What is malnutrition? Causes, symptoms, and prevention

by Johnny Jacks

In the 21st century, malnutrition remains a globally alarming issue. With over 460 million adults and 150 million children suffering from malnutrition, the World Health Organization (WHO) has ranked it as one of the major threats to public health. So what is malnutrition? Let’s explore the definition, causes, symptoms, and prevention of this condition with Monkey.

What is malnutrition? Classification of malnutrition

To maintain smooth functioning, your body needs various nutrients in certain quantities. Malnutrition occurs when the nutrients you consume do not meet these basic requirements. It can happen when your body lacks overall nutrients, or when you have an excess of some nutrients while lacking others. Even if you supplement with a deficient vitamin or mineral, malnutrition can still occur.

What is malnutrition?

What is malnutrition?

Malnutrition is a condition of imbalance between the nutrients that the body needs and the nutrients it receives. This alarming condition occurs when you do not consume enough nutrients in your diet, whether it be due to a deficiency or an excess of nutrients.

Malnutrition can be divided into two basic types:

Undernutrition: This type of malnutrition occurs when the body does not receive enough protein, calories, or essential vitamins and minerals. This deficiency can lead to conditions such as low weight for height (thin body type), stunted growth (short stature for age), or low weight for age (underweight).

Overnutrition: This condition occurs when the body consumes an excess of certain nutrients, such as protein, calories, or fat, but does not receive enough vitamins and minerals at the same time. The World Health Organization has added “overnutrition” to the definition of malnutrition to emphasize the negative impact of excessive nutrient consumption. This type of malnutrition can lead to overweight or obesity, with the main cause being food intake. (For example: Fried foods, high-sugar foods containing high calories and fat, but very few essential nutrients.)

Causes of malnutrition in children and adults

Malnutrition often occurs because the body is lacking in nutrients through daily food intake. After understanding what malnutrition is, let’s explore the causes of this condition in children and adults. There are many causes of malnutrition, but the main causes stem from external factors such as living conditions, economic conditions, or daily eating habits.

The most common causes of malnutrition in children

Find out the causes of malnutrition in children.

Find out the causes of malnutrition in children.

Lack of knowledge in child rearing: For example, not breastfeeding the child adequately, improper introduction of complementary foods, feeding the child too little or allowing the child to eat according to their preferences or overly restrictive when the child is sick… All of these can lead to malnutrition, with a significant portion of the cause being the lack of basic nutrition knowledge on the part of parents.

Early/late nutritional supplementation: Giving the child nutritional supplements too early or too late with inappropriate or low-quality nutrients is one of the causes of malnutrition. For example, introducing solid foods too early or stopping breastfeeding can increase the risk of illness due to nutritional and immune deficiencies. In addition, delaying complementary feeding can lead to malnutrition because breast milk no longer meets the nutritional needs of the child’s body.

Early weaning: Studies have shown that infants and young children who are not breastfed adequately in the first six months are at higher risk of malnutrition. Breast milk is the best source of nutrients, if the child does not receive enough breast milk, the risk of illness will increase. Ideally, the child should breastfeed until 24 months of age.

Sick child: Infections/parasites in the gut, respiratory infections, complications of measles, pneumonia… can often cause loss of appetite and poor absorption in the child’s body.

Physical abnormalities: Babies born premature, fetal malnutrition, or with abnormalities such as cleft lip, cleft palate, congenital heart disease… are at high risk of malnutrition.

Picky eaters: Picky eating is a common cause of malnutrition in children. It may be due to inadequate care by parents such as preparing food that is not suitable for their taste or making the child tense and anxious, leading to loss of appetite.

Causes of malnutrition in adults

If malnutrition in children is mostly caused by inadequate care from parents, the following are the most common causes of malnutrition in adults.

Limited access to quality food sources: Poor-quality meals in terms of both quantity and quality of essential nutrients are the most common cause of malnutrition, especially in poor countries.

Difficulty in eating (nausea, difficulty swallowing, throat surgery, etc.), calorie depletion (cancer patients, chronic diarrhea, etc.). Patients who are nourished by intravenous sugar for a long time are also susceptible to malnutrition.

