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Malnutrition in Children: All You Need to Know

What causes malnutrition in children?|How common is malnutrition in children?|What are the symptoms of malnutrition in children?|Diagnosis and Treatment|Lifestyle Changes and Home Remedies
Malnutrition in Children: All You Need to Know

What causes malnutrition in children?

To understand what causes malnutrition in children and how to prevent it, we must first define what it means to be malnourished.

We often association malnutrition with a “lack” of nutrients, but the causes of malnutrition in children also include excess intake.

Malnutrition in children refers to an deficiency, imbalance or excess in a child’s intake of nutrients and/or energy.

When it comes to the classification of malnutrition, there are different types and definitions, including undernutrition, which is common in low- and middle-income countries, and obesity.

Fortunately, there are malnutrition treatments that are available to address all these conditions. To address this issue, it’s important to know exactly what causes malnutrition in children.

What causes malnutrition in children?

There are several causes of malnutrition in children, including diseases and infections such as tuberculosis and measles. HIV and AIDS may also cause a vicious cycle of infection and undernutrition among children.

However, the biggest underlying cause of malnutrition, especially undernutrition among young kids, is poverty.

Because of poverty, families are unable to buy and prepare proper meals that have enough micronutrients to support the child’s health and growth. There is also usually a lack of foods in markets of low-income countries.

So, even if some families can afford a few good foods here and there, they do not have many options to choose from. It is not surprising then that developing and low-income countries tend to have the most cases of malnutrition in kids.

Why Childhood Obesity is Becoming More Common in the Philippines

Healthy foods, in many cases, are expensive. Even in first-world countries, processed foods, fast food, and other products that are high in fat and sugar tend to be cheaper than vegetables, lean meat and protein sources, and fruits.

How common is malnutrition in children?

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 47 million children around the world under the age of five experience acute malnutrition or wasting. Wasting happens when a child’s nutrition deteriorates rapidly over a short time.

There are also around 144 million kids that are stunted and another 38.3 million that are obese. With these facts, it is easy to say that malnutrition is a common problem among children.

What are the symptoms of malnutrition in children?

There are different classifications of malnutrition, something that most people often misunderstand.

When someone says malnutrition, people tend to imagine skinny children with bulging stomachs. However, that is only one form of malnutrition. Being overweight and obesity are also forms of malnutrition.

Here are the different forms of malnutrition:


Perhaps the most common form of malnutrition in low-income countries, undernutrition has four sub-forms:

  • Stunting (low height relative to age)
  • Wasting (low weight relative to height)
  • Underweight (low weight relative to age)

Typically, underweight children are also wasted or stunted or even both.

  • Deficiencies in vitamins and minerals

Children suffering from undernutrition are more prone to diseases and even death.

Micronutrient-related malnutrition

Micronutrients are essential for a child’s growth. These are needed to keep their bodies healthy and strong to fight off different diseases.

Vitamin A, iodine, and iron are perhaps the most important of these micronutrients. Because of that, any deficiency of these micronutrients may pose a threat to the health and development of children, especially those from low-income countries.

Obesity and Overweight

When a child is considered “overweight,” they are heavier than what is expected for their height. Obesity, on the other hand, means that a child is too heavy and has excessive or abnormal fat accumulation. These impair their health and are a risk factor for many health conditions.

These conditions also refer to an imbalance between energy consumed (too high) and energy expended (too little). Usually, food and drinks that are high in sugar and fats cause obesity and may lead one to becoming overweight, especially if the child is not active.

Knowing whether a child is overweight or obese is essential. It can be easily calculated with the help of a body mass index (BMI) calculator.

Diagnosis and Treatment

Fortunately, malnutrition, in all its forms, can be treated. Malnutrition treatments, however, depend on the type of malnutrition a patient has and how severe their condition is.

After knowing what causes malnutrition in children, it is best to consult your pediatrician to properly diagnose and treat your child’s condition.

Malnutrition treatment can be done at home for mild cases. For moderate cases, malnutrition treatments are often supported by a dietitian or another healthcare professional.

However, severe cases of malnutrition will require hospital admission.

The most common approach to malnutrition treatment is changing the patient’s diet.

Dietitians will usually create a tailored diet for a child suffering from undernutrition to ensure that they get all the essential nutrients their body needs.

In addition, they may suggest the following:

  • Consuming drinks that are high in calories
  • Snacking between meals
  • Eating “fortified” foods for extra nutrients

Doctors and dieticians may also prescribe supplements if the above malnutrition treatments are not enough. Dietitians may also require frequent check-ups to monitor the child’s development and adjust their treatment when necessary.

Malnutrition Treatments in the Philippines

Treatments here in the Philippines for malnutrition include RUTF or Ready to use Therapeutic food. This is an energy dense mineral/vitamin enriched food.

Although some cases are advised by a nutritionist to modify their diet, severe cases are given RUTF. They are then admitted to the hospital, hydrated and given antibiotics.

For babies < 6 months old breastfeeding is still recommended.

For those > 6 months old- 5 years old, the F75 the “starter” formula is used during initial management of malnutrition.

As soon as the child is stabilized on F-75, F-100 is used as a “catch-up” formula to rebuild wasted tissues. F-100 contains more calories and protein: 100 kcal and 2.9g protein per 100 ml.

F75/F100 milk AND RUTF is provided by the healthcare facilities in governmental units and hospitals.

Treatment of Severe Malnutrition

For more severe cases wherein the child is not able to swallow their food, doctors may require the child stay at the hospital and use a feeding tube.

These are usually done in special cases, such as children with cerebral palsy, those who are intubated, or those with problems with swallowing.

In severe malnutrition treatment, there are a few ways to use a feeding tube:

  • Via nose. This is the most common means, wherein the tube is inserted into the nose and pushed down into the stomach.
  • Via abdomen. A tube is inserted through the abdomen to reach the stomach.
  • Via vein. Another method entails feeding a child directly through a tube that is inserted into a vein.

Feeding tubes are typically done at the hospital, but can be continued at home.

Lifestyle Changes and Home Remedies

Malnutrition can be easily prevented by providing nutritious and healthy food for the family, especially young children. For children who are obese or overweight, parents will have to change their diet and encourage them to do more physical activity.

But prevention of malnutrition is something many families in middle- and low-income countries find difficult to address.

However, organizations like the WHO and UNICEF are continuously helping children around the world, addressing the causes of malnutrition in children.

For families that can afford nutritious food, always be mindful of what your family eats. It is also great to support projects that aim to eradicate malnutrition.

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

Malnutrition https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/malnutrition Accessed July 5, 2020 Nutrition and Food Security https://www.unicefusa.org/mission/survival/nutrition Accessed July 5, 2020 Treatment - Malnutrition https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/malnutrition/treatment/ Accessed July 5, 2020 https://actionagainsthunger.ca/what-is-acute-malnutrition/underlying-causes-of-malnutrition/

Factors affecting malnutrition in children and the uptake of interventions to prevent the condition https://bmcpediatr.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12887-015-0496-3 Accessed July 5, 2020

National Guidelines on the Management of Severe Acute Malnutrition for children <5 years old MOP Unicef Malnutrition https://www.who.int/health-topics/malnutrition#tab=tab_1 Accessed July 5, 2020
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Written by Den Alibudbud Updated Jul 06, 2020
Medically reviewed by Jobelle Ann Dela Cruz Bigalbal, M.D.