Malnutrition Meaning and Definition

When a person's diet does not have enough nutrients or the correct balance of nutrients for optimum health, it is referred to as malnutrition.

How Can We Define Malnutrition? What Are the Characteristics of a Malnourished Person?

Malnutrition is a disease that occurs when a person's diet lacks a sufficient amount of one or more nutrients. This involves foods that are either deficient in nutrients or too rich in nutrients, resulting in health issues. Calories, protein, carbohydrates, fat, vitamins, and minerals are some of the nutrients involved.

Severe Acute Malnutrition(SAM) and Moderate Acute Malnutrition(MAM) are the two forms of malnutrition. SAM applies to children who are severely malnourished. 

Malnourished people are prone to diseases and are often cold. The signs and symptoms of micronutrient deficiencies vary depending on which micronutrient is deficient.

[Image will be uploaded soon]

Signs and Symptoms of Malnutrition

The following are some signs and symptoms of malnutrition:

  • A lack of desire or appetite for food or drink

  • Fatigue and irritability

  • A constant sense of cold 

  • Depression 

  • An inability to focus

  • Fat, muscle mass, and body tissue are all lost.

  • A greater chance of becoming ill and taking longer to heal Wounds 

  • A greater chance of complications following surgery

An individual can eventually have trouble breathing and develop heart failure.

There May Be One or More of the Following in Children:

  • A lack of growth and low body weight 

  • Exhaustion and lack of energy 

  • Irritability and anxiety 

  • Stifle behavioural and academic development potentially leading to learning difficulties

Types of Malnutrition


  • Undernutrition or undernourishment refers to a lack of nutrients, whereas overnutrition refers to a surplus of nutrients. Malnutrition most often refers to undernutrition, which occurs when a person does not consume enough calories, protein, or micronutrients. 

  • If undernutrition occurs during pregnancy or before the age of two years, it may cause long-term physical and mental issues. 

  • Extreme malnutrition, also known as starvation or chronic hunger, can cause symptoms such as short stature, a lean body, low energy, and swollen legs and abdomen.

  • The shortage of high-quality food available to eat is the most common cause of Undernourishment. This is often linked to hunger and high food prices. Undernourishment can be caused by a lack of breastfeeding. 

  • Malnutrition may also be caused by infectious diseases such as gastroenteritis, pneumonia, malaria, and measles, which raise nutritional requirements. 

  • Protein-energy deficiency and nutritional deficits are the two major forms of malnutrition.

Protein Energy Malnutrition: 

  • There are two extreme types of protein-energy malnutrition: Kwashiorkor (a lack of protein) and Marasmus (a lack of protein and calories). 

  • Iron, iodine, and vitamin A deficiency are all common micronutrient deficiencies. Due to the body's increased need for nutrients, deficiencies can become more frequent during pregnancy. 

  • Overnutrition in the form of obesity is becoming more common in some developing countries, and it is occurring in the same populations as undernutrition. This is due to the unhealthy food that is often available. 

  • Anorexia nervosa and bariatric surgery are two other causes of malnutrition.

[Image will be uploaded soon]

Causes of Malnutrition

  • Poverty and food costs, nutritional habits, and agricultural productivity are all major causes of malnutrition, with many individual cases involving a combination of these factors. Even in developing nations, clinical malnutrition, such as cachexia, is a major problem. 

  • In order to assess the socio political causes of malnutrition, various scales of analysis must be considered. 

  • For example, the population of a community with weak government may be at risk if the region lacks health-related services, but on a smaller scale, disparities in income levels, access to property, or levels of education may put some households or individuals at much greater risk.

1. Malnutrition Diseases- 

  • Malnutrition may be caused by a variety of health problems, including gastroenteritis or chronic disease, such as the HIV/AIDS epidemic

  • Malnutrition can be caused by diarrhoea and other infections because of decreased nutrient absorption, decreased food intake, increased metabolic requirements, and direct nutrient loss. 

  • Malnutrition can also be caused by parasitic infections, especially intestinal worm infections (helminthiasis). 

  • Lack of sanitation and hygiene is a leading cause of diarrhoea and intestinal worm infections in children in developing countries.

  • People may become malnourished as a result of nutritional loss that is abnormal (due to diarrhoea or chronic illness affecting the small bowel). 

  • Crohn's disease or untreated coeliac disease are examples of these disorders. Increased energy expenditure can also lead to malnutrition (secondary malnutrition).

