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:: Health Consequences of Malnutrition

  • Date : 2016/01/22 (Rev: 2018/03/15)
  • Thomas C. Weiss - Disabled World
  • Synopsis : Information regarding causes of hunger and malnutrition including; who is at risk, effects, and what can be done.

Main Document

Hunger is the way a person's body signals that it needs to eat. After a person is able to eat enough food to fulfill their body's needs, they stop being hungry. Young people may feel hungry often because they are growing rapidly and developing bodies that demand additional food.

Malnutrition is defined as a category of diseases that includes undernutrition and overnutrition - eating a diet in which nutrients are not enough or are too much such that it causes health problems. Not enough nutrients is defined as undernutrition or undernourishment while too much is defined as overnutrition. Malnutrition is often used specifically to refer to undernutrition where there is not enough calories, protein, or micronutrients. Malnutrition increases the risk of infection and infectious disease, and moderate malnutrition weakens every part of the immune system. A malnourished person finds that their body has difficulty doing normal things such as growing and resisting disease. Physical work becomes problematic and even learning abilities can be diminished. For women, pregnancy becomes risky and they cannot be sure of producing nourishing breast milk.

People with malnutrition lack the nutrients needed for their bodies to remain healthy and grow. A person might be malnourished for either a short period of time or an extended one and the condition may be mild or severe. Malnutrition can affect a person's mental and physical health. People who are experiencing malnutrition are more likely to become ill. In severe instances, they might even die from the effects of malnutrition. Children who are chronically malnourished do not grow to be as tall as they should be - something referred to as, 'stunted growth,' and are underweight as well.

Causes of Hunger and Malnutrition

People experience hunger because they do not receive enough food and not receiving enough food over long periods of time can lead to malnutrition. Yet a person may become malnourished for reasons having nothing to do with hunger. People who do have enough to eat might still be malnourished if they do not consume food that provides the proper nutrients, minerals and vitamins.

Some people become malnourished because they have a condition or disease which prevents them from absorbing or digesting their food appropriately. For example; a person with celiac disease has intestinal issues triggered by a protein called, 'gluten,' which is found in rye, wheat and barley. Celiac disease may interfere with their intestine's ability to absorb nutrients, which might result in nutritional deficiencies.

People with cystic fibrosis have difficulty with absorbing nutrients because the disease affects their pancreas, an organ that usually produces chemical substances called, 'enzymes,' that are needed for the digestion of food. If a person does not receive enough of one specific nutrient, it is a nutritional deficiency - a form of malnutrition, although it does not mean the person will necessarily become seriously ill. The most common form of nutritional deficiency in the world is iron deficiency, something that might lead to anemia.

Who Is at Risk of Malnutrition?

No matter what country a person lives in, poor people are the most likely to suffer from hunger and malnutrition. In poor countries, natural disasters such as the severe droughts that African countries often times experience, may contribute to malnutrition because they make it difficult for people to receive the food they need. In America, food manufacturers fortify some common foods with minerals and vitamins to prevent certain nutritional deficiencies. For example; the addition of iodine to salt helps to prevent some thyroid gland issues. The folic acid that is added to foods may help to prevent certain birth defects. Added iron can help to prevent iron deficiency anemia.

Malnutrition affects people from every age group, although infants, children and adolescents may suffer the most because many nutrients are crucial for average growth and development. Seniors may develop malnutrition because aging, illness and additional factors can at times lead to a poor appetite so they might not eat enough. Alcohol can interfere with the absorption of nutrients, so alcoholics might not benefit from the minerals and vitamins they eat. People who abuse drugs or alcohol may be malnourished or underweight because they do not eat properly. People with bulimia, anorexia or another form of eating disorder are also not eating properly and are at risk of malnutrition.

If a person is on a special diet, they need to be careful about eating meals that are balanced and a variety of foods to get the right nutrients. Vegans and vegetarians; for example, need to make sure they receive enough protein and vitamins such as B12.

The Effects of Malnutrition

Malnutrition hurts people both mentally and physically. The more malnourished a person is; in other words, the more nutrients the person is missing, the more likely it is that person will experience health issues. The signs and symptoms of malnutrition depend on which nutritional deficiencies a person has, although they may include the following:

  • Dizziness
  • Poor growth
  • Underweight
  • Dry, scaly skin
  • Decaying teeth
  • Bloated stomach
  • Muscle weakness
  • Problems learning
  • Fatigue and low energy
  • Bones that break easily
  • Swollen and bleeding gums
  • Problems with organ function
  • Slowed reaction times and trouble paying attention
  • Poor immune function, which can cause the body to have trouble fighting off infections

When a woman who is pregnant is malnourished, her child may weigh less at the time of birth and have a decreased chance of survival. Vitamin A deficiency is the largest cause of preventable blindness in the developing world. Children in developing countries who have a severe vitamin A deficiency due to malnutrition have a higher chance of becoming ill or dying from infections such as measles or diarrhea. Iodine deficiency can cause intellectual disability and delayed development. Iron deficiency may cause someone to be less active and less able to concentrate. Students who are malnourished often times experience difficulties with keeping up in school.

What Can Be Done to Help?

Many of the harmful effects of malnutrition can be reversed, particularly if someone is only mildly or briefly malnourished. If you are not receiving enough of the right nutrients, you can pursue advice from a doctor who might look for signs of malnutrition in a number of ways. The doctor will ask you how you are feeling, perform a physical examination and most likely ask about the types and amounts of food in your particular diet. While checking for malnutrition, a doctor might do one of several things:

  • Use blood tests to check for nutritional deficiencies
  • Order other tests based on a person's physical examination and medical history
  • Check for diseases or conditions that may be the underlying cause of malnutrition
  • Look at a person's height and weight or body mass index to find out whether it is in the healthy range

To correct issues related to malnutrition, a doctor or dietitian will recommend specific changes in the types and quantities of foods a person eats and may prescribe dietary supplements such as minerals and vitamins. Additional treatment might be needed for people who are found to have a specific disease or condition causing their malnutrition.



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