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Understanding Malnutrition: Types, symptoms, causes, risks, treatment and prevention

Team AckoJan 17, 2024

According to a 2022 report published on NCBI, it was noted that severe acute Malnutrition has been increasing in India over the last two decades. This is an alarming sign which has brought the importance of consuming a nutritious diet into the spotlight. A healthy and balanced diet is vital; eating too much or too little can make you malnourished. A deficiency of vitamins and minerals can lead to serious health issues. This article will help you understand Malnutrition and its types, signs, causes, treatments, and ways to prevent it.




What is Malnutrition?

Malnutrition is a serious condition that occurs when your body does not get enough nutrients, such as vitamins, protein, minerals, carbohydrates, and fats. If your diet does not have the right amount of nutrients, your body will not function properly.  

What are the types of Malnutrition?

There are two types of Malnutrition.

1. Undernutrition

It occurs when your diet is deprived of nutrients essential for bodily functions, and its growth and development. The deficiency of micronutrients such as vitamins and minerals leads to the following. 

  • Underweight (low weight based on age)

  • Stunting (low height as per the age)

  • Wasting (low weight as per the height)

Undernourished individuals are usually deficient in vitamins and minerals. The most common deficiencies, along with their signs, are as follows. 

  • Zinc (delayed growth, hair loss, poor healing of wounds, dry skin, and loss of appetite)

  • Iodine (growth and development problems, and goitres)

  • Vitamin A (Prone to infections, night blindness, and dry eyes)

  • Iron (digestive problems, extreme fatigue, and difficulty in learning)

2. Overnutrition

It occurs due to the overconsumption of nutrients like protein and fat. Individuals become obese when they eat the wrong food items (diet high in calories and fat but low in nutrients) in excess or consume many vitamins, and do not exercise at all. You can be overweight and undernourished. Meaning you may be obese and consuming excessive calories, but you still lack the required vitamins and minerals.  Those who are obese may develop a range of potentially serious health conditions like heart disease, stroke, digestive problems, type 2 diabetes, osteoarthritis, and certain cancers such as liver, kidney, colon, rectum, pancreas, etc.

Symptoms of Malnutrition

The common signs of Malnutrition include the following.

Signs of undernutrition

  • Frequent infections

  • A lack of appetite

  • Low body weight

  • Loss of fat and muscle mass

  • Stunted growth 

  • Low heart rate

  • Dry skin 

  • Always feeling cold

  • Weakness, tiredness, and fatigue

  • Thin arms and legs with swelling in the belly

  • Brittle hair

  • Irritability

  • Prolonged recovery time

  • An inability to concentrate (learning difficulties)

Signs of overnutrition

What are the causes of Malnutrition?

Not consuming enough nutrients is the most common cause of undernutrition. Usually, individuals who lack financial resources and have limited access to nutritious foods face this condition. Also, children who do not get sufficient breastfeeding are malnourished.

Apart from these, you can be malnourished if you have medical conditions that refrain your body from absorbing nutrients. That said, the following conditions can result in undernutrition. 

  • Eating disorders like bulimia and anorexia

  • Chronic diarrhoea

  • Mental health conditions when one loses appetite, such as depression, schizophrenia, etc.  

Overnutrition is usually caused due to consuming nutrients in excess. Other reasons for overnutrition are as follows.

  • Emotional eating, which leads to overconsumption 

  • Chronic stress, depression, and anxiety

  • Overuse of dietary supplements

  • Binge eating

  • A sedentary lifestyle

  • Imbalance of hormones 

  • Medical conditions like hypothyroidism

Another reason for being malnourished is heavy alcohol consumption. It leads to insufficient calorie intake, and you do not get enough nutrients. Drinking in excess can even damage the pancreas, and eventually, your body will find it difficult to digest food and absorb nutrients.

Who is at risk of Malnutrition?

The following people are at risk of Malnutrition.

  • People with low-food consumption due to dysphagia when one finds it tough to swallow food

  • Individuals who are recovering from a severe condition

  • Those with digestive problems and stomach conditions like Crohn's disease and Celiac disease, where the body is unable to absorb nutrients 

  • Socially isolated individuals who have limited mobility due to physical illness

How is Malnutrition diagnosed?

Following are some of the ways to diagnose Malnutrition. 

1. Physical examination

A doctor will determine your Body Mass Index (BMI) to see if it matches the normal BMI for an individual of your age and height. You will also be asked about your medical history and diet. Apart from this, your blood pressure, heart rate, and skin will also be evaluated. 

2. Lab tests and scans

  • LFTs (Liver Function tests) diagnose liver disease and determine the health of your liver by measuring proteins and enzymes.

  • CBC (complete blood test) to evaluate overall health and monitor a wide range of diseases.

  • A doctor may order a urine test, stool test, echocardiogram, and Arterial Blood Gas (ABG) test if needed. 

  • Additionally, to determine how malnourished you are, a health professional may order a chest x-ray or chest CT, abdominal imaging, and bone scan.

Treatments for Malnutrition

A tailored treatment plan will be created for you once your doctor diagnoses Malnutrition. The treatment plan depends on how severely malnourished you are. Also, your underlying health conditions will be taken into consideration. You may be asked to consult a registered dietician as well. That said, Malnutrition can be treated in the following ways.

  • Ongoing screening and monitoring

  • A customised diet plan 

  • Vitamin and mineral supplements (according to the individuals)

  • Treating underlying health conditions

Severely underweight individuals are sometimes given appetite stimulants such as dronabinol or megestrol and medications to increase muscle mass.

In a nutshell, dietary improvement with increased intake of micronutrient-rich foods and supplementation are the main strategies to overcome micronutrient Malnutrition.

How to prevent Malnutrition

The best way to prevent undernutrition and overnutrition is to consume a wide range of nutrients that too from different food types. A healthy and balanced diet is the key player in providing enough micronutrients to your body.

You need to consume a variety of foods, including.

  • Vegetables and seasonal fruits

  • Protein (beans, eggs, fish, and meat)

  • Milk and dairy products

  • Starchy foods (peas, potatoes, corn, pasta, white rice, and whole grains cereals)

You have to avoid herb or spice blends that are heavy in salt. Limit your intake of sugary foods, alcoholic beverages, solid fats, and salt. Consider doing regular exercise to improve your appetite and keep your bones as well as muscles strong.

Note: Those with a chronic illness may need supplementation to overcome Malnutrition. Your doctor will suggest you accordingly.

Frequently asked questions

Here is a list of some common queries along with their answers regarding Malnutrition.

What are micronutrients, and why are they important?


Vitamins and minerals are the two main micronutrients our body needs. Deficiency in any of them may lead to severe and life-threatening health conditions.

Can Malnutrition be reversed?


Yes. You have to consume a nutritious diet to ease nutritional restoration.

What happens if Malnutrition is not treated?


If you do not take timely action to treat Malnutrition, you will have stunted growth and may face serious health conditions such as heart diseases, diabetes, and eye problems.

When should I visit a doctor?


Go to a doctor when you feel tired all day (regularly), do not feel like eating, and if you lose excess weight within a short amount of time.


Disclaimer: The content on this page is generic and shared only for informational and explanatory purposes. It is based on several secondary sources on the internet. As this content piece is not vetted by a medical professional, please consult a doctor before making any health-related decisions.


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