Malnutrition involves a dietary deficiency. People may eat too much of the wrong type of food and have malnutrition, but this article will focus on undernutrition, when a person lacks nutrients because they do not consume enough food.
Poor diet may lead to a lack of vitamins, minerals, and other essential substances. Too little protein can lead to kwashiorkor, symptoms of which include a distended abdomen. A lack of vitamin C can result in scurvy.
Scurvy is rare in industrialized nations, but it can affect older people, those who consume excessive quantities of alcohol, and people who do not eat fresh fruits and vegetables. Some infants and children who follow a limited diet for any reason may be prone to scurvy.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 462 million people worldwide are malnourished, and stunted development due to poor diet affects 159 million children globally.
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.
It 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.
Signs and symptoms of undernutrition 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
•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. People with Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis may need to have part of the small intestine removed to enable them to absorb nutrients.
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.
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.
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 absorping nutrients
•people with chronic eating disorders, such as bulimia or anorexia nervosa
•people who are recovering from a serious illness or condition