What is Malnutrition?
Malnutrition refers to deficiencies, excesses or imbalances in a child’s intake of energy and/or nutrients.
People are malnourished if their diet does not provide adequate nutrients for growth and maintenance or they are unable to fully utilise the food they eat due to illness (undernutrition). They are also malnourished if they consume too many calories (overnutrition).
Difference between Hunger and Malnutrition
Everyone feels hungry at times. Hunger is the body’s signal that it needs food. Once we’ve eaten enough food to satisfy our bodies’ needs, hunger goes away until our stomachs are empty again.
Malnutrition is not the same thing as hunger, although they often go together. People who are chronically malnourished lack the nutrients needed for proper health and development. Someone can be malnourished for a long or short period of time, and the condition may be mild or severe. People who are malnourished are more likely to get sick and, in severe cases, might even die.
Chronic hunger and malnutrition can cause significant health problems. People who go hungry all the time are likely to be underweight, weighing significantly less than an average person of their size. If malnourished as a child, their growth may also be stunted, making them much shorter than average.
Causes of Hunger and Malnutrition
People who don’t get enough food often experience hunger, and over the long term this can lead to malnutrition. But someone can become malnourished for reasons that have nothing to do with hunger. Even people who have plenty to eat may be malnourished if they don’t eat foods that provide the right nutrients, vitamins, and minerals.
Some diseases and conditions prevent people from digesting or absorbing their food properly. For example:
- Someone with celiac disease has intestinal problems that are triggered by a protein called gluten, which is found in wheat, rye, and barley.
- Kids with cystic fibrosis have trouble absorbing nutrients because the disease affects the pancreas, an organ that normally produces enzymes necessary for digestion.
Someone who doesn’t get enough of one specific nutrient has a nutritional deficiency, a form of malnutrition (although it doesn’t necessarily mean the person will become seriously ill). The most common nutritional deficiency in the world is iron deficiency which can lead to anemia.
Understanding child malnutrition
- Wasting means that the infant/child is thin: he/she has lost fat and muscle mass
- Stunting means that the infant/child is short in stature: he/she did not grow in length/height has he/she should have
- Underweight means that he/she weighs less than she/he should
- A child can be both wasted and stunted
- Wasting is usually due to a recent lack of food or illness (infections) that prevents the child from eating or absorbing nutrients of foods
- Stunting is a long term process, often starting in utero which is due to the mother’s malnutrition, to food intake lacking quality (insufficient intake of essential micro-nutrients) and the repetition of episodes of common infections
- Overweight and obesity are due to excessive energy intake and lack of physical activity
The best way to prevent malnutrition is to eat a healthy, balanced diet.
A healthy, balanced diet is vital for maintaining health and fitness. To stay healthy, you need to eat a variety of foods from the four main food groups including:
- plenty of fruit and vegetables
- plenty of bread, rice, potatoes, pasta and other starchy foods
- some milk and dairy foods
- some meat, fish, eggs, beans and other non dairy sources of protein
Basic Treatment of malnutrition
Depending on what’s caused a person to become malnourished and how severe it is, treatment may be carried out at home or in hospital.
Dietary changes are the main treatment for malnutrition. If you’re undernourished, you may need to increase the nutritional content of your food, with or without taking nutritional supplements.
If you’re unable to eat enough to meet your nutritional needs you may need:
- a feeding tube to provide nutrients directly into your digestive system
- a drip to provide nutrients and fluids directly into a vein