Poor absorption of nutrients due to disease: Some conditions prevent your body from absorbing nutrients, such as Crohn’s disease, celiac disease, and digestive problems such as the overgrowth of bacteria in the gut, which can also cause malnutrition in adults. At this time, the patient’s stomach does not secrete enough digestive juices, causing a feeling of fullness, and belching. Therefore, patients cannot easily absorb nutrients, leading to malnutrition if not promptly addressed. In addition, some cases of liver disease also show signs of loss of appetite, fatigue, insomnia, etc., which can lead to malnutrition after a long period of time.

Psychological health disorders: Results from a study showed that people with depression have a higher risk of malnutrition by about 4% compared to normal people. Excessive stress, anxiety, depression, and other mental health conditions can increase the risk of malnutrition.

Eating disorders: In many cases, eating disorders such as anorexia or overeating, hormonal imbalances that disrupt hunger and fullness signals, absorption disorders such as pancreatic insufficiency or gastritis, are also the leading causes of malnutrition. These causes make patients not enjoy food, limit the absorption of nutrients into the body. This condition, if prolonged, will lead to severe nutrient deficiencies.

Excessive alcohol consumption: The use of many stimulants, such as alcohol, can make the body unable to absorb enough…

People at risk of malnutrition

Anyone of us can be at risk of malnutrition, but the following groups are more vulnerable:

  1. Poor and low-income people: Despite living in the most developed countries like the US or in countries with limited food diversity, poor people still have limited access to nutritious food. In developed countries, low-income communities tend to have easy access to high-calorie, low-nutrient fast food, which puts them at a higher risk of malnutrition.
  2. Children: Scientific evidence shows that children have higher nutritional needs than adults to support their growth and development. Children living in difficult conditions are particularly at risk of malnutrition.
  3. People with chronic diseases: Many chronic diseases can directly affect the ability to eat, taste or absorb calories in the body. Patients hospitalized for a long time are also at high risk of malnutrition.
  4. Elderly people: Nutritional deficiencies in the elderly often occur due to aging, including reduced physical activity, decreased appetite, and decreased nutrient absorption. Moreover, in many cases, elderly people feel lonely or depressed, which can lead to haphazard eating habits. Material deprivation, inability to buy food or illness are also direct causes affecting the body’s nutritional intake, leading to malnutrition.
  5. Sedentary people: Office work, health, lifestyle habits, and other social factors cause many people to sit all day instead of exercising. This can cause the body to be at risk of malnutrition and obesity.

Symptoms of malnutrition

Malnourished individuals are more prone to illness, infections, and slower recovery. Wounds take much longer to heal, and the heart’s functioning also slows down. They may lose their appetite, feel weak, lethargic, and indifferent, along with serious complications over time.

What happens to malnourished people?

What happens to malnourished people?

Some people with “over-nutrition” malnutrition can absorb many calories but not enough vitamins and minerals. In these cases, malnutrition symptoms may be less apparent. Malnourished people can be overweight or obese but may also have symptoms such as anemia, weakness, fatigue, fainting, and in some cases, metabolic syndrome, such as high blood pressure or insulin resistance.

Symptoms of malnutrition in children

Symptoms of malnutrition in children that parents need to pay attention to include:

  • The child’s weight is slow to increase or does not increase for three consecutive months.
  • The child often has changes in behavior, such as being less playful, crying frequently, being less flexible, and moving slowly.
  • The child develops motor skills slowly (e.g., crawling, sitting, walking).
  • The child has a slow intellectual development.
  • The child has a prolonged loss of appetite.
  • The child is malnourished or often sick, especially with gastrointestinal disorders (frequent diarrhea or frequent bowel movements) and respiratory disorders during weather changes.
  • The child often startles when sleeping and has difficulty sleeping.
  • The child’s height and weight are below average compared to their peers.
  • The child’s skin appears pale and sallow. Their muscle tone is soft and flabby, and their stomach shows signs of swelling.

Symptoms of malnutrition in adults

In adults, what are the signs of malnutrition? Here are some symptoms to watch out for:

Low body weight: Individuals with a body mass index (BMI) below 18.5 are at risk of malnutrition. In addition, there may be signs of bone prominence, depleted muscle and fat stores. Arms and legs may be thin, and the face and belly may be swollen.

Unintentional weight loss: Losing 5%-10% or more of body weight in 3-6 months without external intervention is a key sign of malnutrition.

