What is Malnutrition?
Malnutrition is a broad term which refers to both undernutrition (subnutrition) and overnutrition.
The World Health Organization (WHO) says that malnutrition is by far the largest contributor to child mortality globally, currently present in 45 percent 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.
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 care
- Individuals 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.
Signs and Symptoms
- Loss of fat (adipose tissue)
- Breathing difficulties, a higher risk of respiratory failure
- 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
In 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).
Signs and symptoms in 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.
In the poorer nations Malnutrition is commonly caused by:
- Food shortages – in the 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.
Malnutrition is caused mainly by not consuming what the National Health Service (NHS), UK, calls “the right balance of nutrients from major food groups”. These include:
- Fruit and vegetables
- Dairy – vegans are able to find abundant nutrients from non-animal sources (see: The Vegan Diet)
The average human should drink at least 1.2 liters of fluid per day.
- Ulcerative colitis – a fairly common chronic (long-term) disease that causes inflammation of the colon (the large intestine). It is a form of inflammatory bowel disease. When inflammation is only in the rectum the disease is called ulcerative proctitis. The inflammation may extend into the upper parts of the colon. Universal colitis orpancolitis is when the whole colon is involved.
Patients with ulcerative colitis commonly lose weight because their body is unable to absorb nutrients properly. Consuming plenty of fluids, and eating regularly (five or six small meals daily), as well as taking food supplements may help to prevent ulcerative colitis.
- Crohn’s disease – an ongoing condition that causes inflammation of the digestive tract, or the GI (gastrointestinal) tract (the gut). Crohn’s disease may also be called ileitis or enteritis. Crohn’s disease can affect any part of the gut, from the mouth all the way down to the anus. In the majority of cases the lower part of the small intestine – the ileum – is affected. Patients with Crohn’s disease can feel pain; the condition makes the intestines empty frequently, resulting in diarrhea. Although preventing Crohn’s disease is unlikely, following treatment carefully helps prevent malnutrition considerably.
- Celiac disease (UK: Coeliac disease) – also known as gluten intolerance. If you suffer from Celiac disease you have a genetic disorder that makes you intolerant to gluten. It is caused by a reaction to gliadin (a gluten protein found in wheat). It can affect all types of people. However, it seems to be more prevalent among people of Northern European descent. Patients who follow a well-balanced, healthy, gluten-free diet are less likely to suffer from malnutrition.
- Alcohol abuse – people who are addicted to alcohol and abuse alcohol may sometimes suffer from malnutrition. The only effective way to address this is to treat the alcoholism. There are several ways of treating alcoholism. The first step for the alcoholic it to acknowledge that there is an alcohol dependency problem. The next step is to get help.