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Malnutrition: All You Need to Know

Types & Definitions|Symptoms|Causes & Risk Factors|Treatment & Prevention|Key Takeaways
Malnutrition: All You Need to Know

Malnutrition is the deficient, unbalanced, or even excessive intake of energy and nutrients. Although the common association with this condition is being extremely underweight, obesity and micronutrient deficits fall under malnutrition as well. This condition affects a huge fraction of the people in the world. 462 million adults are underweight and 1.9 billion adults are overweight. 51.3 million children under 5 years old have low weight for their height. It also occurs more often in the context of low- to middle-income communities where there is less access to nutritious food.

Types & Definitions


There are three different types of conditions that fall under malnutrition.


This is the insufficient intake of energy and nutrients to meet one’s needs. This is what most people associate the most with malnutrition. It splits into three further categories:

Stunting. This refers to being short for your age due to undernutrition. It may be due to poor socioeconomic conditions, an underlying medical condition, or limited access to food.

Wasting. This is when a person is too light (weight-wise) for their height due to nutrition issues. Wasting often comes with possible severe weight loss due to a sudden shortage of food or an infectious disease.

Underweight. This means being too light for one’s age. Being underweight can also mean that the person is experiencing stunting and/or wasting.

Micronutrient-Related Malnutrition

The second condition is micronutrient-related malnutrition, which involves a deficiency in vitamins and minerals. These deficiencies can lead to possible health complications down the line.


Obesity, being overweight, and other diet-related diseases fall under malnutrition because it often indicates a deficit in quality energy. Diseases like cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and stroke also fall under this category.


Generally, the symptoms of malnutrition are straightforward. Malnutrition often implies unintentional weight loss, which can reach levels that make you lose half your body weight in 3 to 6 months.

This often causes low body weight and a BMI under 18.5, and leads to people feeling constantly tired or weak. The lack of interest or inability to eat and drink sufficiently can also result in becoming ill regularly and needing more time to recover.

Kids and teens not putting on enough weight or putting on too much weight for their age group can also indicate malnutrition.

Causes & Risk Factors


Anything that causes a loss of appetite, vomiting, and irregular bowel movement through prolonged periods can cause malnutrition. This involves long-term conditions such as cancer, liver diseases that affect nutrient absorption, and lung conditions that make it hard to swallow. Mental health and psychiatric conditions that can cause the loss of appetite also fall under this category.

Some diseases and conditions that are known to disrupt digestion processes can also cause malnutrition. These include Crohn’s disease, eating disorders, and the body requiring more energy due to things like spasms or healing after a serious injury.

Risk Factors

There are many risk factors for malnutrition since it’s not just health conditions that can cause someone to be at risk. One’s daily living situation plays a big role as well. Social/physical isolation, poor mobility, and/or low income can make someone more likely to experience malnutrition.

Physical factors that cause discomfort in eating, such as poor dental health and ill-fitting dentures, can also come into play. Alcohol and drug dependency can also put someone at risk of malnutrition.

A lack of appetite, especially in one’s childhood or formative years, can lead to more health problems down the line.

Malnutrition in Children: All You Need to Know

Treatment & Prevention


Addressing the causes of malnutrition is the most effective way to treat the condition. Oftentimes, it involves dietary changes through a better diet and resorting to food with high caloric values. This could also necessitate support in the context of mobility or socioeconomic factors.

Difficulty consuming food can be addressed by resorting to soft or liquid food. Another solution that doctors may suggest is to inject nutrition or use feeding tubes.


A healthy diet that includes all the major food groups in proper proportions is the surest way to prevent malnutrition. This means incorporating fresh produce with greens, starchy food, dairy products or their alternatives, and protein.

Key Takeaways

Malnutrition is a complex condition that can be caused by a variety of medical, socioeconomic, and mental problems. A more holistic approach is necessary in treating and preventing malnutrition.

Learn more about Healthy Eating here.


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Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.


Malnutrition, https://www.who.int/news-room/q-a-detail/malnutrition, Accessed December 14, 2020.

Malnutrition, https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/malnutrition, Accessed December 14, 2020.

Malnutrition, https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/malnutrition/, Accessed December 14, 2020.

Malnutrition, https://www.nhsinform.scot/illnesses-and-conditions/nutritional/malnutrition, Accessed December 14, 2020.

Malnutrition, https://data.unicef.org/topic/nutrition/malnutrition/, Accessed December 14, 2020.

Introduction to Malnutrition, https://www.bapen.org.uk/malnutrition-undernutrition/introduction-to-malnutrition, Accessed December 14, 2020.

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Written by Kip Soliva Updated Dec 14, 2020
Fact Checked by Chris Icamen