Malnutrition in Children

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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

Preventing malnutrition

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


Author: Bibian Okoye

A Retired Chief Nursing Officer, PGDip IHM

3 thoughts on “Malnutrition in Children”

  1. Very emotional article post addressing malnutrition in children, I think many of us don’t think of all the children who are experiencing this terrible experience day after day in their lives.

    You explained malnutrition extremely well, I like how you used Celia disease as an example since this is becoming much more of a problem for many people in our society today.

    Are there any resources you could share with your readers for assistance for families who just can’t afford to provide a well balanced meal all the time for their children? This is becoming a problem for many families, I think it would be very helpful if you could share some aid for families.

    1. Hi jeffrey16201,

      There are many resources put in place in the countries like U.S and Canada regarding food security such as House hold food security-their aim is to see that all house hold members have access at all times to enough food and support and active  healthy life. Other resources like emergency food system-feeding American National Network, Community food security grant program, Retail environment, farmers market coupon programs, and urban Agricultural and community gardening. All these strategies are put in place to improve the adequacy of nutrition and quality food By giving away free food. making sure healthy  food are available for purchase in affordable prices,making food production cheaper ETC. Any family that goes hungry can leverage these opportunity and make use of them for better living.

      In United Kingdom where there is a well established system put in place for people to live and feed well, if anybody goes hungry it is due to their own carelessness or incompetency but there is a general observation that people still skimp or skip meals and therefore experience hunger and malnutrition due to certain reasons:read for more here

      Despite the United Kingdoms well established system they still have organizations For example Food Foundation like Oxfam and others who fight for the less privileged or people who go hungry.

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