Hair and nails easily break or fall out: Studies show that protein is highly concentrated in nails and hair. Therefore, when nails and hair become brittle and easily break or fall out, it means that your body lacks a significant amount of protein.

Dry skin, wrinkles: This symptom of malnutrition in adults often occurs in cases of unscientific dieting, sudden decrease in body fat. The cause is that the body is not adequately supplied with Omega-6 – one of the essential fatty acids that helps the body retain moisture.

Acne, rashes: Malnutrition in adults makes patients susceptible to allergies, rashes, or skin disorders. The main cause of this condition is zinc deficiency, affecting food digestion, gut and immune system.

Bleeding gums, slow wound healing: This is a typical symptom of malnutrition in people lacking Vitamin C. The typical group is pregnant women, breastfeeding mothers…

Depression: This is one of the typical signs of malnutrition. When lacking in essential nutrients, the body will not have enough energy to resist external impacts. Therefore, malnourished individuals often have a high incidence of depression.

Other symptoms include: Weakness, fainting, and fatigue; discomfort, indifference, lack of attention to eating; frequent illness, severe infections, slow body recovery; blood pressure problems (low blood pressure, high blood pressure); obesity; heart disease, and insulin resistance.

Symptoms of malnutrition in the elderly

The following are the symptoms of malnutrition in the elderly that family members should be concerned about:

Low body weight, thin and prominent bones.

Decreased health.

Suffering from dementia: A lack of spirit, difficulty concentrating, forgetfulness… are all signs of malnutrition in the elderly.

Irritable, difficult to please, easily angered.

Pale, dry skin that bruises easily and takes a long time to heal.

Dry, brittle hair that falls out easily, cracked nails.

Dry mouth, difficulty chewing and swallowing, nausea, and loss of appetite. Mouth and tongue ulcers are common.

Digestive disorders: Constipation or abnormal diarrhea.

Increased heart rate and shortness of breath.

Identifying malnutrition in oneself or loved ones can be done by observing these symptoms listed for the three groups mentioned above. If detected early, malnutrition can be treated quickly and effectively, minimizing negative impacts on the body.

How is malnutrition diagnosed and treated?

So, we have learned what malnutrition is, its causes, and symptoms. Depending on the patient’s overall health and the severity of the disease, malnutrition is diagnosed and treated with different methods.

Diagnosis of malnutrition

Observing the patient’s physical condition, lifestyle habits, diet, and health status is often enough to diagnose malnutrition.

Patients can measure their BMI (body mass index calculated by dividing weight by the square of height) to determine the degree of the disease. The BMI is determined according to the World Health Organization’s 2000 classification scale as follows: 17 < BMI < 18.5 is mild malnutrition; 16 < BMI < 16.99 is moderate malnutrition; BMI <16 is severe malnutrition.

Malnutrition in children is diagnosed based on indicators such as weight and height for age, weight for height.

If possible, the patient will have a blood sample taken to check for specific nutrient imbalances. Blood tests are the optimal diagnostic method that can identify rare cases of malnutrition.

How is malnutrition treated?

To effectively treat malnutrition, it is important to address the underlying causes. Once a diagnosis of malnutrition has been made, doctors will develop a treatment plan based on the patient’s specific needs, the underlying causes, and the severity of the condition.

In general, malnutrition is treated by increasing nutrient intake. This may involve supplementing individual nutrients or providing a high-calorie nutritional formula designed to provide the body with the nutrients it is lacking.

Treat malnutrition as prescribed by your doctor

For severe cases of malnutrition, rapidly increasing nutrient intake can be dangerous, especially in the first few days. The body must adjust to the changes caused by malnutrition, so it is best for patients to follow a supervised eating plan to prevent and manage any complications.

In addition, patients may need to address underlying health conditions that are contributing to their malnutrition, such as gastrointestinal disorders, liver disease, thyroid disorders, or mental health conditions.

If patients have difficulty eating or cannot meet their nutritional needs through dietary changes alone, artificial nutritional support methods may be recommended, such as tube feeding (delivery of food directly into the stomach via a tube) or intravenous nutrition.

For all of these cases, doctors will need to monitor nutrient intake closely and adjust treatment plans accordingly to ensure the patient receives the recommended calorie intake. If the patient responds well, they may be able to transition to at-home malnutrition treatment.

Home treatment for malnutrition

For cases diagnosed with mild malnutrition, patients can be treated at home under the guidance of doctors. The most basic method of treating malnutrition is to change the diet and lifestyle.

