Undernutrition can lead to delayed growth or wasting, while a diet that provides too much food, but not necessarily balanced, leads to obesity.
In many parts of the world, undernutrition results from a lack of food. In some cases, however, undernourishment may stem from a health condition, such as an eating disorder or a chronic illness that prevents the person from absorbing nutrients.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), malnutrition is the gravest single threat to global public health. Globally, it contributes to 45 percent of deaths of children aged under 5 years.
This article will focus mainly on undernutrition.
What is malnutrition?
Older people can be at risk of nutrition if they are isolated and have mobility problems.
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.