Types of Malnutrition Explained

Types of Malnutrition Explained

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Malnutrition can take many forms.

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An older woman sits at a table in front of a bowl of food.

OCT. 7, 2022   4 MIN. READ

Despite evidence noting the harmful effects of malnutrition, malnutrition is a common problem — affecting 1 in 3 older adults — and often goes unrecognized and undertreated.

Although most people think of malnutrition as undernutrition or low body weight, body weight alone doesn't tell the whole story. Even when you lose muscle, your body weight may not change. The types of malnutrition can take many forms, including:

  • Undernutrition
  • Inadequate intake of vitamins and minerals
  • Overweight/obesity
  • Nutrition-related noncommunicable diseases

Malnutrition affects various aspects of life, such as quality of life, immune system health, healing capabilities and the ability to maintain independence. Understanding malnutrition is important to taking charge of your health and the health of your loved ones. Learn more about the populations at risk, the causes, signs and symptoms, and how to reduce the risk of malnutrition below.

Populations at Risk of Malnutrition

Those who have limited access to nutritious, affordable, culturally relevant foods and those who experience digestion, absorption or certain metabolic issues are at risk of malnutrition. These are some high-risk populations:

  • Low-income families
  • People with a chronic illness or injury
  • Elderly people, who may lose their sense of taste as well as their ability to shop and cook

Causes of Malnutrition

Common causes of malnutrition include, but are not limited to:

  • Food insecurity. In 2021, over 10% of U.S. households were considered food insecure, meaning they reduced their food intake or changed their eating patterns due to a lack of money for food. Poverty is a double-edged sword. While it can lead to undernutrition, it can also lead to other forms of malnutrition, such as inadequate intake of vitamins and minerals or becoming overweight or obese, since lower cost foods are often high in calories and low in key nutrients.

  • Underlying medical conditions. Hospitalized patients, those recovering from injury or illness, and those with chronic disease or metabolic issues affecting digestion or absorption will have greater nutritional needs because the demands on the body are higher. They may not be able to meet those needs, putting them at a higher risk of malnutrition. Underlying medical conditions may also affect one's ability to chew, swallow or tolerate food.

  • Poor nutrient quality. It's possible to get plenty of calories, but still have malnutrition in the form of micronutrient deficiency. While micronutrients don't provide calories themselves, they help your body use energy from stored calorie sources and support overall health. High-caloric foods (eg, chips, candy, and soda) often contain low levels of micronutrients. A person who eats these types of foods frequently will probably take in more calories than they need but not enough vitamins and minerals, resulting in a micronutrient deficiency.

What to Look For

Signs and symptoms of malnutrition include:

  • Unintentional weight loss
  • Difficulty doing everyday tasks
  • Feeling tired from tasks that used to not be tiring
  • Thin arms and legs with swelling in the abdomen and face
  • Poor appetite
  • Hair loss
  • Dry skin or rashes
  • Frequent illness
  • Feeling cold frequently
  • High blood sugar (prediabetes) or diabetes type 2
  • Abnormal HDL, LDL and total cholesterol
  • Low or high blood pressure

Chronic diseases such as coronary heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, diabetes type 2, overweight/obesity and micronutrient deficiency can all be caused by poor nutrition. The Food and Drug Administration estimates that more than a million Americans die of nutrition-related health conditions each year, and research suggests 1 in every 5 premature deaths from cardiovascular disease can be prevented by improved nutrition.

How to Reduce the Risk of Malnutrition

Often, individuals with malnutrition may need extra nutritional care from their health care providers:

  • Food assistance programs. The US Department of Agriculture's Food and Nutrition Service offers several food-assistance programs — such as Women, Infants and Children (WIC), the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and school meal programs — to help supplement the food budget of underserved families to support access to healthy food.

  • Oral nutritional supplements. These are an important nutritional care strategy that can fill the gaps in nutrition by providing much-needed calories, protein, vitamins and minerals. They are typically used in addition to meals when food alone is not enough to meet daily nutritional needs. Oral nutritional supplements are also important for those who have a low appetite and aren't eating enough food.

Good nutrition is the cornerstone of health. It plays a critical role in supporting recovery from diseases as well as your immune system, strength and ability to heal. If you or a loved one is concerned about a risk of malnutrition, speak with a health care provider.

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