Malnutrition: Causes, Symptoms, Treatment & Prevention

Malnutrition: Symptoms, causes, diagnosis, and treatment


Malnutrition is a serious condition that occurs when a person’s diet doesn’t contain the right amount of nutrients. Food provides the energy and nutrients you need to be healthy. If you don’t get enough nutrients such as proteins, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins, and minerals – you may suffer from malnutrition.

Malnutrition is a group of conditions in children and adults. It is also a common health problem across the globe. Malnutrition means “poor nutrition” and can refer to:



  • undernutrition – when you don’t get enough nutrients
  • overnutrition – when you get more nutrients than you need

Malnutrition also entails conditions where diet does not contain the right balance of nutrients. This might mean a diet high on calories but deficient in vitamins and minerals. These second group of individuals may be overweight or obese but are still considered malnourished. Thus being malnourished does not always mean that the person is underweight or thin.

However, this article focuses on undernutrition. When you did not consume enough calories, the body first breaks down its own fat. It uses it for calories much like burning the furniture to keep a house warm. After fat stores are used up, the body may break down its other tissues, such as muscle and tissues in internal organs, leading to serious problems, including death.

Causes of malnutrition

Malnutrition is caused by a lack of nutrients in your diet. This is either due to an inadequate diet or problems absorbing nutrients from food.

Malnutrition may be the result of several conditions. First, sufficient and proper food may not be available. This can be because of inadequate agricultural processes or distribution of food. Certain social problems such as poverty or alcoholism plays a role. In these instances, the cause of malnutrition is mostly due inadequate in calories or protein in diet.

Malnutrition may also result when certain foods containing one or more of the essential vitamins or minerals are not in your diet. This commonly leads to specific nutritional deficiency diseases. Aging, sickness, and other factors that contribute to poor appetite can result in inadequate food consumption. Likewise, poor eating habits and food preferences may lead to malnutrition through the habitual consumption of certain foods to the exclusion of others or of large quantities of non-nutritious foods.

Symptoms of malnutrition

The most common symptom of malnutrition is unexplained weight loss. Sometimes, weight loss isn’t obvious because it occurs slowly, over time. You may notice that your clothes, belts and jewellery gradually feel looser.

Other signs of malnutrition may include:

In adults:

In children:



  • failure to grow at the expected rate, both in terms of weight and height (known as “failure to thrive”)
  • inability to stay warm,
  • diarrhea
  • loss of appetite and apathy
  • changes in behaviour, such as being unusually irritable, sluggish or anxious
  • inability to concentrate
  • changes in hair and skin colour

Diagnosis of malnutrition

Diagnosis can be made by asking questions about diet and weight loss. Your doctor also performs a physical examination. Severe, long-standing undernutrition can usually be diagnosed based on your appearance and history.

Doctors may also ask questions about the ability to shop for and prepare food, the presence of other disorders, the use of drugs, mood, and mental function. They may use standardized questionnaires to help them obtain relevant information. The answers to these questions may help confirm the diagnosis. This is particularly when undernutrition is less obvious and may help identify a cause. Identifying the cause is particularly important in children.

As part of the physical examination, doctors do the following:

  • Measure height and weight
  • Determine the body mass index (BMI)
  • Estimate the amount of muscle and fat in the mid upper arm. This is by measuring the circumference of the upper arm and the thickness of a skin fold on the back of the left upper arm (triceps skinfold)
  • Check for other symptoms that may indicate undernutrition such as changes in the skin and hair.

Diagnosing malnutrition in children involves taking a measurement of their weight and height and comparing it against the expected average height and weight for a child of that age.

Some children will be below average. Because they’re naturally smaller, but a significant drop below the expected level could indicate a risk of malnutrition. Blood tests can also be help to measure protein levels in the blood. Low levels of protein may suggest that a child is malnourished.

What they find helps them confirm the diagnosis and determine how severe undernutrition is.

Treating malnutrition

Treatment for malnutrition depends on the underlying cause and how malnourished a person is. Food or meal delivery services may be used to ensure access to food. This is particularly in the case of elderly individuals.

In severe cases, people may require hospitalization and use of a feeding tube. In many cases, however, simple dietary adjustments can readily reverse most harmful effects of malnutrition. Dietary supplements, such as vitamins and minerals, can boost recovery.

Preventing malnutrition

The best way to ensure you get the correct amount of nutrients is to eat a healthy, balanced diet.

healthy, balanced diet contains foods from all the major food groups.

The four main food groups are:

  • fruit and vegetables – at least 5 a day
  • bread, rice, potatoes, pasta, cereals and other starchy foods
  • milk and dairy foods – such as cheese and yogurt
  • meat, fish, eggs, beans, nuts, and other non-dairy sources of protein

Foods and drinks high in fat or sugar aren’t essential for most people and should only be consumed in small amounts.



About felclinic 593 Articles
Felix Ntifo is a Registered General Nurse who has so much passion to improve health care delivery. He founded FelClinic with the hope of making health information accessible to everyone who may not come in contact with him personally. "At felclinic.com we are very passionate about health and well-being of everyone. Our team is made up of professional doctors, nurses, midwives and lab technicians."

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