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Difference Between Undernourished and Malnourished Children

Medically reviewed by Regina Victoria Boyles, MD · Pediatrics

Written by Lorraine Bunag, R.N. · Updated Jan 15, 2023

Difference Between Undernourished and Malnourished Children

We sometimes use the words “malnourished” and “undernourished” to describe a child with a small-for-their-age build and below-normal weight. And while these two words are highly related to each other, there’s still a significant difference between them. In this article, we will talk about the difference between malnourished and undernourished children.

The Difference Between Malnourished and Undernourished Kids

Malnourished children, or kids who experience malnutrition, typically have an unbalanced diet. It’s either they have insufficiencies in their intake of calories and nutrients, or they consume too much.

For this reason, kids who overeat and then become overweight or obese can be considered malnourished. Likewise, underweight children with insufficient protein and caloric consumption are also malnourished.

Interestingly, malnutrition also occurs in kids with normal weight who lack certain vitamins and minerals in their diet. We refer to this condition as micronutrient deficiency.

Now, undernutrition is a specific form of malnutrition. It happens when kids have inadequate intake of proteins or calories in general; that’s why it’s not surprising if they show signs of micronutrient deficiencies, too.

In most cases, kids who have little to no food access due to financial problems become undernourished. However, undernutrition can also occur in children who have conditions that interfere with long-term nutrient absorption.

How to Spot Undernutrition and Malnutrition in Kids

After answering the question, what’s the difference between undernourished and malnourished kids?, let’s talk about spotting their signs.

The early signs of undernutrition are as follows:

  • Fatigue; undernourished kids typically do not have the energy to play games or perform other physical tasks.
  • Changes in behavior. Kids sometimes show irritability, anxiety, and uncharacteristically slow movements.
  • Not growing tall nor gaining weight as expected.

When undernutrition progresses, they may show other signs like:

  • Inability to feel warm
  • Increased wound healing time
  • Frequent illnesses and needing more time to recover
  • Reduced appetite

And of course, they may show other signs that point out micronutrient deficiencies like night blindness, achy joints and tender bones, bleeding gums, easy bruising, and increased sensitivity to light.

If a child is malnourished in the sense that they consume too many calories, they may become overweight or obese. The most evident sign, in this case, is the child’s excessive weight.

How Can Parents Intervene

What can you do if you spot the signs of undernutrition or malnutrition in children? The following tips will be helpful:

Bring your child to the doctor.

The difference between malnourished and undernourished children typically doesn’t matter – if you spot the signs we have mentioned above, the first thing you must do is bring your child to the doctor.

The pediatrician will check if your child’s height and weight are normal for their age. Moreover, they will accurately assess the child’s Body Mass Index, which determines if they are on the verge of or are already underweight or overweight.

Furthermore, pediatricians can better check the other signs and possible causes of malnutrition.

difference between malnourished and undernourished

Modify their diet and eating habits

If the doctor determines that an unbalanced diet is causing your child’s malnutrition, talk to them about diet modifications.

Generally, a healthy, balanced diet involves:

  • Various foods in all the food groups: fruits and vegetables, whole grains, protein foods, and dairy products. It would also help if you also incorporate healthy fats in their diet.
  • Healthy snacks in between meals.
  • Healthy drinks; for starters, undernourished children may need high-calorie (but still healthy) drinks.
  • For kids with excessive weight, healthy food choices and portion control are incredibly beneficial. Teaching them about good eating habits, like not eating when it’s not yet time, and engaging in more physical activities will also help bring down their weight.

    Consider vitamin supplements

    To treat any micronutrient deficiency in children, the doctor may recommend vitamin supplementation. Moreover, it will also be helpful to pick “fortified” foods for your kids as they contain various vitamins and minerals.

    Final Thoughts

    There may be a significant difference between malnourished and undernourished kids, but the priority stays the same: early intervention. This is because, without treatment, malnutrition can bring many adverse effects to a child’s growth and development.

    Learn more about Childhood Malnutrition here. 


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

    Medically reviewed by

    Regina Victoria Boyles, MD


    Written by Lorraine Bunag, R.N. · Updated Jan 15, 2023

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