A nutritionist will advise on the best foods to compensate for the patient’s missing nutrients in order to create a fully nutritious diet that includes vitamins, minerals, protein, carbohydrates, and fats.

Basic treatment methods for malnourished individuals at home include:

Proper nutrition: Add a variety of nutrient-rich foods such as beef, seafood, vegetables and fruits, grains, etc., to increase calories and protein. Don’t forget to change up the foods in meals to increase appetite and stimulate digestion.

Snack between meals: A fresh fruit smoothie, a small slice of bread or some cereals, milk, yogurt, dried fruits can provide the necessary nutrients to make the body healthier.

Supplements: If these dietary changes are not enough, nutritionists may recommend supplementing nutrients through supplements and functional foods.

Support for physical activity: Some malnourished patients who cannot exercise may need basic support such as assistance with mobility and home care.

Regular sun exposure helps the body absorb a large amount of vitamin D, fighting against malnutrition.

Daily exercise: For patients who experience bloating, indigestion, loss of appetite, daily exercise can significantly improve malnutrition. Gentle exercises such as walking, running are extremely useful, helping patients to have a better appetite and build muscle strength.

Create excitement in eating: Create happier and more delicious meals by eating out with family, friends or dining at a favorite restaurant.

In addition to the above treatment methods for malnutrition, patients need to be closely monitored, regularly checked to ensure that the treatment process is smooth and achieves the highest results.

What are effective ways to prevent malnutrition?

Preventing malnutrition in adults

To prevent malnutrition in adults, pay attention to:

Healthy eating habits: Follow a healthy and balanced diet with a variety of nutrient-rich foods. Essential food groups to include are fruits and vegetables, starchy foods, protein, milk, and dairy products.

Regular blood tests: Even with a relatively standard diet, nutrient deficiencies can still occur. Regular blood tests are the easiest way to determine if you are lacking in any essential vitamins or minerals.

Special attention to vulnerable groups: Individuals who are unable to move (paralyzed, elderly, sick…) are at high risk of malnutrition. Therefore, these individuals need more attention to their diet and overall health status.

Consult a specialist doctor: Seek advice from a specialist doctor if you have any health problems that may increase your risk of malnutrition.

Incorporate physical activity: Regular physical activity can prevent excess weight gain and obesity, which are a type of malnutrition.

Avoid overuse of medication: Avoid excessive use of antibiotics in the treatment of illnesses.

Preventing malnutrition in children

Malnutrition in children often arises from simple causes, most of which are the responsibility of parents who have not equipped themselves with the necessary nutritional knowledge in caring for their children.

In addition to a healthy and balanced diet with the main nutrient groups, to prevent malnutrition in children, parents should pay attention to:

Nutrition care for pregnant women: Pregnant women need to gain 10-12 pounds during pregnancy. In addition, pregnant women should be examined at least 3 times and receive 2 doses of tetanus vaccine.

For newborns: Babies need to be breastfed within the first half hour after birth, exclusively breastfed for the first 6 months and continued until the child is 18-24 months old.

Introducing solid foods: Introduce supplemental foods (complementary feeding) from the 5th month. Fats (oils, fats, peanuts, sesame) need to be supplemented and divided into multiple meals.

Implementing nutrition prevention: Pregnant women need to be supplemented with enough iron, and children need to be vaccinated and supplemented with sufficient vitamins.

Clean hygiene: Parents need to regularly clean the environment, living areas, use clean water, have the child dewormed regularly, and create habits of washing hands before eating and after going to the bathroom.

Providing diverse sources of food for children: In addition to nutritious, balanced and healthy foods, parents should frequently change the menu to stimulate interest, help the child eat more deliciously. Add a few light meals in between main meals.

Physical activity: Encourage children to engage in regular physical activity to stimulate their appetite.

Monitoring growth: Regularly monitor the growth process, height and weight development of the child using a chart.

Consult with specialized doctors: In cases where the child has eating disorders, other psychological disorders that affect eating habits, seek the help of specialized doctors for advice and timely treatment.

Thus, this article has provided full information about malnutrition. Hopefully, this information will be useful for you in building a healthy, nutritious and health-promoting diet for the whole family. Visit the goodheathplan.com website regularly for more useful knowledge about family nutrition.

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