Malnutrition in Children 101: Causes, Symptoms and Treatment

Malnutrition in Children: Causes, Symptoms and Treatment

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Pediatric malnutrition can affect a child's physical and cognitive development.

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A child eats an apple outside.

MAY 18, 2023   3 MINUTE READ

Malnutrition is a prominent global health issue. It affects 1 in 3 people around the world, and the ongoing impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, widespread conflict, climate change and increases in the cost of living have worsened the issue.

Malnutrition can appear in the form of undernutrition (not getting enough nutrients) or overnutrition (getting too many calories or nutrients), and it can be particularly detrimental to children's growth and development. Among children under 5 years old across the world, approximately:

  • 149 million children experience stunting (below a healthy height for their age) 

  • 45 million children experience wasting (below a healthy weight for their height)

  • 39 million children are overweight (above a healthy weight for their height) 

Causes and Symptoms of Malnutrition in Children

Numerous factors can lead to malnutrition in children. For many children, food insecurity, or the inability to access nutritious food, is at the top of the list. For others, a family's lack of knowledge about nutrition or a child's own food preferences can also contribute to over- and undernutrition. Kids can be so picky about what they eat that they limit their intake of specific nutrients, leading to poor nutrition. 

Children who experience overnutrition may be overweight or obese. This can lead to hypertension (high blood pressure), liver disease and high blood sugar, and it may also cause psychological harm due to bullying, anxiety and poor self-image. In the U.S., 1 in 7 children ages 2 to 5 is obese.

Children who are undernourished are often (but not always) underweight. Signs of undernutrition include: 

  • Dry skin or hair

  • Muscle wasting 

  • Stunted growth

  • Weight loss 

Malnutrition can affect a growing child's brain development and their ability to learn and perform in school. Severely undernourished children can experience additional challenges, such as bone deformity, neurological problems, vision loss and weakened immune systems.

Identifying Pediatric Malnutrition 

Pediatric wellness checkups are one of the first lines of defense against over- and undernutrition. When a care provider measures a child's height and weight, they often plot the child's growth on a chart and compare it to other children of the same age (as well as to the child's own growth history). Using this method, the provider can observe unexpected changes in a child's growth pattern. It's important to assess a child's eating habits and flag any nutritional concerns during a pediatric visit.

In some settings, simple screening methods can identify malnutrition risk in children. One of these methods measures a child's mid-upper arm circumference (MUAC) for muscle and fat mass. Low MUAC can indicate muscle wasting, a sign of malnutrition. High MUAC can indicate overnutrition. 

To identify children who have or are at risk for malnutrition, Abbott and the Real Madrid Foundation launched a screening program around the world using a simple tool called the MUAC z-score tape. This innovative, inexpensive tool can help identify malnutrition risk in children up to 18 years old. It also helps families understand their children's nutritional status and encourages them to start conversations with their healthcare providers if needed.

Managing Pediatric Malnutrition

A child's path to care will depend on their individual circumstances. In many cases, their healthcare provider may refer them to a registered dietitian (RD) for specialized help. An RD works with the child and their family to help them understand how to fill in nutritional gaps. This might mean:

  • Referring them to food security resources 

  • Sharing shopping, cooking and food preparation techniques

  • Working with the family to address picky eating 

  • Recommending nutrition supplements containing vitamins, minerals, or extra calories and protein

Pediatric malnutrition is a significant public health concern that affects children from all walks of life. Government, nonprofit and private stakeholders across the globe are working together to address both pediatric and adult malnutrition to create a stronger, healthier world. 


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