2. Dietary Practices- 

  • Undernutrition: Malnutrition in babies and children is linked to the deaths of an estimated one million children per year due to a lack of sufficient breastfeeding. Illegal marketing of breast milk substitutes led to malnutrition and persisted three decades after the WHO International Code of Marketing Breast Milk Substitutes prohibited it in 1981. Maternal malnutrition may also contribute to a baby's poor health or death. Defective development of the foetus in the mother's womb has resulted in over 800,000 neonatal deaths.

  • Overnutrition: Overeating causes overnutrition, which is a form of malnutrition. More than half of all adults in the United States are now overweight, a condition that, like malnutrition, raises the risk of illness and injury, decreases worker productivity, and shortens life expectancy. Overeating is much more popular in the United States, where food is readily available to the majority of people. In addition to increased sedentary lifestyles, many parts of the world have access to an abundance of non-nutritious food. This is a "toxic food world," according to Yale psychologist Kelly Brownell, in which fat- and sugar-laden foods have taken precedence over organic, nutritious foods.

3. Poverty and Food Prices- 

  • Poor socioeconomic status has been linked to chronic malnutrition in Bangladesh because it prevents the purchasing of nutritious foods like milk, meat, poultry, and fruits. Although food shortages which play a role in malnutrition in countries where technology is lacking, the FAO estimates that eighty percent of malnourished children in the developing world live in countries where food surpluses are generated.

4. Agricultural Productivity- 

  • Local food shortages can be caused by a lack of arable land, bad weather, poor farming skills such as crop rotation, or a lack of technology or resources such as fertilisers, pesticides, irrigation, machinery, and storage facilities that are needed for higher yields in modern agriculture. Farmers cannot afford or governments cannot provide the resources needed to increase local yields as a result of widespread poverty. In the name of free market policies, the World Bank and some wealthy donor countries push countries that depend on aid to slash or remove subsidised agricultural inputs like fertiliser, even as the US and Europe heavily subsidised their own farmers.

Treatment of Malnutrition

If a doctor determines that an individual is malnourished, they will devise a treatment plan for them. A nutritionist and other healthcare professionals may be required to meet with the person.

The seriousness of the malnutrition, as well as the involvement of any other underlying disorders or complications, will determine the course of treatment.

It may contain the following:

  • Continuous screening and testing 

  • Developing a nutritional schedule, which may require supplementation 

  • Treating specific symptoms including nausea

  • Testing for any mouth or swallowing issues 

  • Treating any infections that might be present

  • Recommending different feeding utensils

In extreme circumstances, an individual may be required to:

  • Spend time in the hospital

  • Progressively begin to take in nutrients over a period of days 

  • Intravenously obtain nutrients such as potassium and calcium

Prevention of Malnutrition

Eating a safe, nutritious diet is the best way to avoid malnutrition.

You can consume a wide range of foods from each of the major food groups, including:

  • fruit and vegetables in abundance

  • bread, rice, potatoes, pasta, and other starchy foods

  • non-dairy alternatives to milk and dairy foods

  • Meat, fish, eggs, and beans are some protein-rich foods.

Older adults, young children, people with serious or chronic illness, and others may need special attention to get the nutrients they need.

FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions)

1. What is Kwashiorkor?

Ans. Kwashiorkor is primarily caused by a lack of protein in the diet. Edema, wasting, liver enlargement, hypoalbuminemia, steatosis, and probably skin and hair depigmentation are the most common symptoms. Kwashiorkor can also be characterised by a bloated stomach, which can be deceiving about one's nutritional status. The word displaced child is derived from a Ghanaian language and means "the sickness the older one gets when the next baby is born," as it is when the older child is weaned off of breast milk and put on a diet high in carbohydrates.

2. What is Marasmus?

Ans. Inadequate protein and energy consumption causes marasmus (‘to waste away'). Extreme wasting with little to no edoema, limited subcutaneous fat, severe muscle wasting, and non-normal serum albumin levels are the main symptoms. Marasmus will develop as a result of a low-energy, low-protein diet, and the metabolism adapts to ensure survival. It's usually associated with starvation, extreme food restriction, or more severe cases of anorexia. Extreme muscle wasting and a gaunt appearance define these conditions.

3. What are the Effects of Malnutrition?

Ans. Malnutrition raises the risk of infection and infectious disease, and mild malnutrition weakens the immune system in general. It is a significant risk factor in the onset of active tuberculosis, for example. Protein and energy deficiency, as well as deficiencies in specific micronutrients (such as iron, zinc, and vitamins), increase infection susceptibility. Malnutrition has an effect on HIV transmission because it increases the risk of transmission from mother to child as well as virus replication.