Malnutrition : Signs and Symptoms

Malnutrition is a broad term which refers to bothundernutrition (subnutrition) and overnutrition. Individuals are malnourished, or suffer from undernutrition if their diet does not provide them with adequate calories and protein for maintenance and growth, or they cannot fully utilize the food they eat due to illness. People are also malnourished, or suffer from overnutrition if they consume too many calories.

Malnutrition can also be defined as the insufficient, excessive or imbalanced consumption of nutrients. Several different nutritiondisorders may develop, depending on which nutrients are lacking or consumed in excess.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), malnutrition is the gravest single threat to global public health.

This text will focus more on the undernutrition aspect of malnutrition, rather than overnutrition.

Subnutrition occurs when an individual does not consume enough food. It may exist if the person has a poor diet that gives them the wrong balance of basic food groups.

Obese people, who consume more calories than they need, may suffer from the subnutrition aspect of malnutrition if their diet lacks the nutrients their body needs for good health.

Poor diet may lead to a vitamin or mineral deficiency, among other essential substances, sometimes resulting in scurvy- a condition where an individual has a vitamin C (ascorbic acid) deficiency. Though scurvy is a very rare disease, it still occurs in some patients - usually elderly people, alcoholics, or those that live on a diet devoid of fresh fruits and vegetables. Similarly, infants or children who are on special or poor diets for any number of economic or social reasons may be prone to scurvy.

According to the National Health Service (NHS), UK, it is estimated that over two million people are affected by malnutrition (subnutrition).

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the number of people globally who were malnourished stood at 923 million in 2007, an increase of over 80 million since the 1990-92 base period.

The World Health Organization (WHO) says that malnutrition is by far the largest contributor to child mortality globally, currently present in half of all cases. Underweight births and inter-uterine growth restrictions are responsible for about 2.2 million child deaths annually in the world. Deficiencies in vitamin A or zinc cause 1 million deaths each year.

WHO adds that malnutrition during childhood usually results in worse health and lower educational achievements during adulthood. Malnourished children tend to become adults who have smaller babies.

While malnutrition used to be seen as something which complicated such diseases as measles, pneumonia and diarrhea, it often works the other way round - malnutrition can cause diseases to occur.

Globally, as well as in developed, industrialized countries, the following groups of people are at highest risk of malnutrition (subnutrition):
  • Elderly people, especially those who are hospitalized or in long-term institutional careIndividuals who are socially isolated
  • People on low incomes (poor people)
  • People with chronic eating disorders, such as bulimia or anorexia nervosa
  • People convalescing after a serious illness or condition
According to Medilexicon's medical dictionary:

  • Malnutrition is "Faulty nutrition resulting from malabsorption, poor diet, or overeating."
  • Undernutrition is "A form of malnutrition resulting from a reduced supply of food or from inability to digest, assimilate, and use the necessary nutrients."
What are the signs and symptoms of malnutrition?
A symptom is something the patient feels and reports, while a sign is something other people, such as the doctor detect. For example, pain may be a symptom while a rash may be a sign. Signs and symptoms of malnutrition (subnutrition) include:
  • Loss of fat (adipose tissue)
  • Breathing difficulties, a higher risk of respiratory failure
  • Depression
  • Higher risk of complications after surgery
  • Higher risk of hypothermia - abnormally low body temperature
  • The total number of some types of white blood cells falls; consequently, the immune system is weakened, increasing the risk of infections.
  • Higher susceptibility to feeling cold
  • Longer healing times for wounds
  • Longer recover times from infections
  • Longer recovery from illnesses
  • Lower sex drive
  • Problems with fertility
  • Reduced muscle mass
  • Reduced tissue mass
  • Tiredness, fatigue, or apathy
  • IrritabilityIn more severe cases:
  • Skin may become thin, dry, inelastic, pale, and cold
  • Eventually, as fat in the face is lost, the cheeks look hollow and the eyes sunken
  • Hair becomes dry and sparse, falling out easily
  • Sometimes, severe malnutrition may lead to unresponsiveness (stupor)
  • If calorie deficiency continues for long enough, there may be heart, liver and respiratory failure
  • Total starvation is said to be fatal within 8 to 12 weeks (no calorie consumption at all)
Children - children who are severely malnourished typically experience slow behavioral development, even mental retardation may occur. Even when treated, undernutrition may have long-term effects in children, with impairments in mental function and digestive problems persisting; in some cases for the rest of their lives. Adults whose severe undernourishment started during adulthood, usually make a full recovery when treated.
What are the causes of malnutrition?
Malnutrition, the result of a lack of essential nutrients, resulting in poorer health, may be caused by a number of conditions or circumstances. In many developing countries long-term (chronic) malnutrition is widespread - simply because people do not have enough food to eat.

In more wealthy industrialized nations malnutrition is usually caused by:
  • Poor diet - if a person does not eat enough food, or if what they eat does not provide them with the nutrients they require for good health, they suffer from malnutrition. Poor diet may be caused by one of several different factors. If the patient develops dysphagia (swallowing difficulties) because of an illness, or when recovering from an illness, they may not be able to consume enough of the right nutrients.
  • Mental health problems - some patients with mental health conditions, such as depression, may develop eating habits which lead to malnutrition. Patients with anorexia nervosa or bulimia may develop malnutrition because they are ingesting too little food.
  • Mobility problems - people with mobility problems may suffer from malnutrition, simply because they either cannot get out enough to buy foods, or find preparing them too arduous.
  • Digestive disorders and stomach conditions - some people may eat properly, but their bodies cannot absorb the nutrients they need for good health. Examples include patients with Crohn's disease or ulcerative colitis. Such patients may need to have part of the small intestine removed (ileostomy). Individuals who suffer from Celiac disease have a genetic disorder that makes them intolerant to gluten. Patients with Celiac disease have a higher risk of damage to the lining of their intestines, resulting in poorer food absorption. Patients who experience serious bouts of diarrhea and/or vomiting may lose vital nutrients and are at higher risk of suffering from malnutrition.
  • Alcoholism - an alcoholic is a person who suffers from alcoholism - the body is dependent on alcohol. Alcoholism is a chronic (long-term) disease. Individuals who suffer from alcoholism can develop gastritis, or pancreas damage. These problems also seriously undermine the body's ability to digest food, absorb certain vitamins, and produce hormones which regulate metabolism. Alcohol contains calories, reducing the patient's feeling of hunger, so he/she consequently may not eat enough proper food to supply the body with essential nutrients.
In poorer, developing nations malnutrition is commonly caused by:
  • Food shortages - in poorer developing nations food shortages are mainly caused by a lack of technology needed for higher yields found in modern agriculture, such as nitrogen fertilizers, pesticides and irrigation. Food shortages are a significant cause of malnutrition in many parts of the world.
  • Food prices and food distribution - it is ironic that approximately 80% of malnourished children live in developing nations that actually produce food surpluses (Food and Agriculture Organization). Some leading economists say that famine is closely linked to high food prices and problems with food distribution.
  • Lack of breastfeeding - experts say that lack of breastfeeding, especially in the developing world, leads to malnutrition in infants and children. In some parts of the world mothers still believe that bottle feeding is better for the child. Another reason for lack of breastfeeding, mainly in the developing world, is that mothers abandon it because they do not know how to get their baby to latch on properly, or suffer pain and discomfort.


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