Malnutrition Causes, Complications, Prevention & Treatment


Getting too little or too much of a given nutrient is referred to as malnutrition. It can lead to serious health issues like growth retardation, eye problems, diabetes, and heart disease.

Globally, millions of people suffer from malnutrition. Depending on their geography, way of life, and resources, certain groups are more likely than others to experience specific forms of malnutrition.

Malnutrition may result from inadequate nutrition or excessive consumption. Malnutrition can take many different forms.

Undernutrition: This form of malnutrition is brought on by a lack of vitamins, protein, or calories. Low weight-for-height (wasting), low height-for-age (stunting), and low weight-for-age are the results (underweight).

Malnutrition can also result from excessive intake of some nutrients, such as protein, calories, or fat. Obesity or being overweight are the typical outcomes of this. Iron, zinc, vitamin A, and iodine deficits are particularly prevalent among undernourished people 

Yet, over-eating can also result in nutrient deficiencies. While consuming too many calories can lead to weight gain or obesity, it can also lead to vitamin and mineral deficiencies.

Hence, foods that produce overnutrition, including Fried and sweet dishes, typically have high fat and calorie counts with few additional nutrients.

Malnutrition comprises both undernutrition and overnutrition, both of which, if left untreated, can result in health issues and nutritional shortages.


Malnutrition is a global issue that can be brought on by social, economic, and medical factors.

According to the WHO, more than 150 million children and 460 million adults are undernourished, while more than two billion children and adults are overweight or obese.

Malnutrition is frequently brought on by:

  • Studies relate food insecurity, or a lack of access to enough and inexpensive food, to malnutrition in both developing and industrialized countries.
  • Malnutrition can be brought on by digestive disorders and problems with nutritional absorption, including Crohn's disease, celiac disease, and intestinal bacterial overgrowth.
  • Alcoholism: Regular heavy drinking can result in insufficient ingestion of calories, protein, and micronutrients.
  • Disorders of the mind: Depression and other mental health issues might raise the risk of malnutrition. According to one study, those with depression had a 4% greater rate of malnutrition than adults without depression.
  • Inability to get and prepare food: Research has linked malnutrition to risk factors such as being fragile, having limited movement, and having weak muscles. These problems affect one's ability to prepare food.

Risk Factors

Everyone across the world is susceptible to malnutrition, but certain communities are more at risk than others.

Malnutrition is more prevalent in the following populations:

  • Those who reside in underdeveloped nations or regions with little access to food: Sub-Saharan Africa and Southern Asia are particularly prone to undernutrition and micronutrient deficiencies.
  • Those with higher nutritional requirements, particularly youngsters and women who are pregnant or nursing: In certain poor nations, 24–31% of women who are expecting or breastfeeding are undernourished (40, 41).
  • Individuals with low salaries or those who are poor: Nutritional deficiency is correlated with low socioeconomic status.
  • Older persons, especially those with impairments or who live alone: According to research, over 45% of older persons are at risk and up to 22% of them are malnourished.
  • Issues with nutritional absorption in individuals: Malnutrition may be up to four times more prevalent in individuals with Crohn's disease or ulcerative colitis than in individuals without these illnesses 


Depending on the kind, malnutrition has different indications and symptoms.

Understanding malnutrition's impacts can aid in identifying and treating problems caused by under or overnutrition for both patients and healthcare professionals.


Undernutrition is often caused by a diet lacking sufficient nutrients.

This may result in 

  • Loss of weight
  • Loss of muscle mass and fat
  • Sunken eyes and hollow cheeks
  • An enlarged stomach
  • Dry skin and hair
  • Delayed healing of a wound
  • Fatigue
  • Difficulty paying attention
  • Irritability
  • Both anxiety and depression

One or more of these symptoms may be present in individuals who are undernourished. Several forms of malnutrition have distinguishing characteristics.

Kwashiorkor, a significant lack of protein, results in fluid retention and an outstretched belly. The condition marasmus, on the other hand, which occurs from an extreme caloric deficit, causes wasting. substantial loss of muscle and fat.

