Bounty Zinc

How Does Malnutrition Affect Cognitive Development?

A study comparing Indian children of normal nutrition intake and their malnutri­tioned peers found that the school-age malnourished group had lower IQs, poorer cognitive functioning, lower school perfor­mance, and a greater propensity for disciplinary action.

Poor nutrition, especially deficiencies in iron and iodine may cause cognitive deficits that are sometimes irreversible. Iron deficiency has been linked to poor working memory.

The key findings from the study were that malnutrition at age 3 was associated with poorer verbal and nonverbal cognitive abilities at age 3 and poorer VIQ, Spatial IQ, Full-Scale IQ, Reading Ability, and School Performance at Age 11.

Long-Term Consequences of Malnutrition

Nutrition can lead to the development or prevention of diseases and chronic health issues. Undernourishment has long-term effects including a higher risk of obesity and heart disease (20, 21).

A study on 50 adolescents in Brasil found that boys who were stunted by undernourishment early in life gained 5 percent more fat mass over three years than their peers who didn't have stunting.

A study conducted in Brazil found that 21% of children with stunted growth had high blood pressure compared with less than 10% of children without stunting. Researchers suspect that childhood malnutrition may cause metabolic changes that may increase the likelihood of developing chronic diseases in adulthood.

Overnutrition can also contribute to the formation of certain health issues. Overweight or obese children have a greater risk of developing heart disease and type 2 diabetes.

A study on over 36,900 children found that those who are overweight are 4.5 times as likely to develop type 2 diabetes compared to their peers who have a normal Body Mass Index (BMI). Malnutrition can cause serious health issues, so preventing and treating malnutrition may help reduce the prevalence of chronic health issues.

Common Causes of Malnutrition

Malnutrition is a global problem that can result from various factors including environmental, economic, and medical conditions. According to the World Health Organization, over half a billion people suffer from malnutrition, while over two billion people are overweight or obese.

Malnutrition can be caused by some factors including:

  • Studies show that food insecurity or a lack of adequate access to food is linked to malnutrition.
  • Malnutrition is caused by digestive problems, such as Crohn's disease, celiac disease, bacterial overgrowth in the intestine, ulcerative colitis, or cystic fibrosis that disrupt your body’s ability to digest food or absorb nutrients can cause malnutrition.
  • Heavy drinking can lead to inadequate intake of protein, calories, and micronutrients.
  • Depression and other mental health conditions may increase your risk for malnutrition. A study found that the prevalence rate of malnutrition was 4% greater in people with depression than in healthy individuals.
  • Being unable to obtain and prepare healthy food: Studies have identified being frail, lacking mobility, and having poor muscle strength as risk factors for malnutrition. These issues impair food-preparation skills.
  • Cancer and liver disease can lead to a loss of appetite, persistent pain, or nausea
  • COPD, pulmonary embolism, and emphysema can increase your calorie requirements, and reduce your appetite.
  • Dysphagia – A condition that makes swallowing difficult and can mean that only some consistencies of foods and liquids can be taken.
  • Dementia – People with dementia may not be able to communicate their needs when they eat, their pace, or lose an appetite.

Who is Affected?

Malnutrition affects every country in the world. Combatting malnutrition in all its forms remains one of the greatest global public health challenges.

Children, women, infants, and adolescents are at special risk of malnutrition. Early nutrition—from the time a baby is conceived until he/she turns two years old—is critical for optimal development.

Poor nutrition amplifies the risk of and risks from malnutrition. Poor people are more likely to be malnourished than rich people. Malnutrition can increase healthcare costs, decrease productivity, and slow economic growth, which can lead to a cycle of poverty and illness.

Malnutrition affects people in all parts of the world, but some groups are at a higher risk than others.

  • Undernourished people in developing countries or areas without access to food: undernutrition and micronutrients deficiencies are especially common in sub-Saharan Africa and southern Asia.
  • Malnutrition among pregnant and breastfeeding mothers is common in some developing countries.
  • Low socioeconomic status is associated with nutritional deficiencies.
  • Malnutrition among older adults is a serious problem. According to research, up to 22 percent of older adults are malnutrition and over 45 percent are at risk of malnutrition.
  • People with Crohn’s disease or ulcerative Colitis are up to four times more at risk for malnutrition than people without these conditions.

How to Recover from Malnutrition?

Your treatment for malnutrition will depend on your overall health and the severity of malnutrition. The first dietary advice often includes:

Eat adequate nutrition fortified foods that provide lots of protein and calories, snack in between meals, and drink plenty of calorie-containing beverages. Some people also need assistance with underlying issues such as mental health issues. For example, caring for children or doing occupational therapy If a child is malnourished, their parent or carer may need help and support.

If these initial dietary changes aren't enough, a healthcare professional may also recommend you take extra nutrients in the form of nutritional supplements or nutritional drinks. If you have trouble with eating due to anorexia, then other treatments may be necessary, including:

An intravenous feeding tube - can either be passed through your nose and into your mouth or be inserted directly into the stomach.

Preventing malnutrition

Eat a healthy, balanced diet each day. You need to eat a variety of foods from the main 5 food groups, including grains (cereals), vegetables, fruits, proteins, and dairy, lots of fruit and veggies, starchy foods, including bread, rice, potatoes, and pasta. Some milk and dairy products or alternatives. Protein comes from different sources including meat, fish, eggs, and beans.

If you have a medical condition that makes you more prone to malnutrition, speak to a doctor. If you have more complicated dietary needs, or if your body requires additional nutrients, you might want to consider using a Ketogenic Diet.

To prevent and treat malnutrition, address the essential nutrient and mineral deficiency issues. Some of the best ways to prevent malnutrition include giving people iron, zinc, and iodine supplements, food supplements, and nutrition education.

Furthermore, interventions that encourage healthy eating choices and physical activity for children and adults at risk for overweight and obesity may help prevent overweight and obesity. You can also help avoid malnutrition by eating a diet that includes enough carbohydrates, proteins, fats, water, vitamins, and minerals.

On the other hand, treating malnutrition usually requires more individualized approaches. If you think you or someone you know might be undernourished, a healthcare provider can identify the signs and symptoms of malnutrition by recommending nutritional evaluation or blood tests and working with a dietitian to develop a feeding schedule.

Final Thoughts

Overnutrition and undernutrition refer to malnutrition. Undernourishment can lead to weight loss, fatigue, mood changes, and vitamin and mineral deficiencies. Overnutrition can lead to overweight, overeating, and inadequate micronutrients.

Both types can lead you to health issues if not dealt with properly. If you think you or someone you know might be malnourished (undernourished), speak to a health care professional right away.