Understanding Childhood Malnutrition: Easy Steps You Can Take to Protect Your Child

Understanding Childhood Malnutrition: Easy Steps You Can Take to Protect Your Child

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Childhood malnutrition can affect any child. Here's what you can do to help.

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A smiling child reaches for a carton of eggs while their father stands behind them wearing an apron.

MAY 22, 2023   2 MINUTE READ

Childhood malnutrition — both undernutrition and overnutrition — can affect any child, compromising physical growth, cognitive development and immune health. Addressing the problem requires our best efforts.

What You Can Do to Help

You can't control every risk factor for malnutrition, but you can take steps to help prevent the effects of childhood malnutrition and ensure your child is getting the nutrients they need to thrive.


Set a Good Example

Research reveals that parents who eat nutritious foods in front of their children can positively influence the nutritional quality of their child's meals. So, in addition to offering your kid as many nutritious foods as possible, set a good example by demonstrating healthy eating behaviors and patterns. While you're at it, why not cook together? One study links children who know how to cook with better nutritional outcomes.

Prioritize Family Mealtime

A growing body of evidence shows a wide range of benefits associated with family meals, ranging from physical to social-emotional to academic. In a meta-analysis of 17 studies, researchers found that children and adolescents who share family meals three or more times per week were more likely to be in a normal weight range and eat healthier foods compared to those who share fewer than three family meals together.

Screen for Nutritional Deficiencies

The best defense against the effects of childhood malnutrition is early identification. Your healthcare provider can assess your child's nutrition status through a number of screening measures. One screening tool, the mid-upper arm circumference (MUAC) z-score tape, allows you to screen your child at home. This inexpensive, paper-based device wraps around your child's upper arm like a measuring tape to quickly identify malnutrition risk. From there, you can work with your child's pediatrician to understand the circumstances behind an at-risk reading and design a path to care.

Seek Support

When it comes to protecting your child from the effects of childhood malnutrition, nutritious, balanced meals should be the top priority. However, for some children, this may not be enough. If you suspect your child isn't getting sufficient nutrients, ask your pediatrician about options that provide the vitamins, minerals and protein your child needs to thrive.

Eliminating Pediatric Malnutrition A Call for Universal Screening

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By: Karyn Wulf, MD, MPH, Pediatric Medical Director at Abbott

Appropriate growth during childhood lays the foundation for a lifetime of health. While important, growth alone does not always tell the full story of a child’s health. A child may not be getting all the nutrients they need, and occasional growth screenings may not catch nutrient deficiencies until a child is malnourished. The consequences of nutrient deficiencies can include not only poor growth, but also impaired physical or cognitive development. Identifying children at risk is crucial so that dietary or nutritional interventions can be started long before growth or development issues occur.

Currently, there is no universal malnutrition screening tool used in pediatric care, and childhood malnutrition remains far too common around the world. Nearly 150 million children under 5 are stunted and 50 million are wasted, demonstrating an urgent need for a pediatric screening process to identify those who are at nutritional risk.

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Improving Childhood Nutrition with a Multidisciplinary Approach

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By: Karyn Wulf MD, MPH, Pediatric Medical Director at Abbott.

When it comes to assessing childhood nutrition, it can be more complex than simply making sure your kid eats his or her vegetables. Key outcomes of good childhood nutrition aren’t just linear growth or weight gain, but also includes organ and brain development. Nutritional limitation in any of those areas may cause long-term problems with optimal growth and development. That’s why primary care physicians should consider a team approach when treating kids who are falling behind on growth. 

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