Nutrition for Malnutrition

Unlock the power of nutrition for malnutrition. Discover causes, risks, and treatment approaches for a healthier future.

Understanding Malnutrition

Malnutrition refers to an imbalance in dietary intake that occurs when a person has too much or too little food or essential nutrients, leading to a lack of vitamins, minerals, and other essential substances needed for the body to function optimally. It can manifest in different forms, including undernutrition and overnutrition.

Definition and Types

Malnutrition can mean undernutrition or overnutrition. Undernutrition is characterized by a deficiency of nutrients, including macronutrients (proteins, carbohydrates, fats) and micronutrients (vitamins and minerals). This can result from an overall lack of calories, protein, vitamins, or minerals. It can lead to significant health consequences and impact various bodily functions.

On the other hand, overnutrition occurs when there is excessive consumption of nutrients. This can contribute to health issues such as overweight, obesity, and toxicity from overdosing specific micronutrients. Overnutrition is associated with noncommunicable diseases and can have serious implications for overall health and well-being.

Impact on Health

Malnutrition, whether in the form of undernutrition or overnutrition, has significant implications for health. Undernutrition can result in stunted growth, weakened immune function, increased susceptibility to infections, delayed wound healing, and impaired cognitive development. It can also lead to various nutrient deficiencies, causing specific health problems associated with the lacking nutrients.

Overnutrition, particularly in the context of excessive calorie intake and poor nutrient quality, contributes to the global rise in overweight and obesity. These conditions are associated with an increased risk of chronic diseases such as cardiovascular diseases, type 2 diabetes, certain cancers, and musculoskeletal disorders. Overnutrition can also lead to nutrient imbalances and toxicities, further compromising overall health.

Understanding the different types and impacts of malnutrition is essential for identifying and addressing nutritional deficiencies or excesses. By promoting proper nutrition and addressing the underlying causes, individuals can strive for optimal health and well-being.


Undernutrition is a type of malnutrition that occurs when the body does not receive enough food and necessary nutrients, potentially leading to severe health impacts and becoming life-threatening [1]. Undernutrition can be categorized into two main types: macronutrient undernutrition, also known as protein-energy undernutrition, and micronutrient undernutrition.

Causes and Consequences

Macronutrient undernutrition occurs due to a deficiency of macronutrients such as proteins, carbohydrates, and fats. When the body lacks these essential nutrients, it can lead to the breakdown of tissues and the shutting down of nonessential functions to conserve energy. This can result in visible wasting of fat and muscle, and individuals can be overweight while still being undernourished.

Micronutrient undernutrition involves deficiencies in vitamins and minerals. When the body lacks these vital micronutrients, it can have serious and lasting effects on overall health [2]. The consequences of undernutrition can include impaired growth and development in children, a weakened immune system, increased susceptibility to infections, delayed wound healing, anemia, and fatigue.

Symptoms and Effects

Undernutrition can manifest through various symptoms and have wide-ranging effects on the body. Some common symptoms include:

  • Weight loss and visible wasting of fat and muscle
  • Thin and brittle hair
  • Dry and pale skin
  • Weakness and fatigue
  • Impaired growth and stunted development in children
  • Delayed wound healing
  • Increased susceptibility to infections

The effects of undernutrition can be far-reaching. In children, undernutrition can have long-lasting consequences on physical and cognitive development. Studies have shown that stunted children have lower resting metabolic rates compared to non-stunted children, potentially due to smaller metabolic active tissue. This can affect their overall energy expenditure and contribute to ongoing health challenges.

For adults, undernutrition can lead to a weakened immune system, making them more susceptible to infections and prolonging the recovery process. It can also increase the risk of developing chronic conditions and negatively impact organ function.

Addressing and preventing undernutrition requires a comprehensive approach that involves ensuring adequate intake of macronutrients and micronutrients through a balanced and varied diet. In severe cases, medical interventions may be necessary to provide nutritional support and prevent further health complications. Regular monitoring, early detection, and timely intervention are crucial in managing undernutrition and improving overall health outcomes.


Overnutrition, recognized as a form of malnutrition by the World Health Organization, occurs when an individual consumes more nutrients than their body requires, leading to an accumulation of body fat, overweight, or obesity. While malnutrition is often associated with undernutrition, overnutrition presents its own set of challenges and health implications.

