What Is Malnutrition?

What Is Malnutrition

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SEP. 23, 2021   2 MIN          

What is malnutrition? A common misconception is that it simply means a person isn't getting enough calories. But malnutrition can be nutrient or energy deficiency, excess, or imbalance.

Malnutrition impacts billions of people — both children and adults. It isn't just a problem of extreme poverty — it affects all communities around the world and takes shape in many forms

Malnutrition, in all its forms, includes undernutrition (wasting, stunting, underweight), inadequate vitamins or minerals, overweight, obesity, and resulting diet-related noncommunicable diseases. According to the World Health Organization:

  • 1.9 billion adults are overweight or obese, while 462 million are underweight.

  • Globally in 2020, 149 million children under 5 were estimated to be stunted (too short for age), 45 million were estimated to be wasted (too thin for height), and 38.9 million were overweight or obese.

  • Around 45% of deaths among children under 5 years of age are linked to undernutrition. These mostly occur in low- and middle-income countries. At the same time, in these same countries, rates of childhood overweight and obesity are rising.

  • The developmental, economic, social, and medical impacts of the global burden of malnutrition are serious and lasting, for individuals and their families, for communities and for countries

Related: Simple Device Helps Address Childhood Malnutrition

Signs and Symptoms of Malnutrition

Beyond the obvious signs of a low or high body mass index (BMI), some signs and symptoms of malnutrition include a lack of appetite or interest in food or drink, fatigue, irritability, poor concentration, persistent coldness, muscle wasting, poor immunity and wound healing, and more serious complications like heart failure. In children, malnutrition may present as low growth and low body weight, tiredness and decreased energy, irritability, anxiety, or slow behavioral and cognitive development.

Several factors can contribute to or cause malnutrition, such as a lack of nutrition education or low access to healthy, nutritious foods like fresh fruit and vegetables, whole grains, legumes, meat and milk. Individuals or families who live in food deserts or low-income areas don't always have access to these kinds of foods. In comparison, processed foods and drinks that are high in saturated fat, sugar and salt tend to be more affordable and widely available.

Disordered eating, intensive surgeries and medical issues that prevent the body from absorbing nutrients appropriately can also cause malnutrition.

Tackling the global issue of malnutrition requires collaboration, policies, and practices to address it at a systemic level. You can read more about Abbott’s efforts to address malnutrition and what it means for the future.