Definition, Types, Causes, and Prevention of Malnutrition

Malnutrition definition, causes, types and symptoms

Written by Aeesha McOseni

November 5, 2020

When you hear about malnutrition, what comes to your mind? Bony body frames, hollowed cheeks, and swollen stomach, right? You are both halfway wrong, and halfway right.

What is malnutrition you might ask?

Malnutrition Definition

Malnutrition is defined as a lack of adequate nourishment. It is sometimes called Hidden hunger. It can also refer to the lack of vitamins and minerals in a diet, a deficiency.

But unlike most people would know, malnutrition does not only paint a picture of Kwashiorkor, but it is also seen in obesity.

Types of Malnutrition

There are two types of malnutrition.

Apart from physical appearance—which might not be accurate—the types of malnutrition can be identified by tests. For example, measuring body mass index (BMI) and other malnutrition screening tests.

1. Undernutrition

This is the type of malnutrition that results from not getting enough calories, vitamins, proteins, and minerals from one’s diet. It is more like not getting enough food at all. Undernutrition is characterized by;

a. Hollow cheeks
b. Bony body frame; little fat or muscle
c. Swollen stomach
d. Fatigue
e. Stunted growth etc.

2. Overnutrition

This type of malnutrition results from a nutrient deficiency in a surplus diet. An unbalanced diet. A diet that is full of calories and fat, however, inadequate in vitamins and minerals. Overnutrition is characterized by obesity.

Causes of Malnutrition

Malnutrition is caused by many factors and this list will cut across the causes of both types of malnutrition mentioned above.

1. Low Consumption of Food

Lack of food is one of the major causes of undernutrition. It can be because of economic and societal problems like food price inflation, food insecurity, war, or natural disasters like famine, drought, etc.

2. Low Nutrient Absorption

This is quite different from the above mentioned. In this case, there might be sufficient food but the body does not absorb enough nutrients from it. May be caused by some medical conditions or illnesses.

3. Mental Health Conditions

The most common health conditions that lead to malnutrition are depression and Anoxeria Nervosa. You can read more about depression here. In the case of Anoxeria Nervosa, the person sees him/herself as overweight, which might not be true. Societal standards often aggravate this condition. People with anorexia want to continuously control their body shape by using several extreme means to fit a beauty standard.

4. Lifestyle Choices

The choices a person makes in their day to day life can lead to either type of malnutrition. According to Medical News Today, alcohol abuse can lead to long-term damage to the pancreas, thereby making it hard for the body to digest food, absorb vitamins, and produce hormones that regulate metabolism.

Read: 16 Health Benefits of Fenugreek You Should Know About

Eating unhealthy processed food with very little nutrient content can also lead to obesity.

Prevalence of Malnutrition

Undernutrition is more prevalent in children in low, middle-income, and warring countries. Meanwhile, overnutrition is common among children and adults of both developing and developed countries.

According to the World Health Organization, (WHO), 45% of death among children under 5 years of age are linked to undernutrition and over 144 million are stunted and severely wasted. While 38.3 million children are overweight.

The WHO fact sheet also shows that 1.9 billion adults are overweight and 462 million are underweight.

These figures show a disparity in diet choice between adults and children and within countries.

Prevention of Malnutrition

Malnutrition can be prevented by a number of actions. One of such is consuming food that is rich in nutrients and vitamins.

Common Vitamins & Nutrients and Their Deficiencies

1. Vitamin A

This vitamin is important for the healthy functioning of the eye. Vitamin A and its precursors can be found in food like carrots, sweet potatoes, spinach, etc. Vitamin A deficiency is common among children and can cause preventable blindness.

2. Vitamin C

This is an essential vitamin for overall health. Deficiency of vitamin C can lead to scurvy, characterized by muscle or joint pain, gum bleeding, etc. Vitamin C exists abundantly in nature in food such as citrus fruits, tomatoes, cabbage, berries, etc.

3. Iron

Iron is crucial for red blood cell formation. The deficiency can result in anemia, the widest spread nutrient deficiency in the world. You can get iron from food like egg yolk, red meat, and leafy vegetables.

4. Vitamin D

This vitamin works by maintaining the body’s calcium level. It is vital for healthy bone and teeth development. Deficiency of this vitamin can lead to the formation of fragile bones and teeth, and stunted bone growth. Sunlight is the best source of vitamin D but also available in fatty fish, egg yolk, etc.

5. Calcium

Essential for bone and teeth formation. Calcium with vitamin D helps in the healthy development of bone mass. It is available in food such as milk, cheese, bone, etc.

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