Causes and Risks

Overnutrition can be attributed to several factors, including excessive consumption of calories, a diet high in unhealthy fats and sugars, sedentary lifestyles with limited physical activity, and genetic predispositions. The availability of affordable, energy-dense foods and the prevalence of sedentary behaviors in modern societies contribute to the rising rates of overnutrition.

The risks associated with overnutrition are significant. Excessive intake of nutrients, particularly protein, carbohydrates, and fats, can lead to the storage of excess nutrients as fat cells in the body. This can result in chronic inflammation, metabolic disorders, and a higher risk of noncommunicable diseases, including diabetes mellitus, coronary artery disease, and stroke.

Health Implications

Overnutrition poses various health implications, particularly in terms of obesity and related conditions. According to the World Health Organization, in 2020, approximately 5.7% of children under the age of 5 were overweight, and the number of adults with obesity nearly tripled worldwide from 1975 to 2016 [1].

Carrying excess weight increases the risk of developing chronic diseases such as type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, certain types of cancer, and musculoskeletal disorders. The accumulation of body fat can also lead to hormonal imbalances, insulin resistance, and dyslipidemia, further contributing to the development of these health conditions.

To combat overnutrition, it is important to adopt a balanced and nutritious diet, engage in regular physical activity, and maintain a healthy weight. Consulting with a healthcare professional or registered dietitian can provide personalized guidance and support in managing overnutrition and reducing the associated health risks.

By understanding the causes, risks, and health implications of overnutrition, individuals can make informed choices to maintain a healthy balance of nutrients and promote overall well-being.

Global Malnutrition Statistics

Understanding the global prevalence of malnutrition is crucial in addressing this pressing issue. Malnutrition can affect both children under 5 years old and adults worldwide. Let's explore the statistics related to these two vulnerable populations.

Children Under 5

Malnutrition among children under 5 years old is a significant concern, as it can have long-lasting impacts on their growth, development, and overall health. In 2019, a total of 144 million children under the age of five suffered from stunting, which refers to a failure to reach their full height potential due to chronic malnutrition. Additionally, 47 million children were identified as suffering from wasting, characterized by low weight for their height.

Malnutrition in children can lead to serious health consequences and is the underlying cause of approximately 45 percent of child mortality in low- and middle-income countries. It is estimated that malnutrition contributes to around 3.5 million deaths in children under the age of 5 years, with stunting, low weight, and low birth weight being significant factors.

Bangladesh is ranked fifth out of 138 countries with a malnourished population, with approximately 33% of children under the age of five being underweight. It is important to note that female children have a higher risk of developing malnutrition than male children in Bangladesh.

Adults Worldwide

Malnutrition is not limited to children but also affects adults worldwide. The number of adults with obesity has been on the rise over the years. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the number of adults with obesity nearly tripled globally from 1975 to 2016. This increase in obesity rates has significant health implications and contributes to various chronic diseases, such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and certain types of cancer.

In 2020, the WHO reported that 5.7% of children under 5 were overweight globally, showing an increase from 5.4% in 2000. This indicates a growing concern for overnutrition and its associated health risks. It is crucial to address both undernutrition and overnutrition to ensure the overall well-being of individuals of all age groups.

By understanding the global malnutrition statistics, we can recognize the magnitude of the problem and work towards implementing effective strategies and interventions to combat malnutrition in both children and adults.

Factors Contributing to Malnutrition

Malnutrition can affect various populations and is influenced by a range of factors, including socioeconomic factors and health conditions. Understanding these contributing factors is crucial for addressing and managing malnutrition effectively.

Socioeconomic Factors

Socioeconomic factors play a significant role in malnutrition. Limited access to nutritious food, economic disadvantages, and lack of nutrition knowledge can contribute to undernutrition and overnutrition. Inadequate financial resources may limit individuals' ability to purchase a balanced and nutritious diet, leading to a higher risk of malnutrition. Additionally, socioeconomic disparities can impact access to healthcare, education, and resources that support healthy eating habits, exacerbating the risk of malnutrition.

