Malnutrition is a condition that occurs as a result of the deficiency of certain vital nutrients in a person’s diet. The deficiency fails to meet the nutrient demands of the body leading to effects on the growth, physical health, mood, behavior and other functions of the body. Malnutrition commonly affects children and the elderly.

A malnourished person finds that their body has difficulty doing normal things such as growing and resisting disease. Physical work becomes problematic and even learning abilities can be diminished. For women, pregnancy becomes risky and they cannot be sure of producing nourishing breast milk.

According to the UN’s Standing Committee on Nutrition (SCN), malnutrition is the largest single contributor to disease in the world. Disease sometimes disease is the result of malnutrition or a contributing cause.

Malnutrition at an early age leads to reduced physical and mental development during childhood. Stunting, for example, affects more than 147 million pre-scholars in developing countries, according to SCN’s World Nutrition Situation 5th report. The same report recorded that iodine deficiency, is the world’s greatest single cause of mental retardation and brain damage.

Malnutrition can be:

  • Undernutrition– occurs when the body does not get enough nutrients. This can cause the birth of low birth-weight babies.
  • Overnutrition– occurs when the body gets more nutrients than its need as a result of eating too much, taking too many vitamins or other dietary replacements.


Types of malnutrition

There are two major types of malnutrition:

  1. Protein-energy malnutrition – resulting from deficiencies in any or all nutrients. There are three types of protein-energy malnutrition in children:
    1. Acute malnutrition – The child may appear Wasted or thin, as a result of acute inadequate nutrition leading to rapid weight loss or failure to gain weight normally.
    2. Chronic malnutrition – The child may appear Stunted or short, as a result of inadequate nutrition over long period of time leading to failure of linear growth.
    3. Acute and chronic malnutrition – The child becomes underweight from a combination measure, therefore, it could occur as a result of wasting, stunting, or both.
  1. Micronutrient deficiency diseases – resulting from a deficiency of specific micronutrients.

Some nutrient deficiencies that can lead to malnutrition are:

  • Iron Deficiency:This is the most prevalent form of malnutrition worldwide, it affects millions of people. Iron forms the molecules that carry oxygen in the blood, so symptoms of a deficiency include tiredness and lethargy. Lack of iron in large segments of the population severely damages a country’s productivity.
  • Vitamin A Deficiency: This weakens the immune systems of a large proportion of under-fives in poor or developing countries, thus, increasing their vulnerability to disease. A deficiency in vitamin A, can increase the risk of dying from diarrhoea, measles and malaria by 20-24 percent. It is also a leading cause of child blindness across developing countries (UN Standing Committee on Nutrition’s 5th Report on the World Nutrition Situation, 2005).
  • Iodine Deficiency:It affects about 780 million people worldwide. The clearest symptom is a swelling of the thyroid gland (goiter). But the most serious impact is on the brain, which cannot develop properly without iodine. The UN research recorded that, some 20 million children (Vitamin & Mineral Deficiency, a global damage assessment report, Unicef) are born mentally impaired because their mothers did not consume enough iodine.
  • Zinc Deficiency:This contributes to growth failure and weakened immunity in young children. It is linked to a higher risk of diarrhoea and pneumonia, resulting in nearly 800,000 deaths per year.



  • Inadequate diet or a problem with absorbing nutrients from food.
  • Long-term health condition or illness.
  • HHLow income to feed well.
  • Lack of appetite, such as cancer, liver disease, persistent pain or nausea.
  • Mental health condition, such as depression or schizophrenia, which may affect your ability to look after yourself.
  • Health conditions/illness that causes frequent hospital admissions.
  • Health condition/illness that disrupts your body’s ability to digest food or absorb nutrients, such as Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis.
  • People with dementia may be unable to communicate their needs when it comes to eating.
  • Dysphagia condition that makes swallowing difficult or painful.
  • Persistent vomiting or diarrhea.
  • Eating disorder such as anorexia nervosa


Diagnosis of malnutrition is made clinically by examining the patient. In addition the BMI or body mass index (weight in kilograms over height in metres squared – Weight/height) and mid arm circumference.

Initial diagnostic laboratory studies include the following:

  • Complete blood count
  • Sedimentation rate
  • Serum electrolytes
  • Urinalysis
  • Culture

Other diagnostic tests include routine blood tests for detection of anemia, chronic infection etc.

Note that: Those with a BMI less than 18.5 needs to see their health care providers for assessment of malnutrition. Also, children with growth retardation or stunting need to be assessed as well for signs of malnutrition.


  • Unintentional weight loss (losing 5-10% or more of your body weight over three to six months).
  • Weak muscles.
  • Feeling tired all the time.
  • Low mood.
  • Poor weight gain.
  • Slowing of linear growth.
  • An increase in illnesses or infections.
  • Anemia.
  • Diarrhea.
  • Disorientation.
  • Night blindness.
  • Goiter (enlarged thyroid gland).
  • Loss of reflexes and lack of muscular coordination.
  • Muscle twitches.
  • Amenorrhea (cessation of menstrual periods)
  • Scaling and cracking of the lips and mouth.

Signs of Malnutrition in Children

  • Failure to grow at the expected rate and changes in behavior,
  • Appearing unusually irritable, sluggish or anxious.


  • Engage in moderate physical activity for at least 30 minutes, at least several times a week
  • Achieve or maintain their ideal weight.
  • Use alcohol sparingly or avoid it altogether.
  • Promotion of breastfeeding is particularly crucial in developing countries where safe alternatives to human milk are unavailable.
  • Child’s weight and physical development should be regularly assessed by your GP when your child is young. Speak to your GP or health adviser if you have any concerns about your child’s health or development.


  • Increase in the intake of energy (calories), protein, carbohydrates, fluids, and vitamins and minerals to aim the reduction in risk of developing complications, such as; infections, and to avoid hospital admission.
  • Taking special nutritional supplements which can increase your energy and protein intake.
  • For those unable to eat enough to meet your nutritional needs, a feeding tube to provide nutrients directly into your digestive system and a drip to provide nutrients and fluids directly into a vein

Please visit your Health Facilitator as soon as any of the above symptoms is noticed.

Article By: eDokita Team


  1. World Food Programme (WFP); overview, 2-ways pf eliminatinating malnutrition, types and symptoms of malnutrition. 2016
  2. NHS; what malnutrition can be referred to, symptoms, causes, treatment and prevention of malnutrition. 2015
  3. Emedicine; Harohallli R Shashidhar, MD, symptoms, prevention and diagnosis of malnutrition. 2016
  4. WHO;overview.2016
  5. Dr Ananya Mandal, News Medical Life Science introduction and diagnosis of malnutrition. 2014
  6. Medical Dictionary; overnutrition, symptoms and prevention of malnutrition. 2013

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