Health Conditions

Health conditions can also contribute to malnutrition. Certain diseases and medical conditions can affect dietary intake, nutrient absorption, and metabolic demands, leading to both undernutrition and overnutrition. Reduced dietary intake, malabsorption, increased nutrient losses, and altered metabolic demands can result in disease-related malnutrition. This type of malnutrition impacts the function and recovery of multiple organ systems, compromising muscle function, cardiac health, gastrointestinal function, immunity, and wound healing.

It's important to note that malnutrition is a common, under-recognized, and undertreated condition in hospital patients. Studies have shown high prevalence rates of malnutrition in hospital settings, ranging from 13% to 40% in the UK over the last 15 years. Specific subpopulations, such as emergency admissions and admissions from care homes, have even higher prevalence rates.

Addressing socioeconomic factors and health conditions is essential for preventing and managing malnutrition. By improving access to nutritious food, providing education on proper nutrition, and addressing underlying health conditions, the risk of malnutrition can be reduced. Regular screening for malnutrition using tools like the Malnutrition Universal Screening Tool (MUST) can also help identify individuals at risk and guide appropriate interventions.

It is important to understand the impact of malnutrition on both individuals and society. Malnourished patients often incur higher healthcare costs compared to normally nourished patients. In the UK, disease-related malnutrition costs exceeded £13 billion in 2007, surpassing the costs associated with obesity. However, prevention and treatment of malnutrition can lead to significant cost savings, with evidence showing savings of 10-20% or more in certain situations. By addressing the contributing factors and managing malnutrition effectively, the burden of malnutrition can be reduced, improving the health and well-being of individuals and reducing healthcare costs.

Diagnosis and Management

When it comes to malnutrition, early diagnosis and appropriate management are crucial in preventing further health complications. This section focuses on assessing malnutrition and the different approaches to its treatment.

Assessing Malnutrition

To diagnose malnutrition, healthcare professionals use various methods depending on the age group being assessed. In adults, routine blood tests play a pivotal role in identifying malnutrition and its underlying causes. These tests help assess factors such as anemia, vitamin and mineral deficiencies, dehydration, low blood sugar, and signs of severe infection, among others.

In children, malnutrition is often diagnosed by measuring weight and height and comparing them with expected average values. A sudden or significant drop below the expected level for a child may indicate malnutrition, while slower growth can also be a sign of malnourishment. Additionally, mid-upper arm diameter and skin fold thickness measurements are used in children to assess malnutrition. An upper arm circumference of less than 110 mm is considered severe malnutrition in children.

Blood tests are commonly conducted in children to assess various indicators of malnutrition, such as blood glucose, blood counts, urine, stool for parasites, blood protein levels, HIV, and other infections. Additionally, tests for iron, folic acid, vitamin B12, and protein estimation are recommended to further evaluate the nutritional status of the child.

The Malnutrition Universal Screening Tool (MUST) is a reliable method used to screen patients at risk of malnutrition. It incorporates screening, detailed assessment, and the formulation of an individualized stepwise management plan by a nutrition specialist. Regular rescreening of inpatients at seven-day intervals throughout a hospital admission helps clinicians identify those who have lost weight and require greater intervention.

Treatment Approaches

The treatment of malnutrition depends on the severity and underlying causes. In mild cases, dietary modifications and nutritional counseling may be sufficient to address the issue. This involves ensuring a balanced intake of macronutrients (proteins, carbohydrates, and fats) and micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) through a well-rounded diet.

For individuals with moderate to severe malnutrition, a more comprehensive approach is necessary. This may involve the use of therapeutic foods, oral nutritional supplements, and potentially intravenous feeding in severe cases. The goal is to provide the body with the necessary nutrients to restore weight, rebuild tissues, and improve overall health.

In addition to nutritional interventions, addressing the underlying causes of malnutrition is essential for long-term management. This may involve treating medical conditions, addressing socioeconomic factors, and providing access to clean water, sanitation, and healthcare services.

It's important to note that the management of malnutrition often requires a multidisciplinary approach, involving healthcare professionals such as doctors, dietitians, and nurses. Regular monitoring and follow-up are crucial to assess progress and adapt the treatment plan accordingly.

By accurately diagnosing malnutrition and implementing appropriate treatment approaches, individuals affected by malnutrition can regain their health, improve their nutritional status, and reduce the risk of further complications. Early intervention and ongoing support are key to successful management and recovery.