Micronutrient deficits can also be caused by undernutrition. The following are a few of the most typical defects and their signs:

Vitamin A: increased risk of infection, night blindness, and dry eyes.

Zinc: Appetite loss, slowed development, delayed wound healing, hair loss, and diarrhoea.

Iron: Problems with controlling body temperature, impaired mental function, and gastrointestinal troubles.

Iodine: Problems with growth and development, goitres, impaired thyroid hormone synthesis, enlarged thyroid glands.

Undernutrition might raise your chance of passing away since it causes major physical and medical difficulties.

In fact, it is estimated that up to 45% of all child fatalities in 2011 were caused by stunting, wasting, and deficiencies in zinc and vitamin A. 


Obesity and overweight are the prominent symptoms of overeating, but they can also result in dietary shortages.

According to research, persons who are overweight or obese are more likely than people who are at a healthy weight to have insufficient intakes and low blood levels of specific vitamins and minerals.

Blood levels of vitamins A and E in obese adults were found to be between 2-10% lower than those in participants who were of normal weight in one research of 285 teenagers.

This is probable because eating too many quick and processed meals that are heavy in calories and fat but lacking in other nutrients can produce overweight and obesity.

A survey of more than 17,000 adults and children revealed individuals who consumed fast food consumed more calories, fat, and salt and had considerably lower intakes of vitamins A and C.

Malnutrition Evaluation

During screening for the illness, healthcare professionals evaluate malnutrition's symptoms.

Weight loss and body mass index (BMI) charts, blood testing for micronutrient status, and physical examinations are some of the methods used to detect malnutrition.

Your doctor could request further tests to find micronutrient deficiencies if you have a history of weight loss and other signs of malnutrition.

On the other side, it could be harder to spot vitamin shortages brought on by overeating.

You could not obtain enough vitamins or minerals from processed and quick foods. Talk to your doctor about your eating habits to see whether you are deficient in any nutrients.


The root causes of malnutrition must be addressed in order to prevent and treat it.

Malnutrition may be avoided with the help of governmental entities, nonprofits, and educational institutions.

According to research, delivering dietary supplements, iron, zinc, and iodine tablets, as well as nutrition education to communities at risk for undernutrition, are some of the most efficient approaches to prevent malnutrition.

Moreover, programmes that support children and adults at risk of overnutrition in making appropriate dietary decisions and engaging in physical activity may help avoid overweight and obesity.

Eating a varied diet that includes enough carbohydrates, proteins, fats, vitamins, minerals, and water can also help avoid malnutrition.

On the other hand, treating malnutrition frequently calls for more specialised methods.

If you believe you or If you or someone you know is malnourished, get medical attention right once.

A healthcare professional can evaluate the indicators of undernutrition and suggest treatments, such as working with a nutritionist to create a plan of meals that may include supplements.

Depending on the underlying reason and the severity of the malnutrition, a person may require treatment.

A dietician or other skilled healthcare practitioner may provide you with home help or counselling. Treatment at a hospital may be required in extreme instances.

Before beginning or ending nutrition assistance, the medical expert in charge of your care must have your permission. If you are unable to provide permission, they must follow medical advice and act in your best interest.

Adjustments to the diet and supplements

You will receive advice from a dietician regarding beneficial dietary adjustments.

They could design a personalised food plan for you to make sure you get adequate nutrients.

They could also advise:

  • Consuming "fortified" foods that contain nutrients to maintain a better, more balanced diet further nutrients
  • Between-meal snacks
  • Consuming calorie-dense beverages and receiving grocery delivery at home
  • Supplementing with additional nutrients may be advised if these actions are insufficient. They must only be taken when directed by a medical practitioner.

You will schedule routine consultations to ensure that any dietary adjustments are enhancing your nutrition. If you want your diet to be more effective, it might need to be changed.

Tubes for feeding

A different method of obtaining nutrients may be required if you are unable to eat enough to fulfil your body's demands, such as if you have dysphagia, a condition that causes difficulty swallowing.

This may consist of:

  • Utilising a catheter that is inserted into your stomach via your nostril (nasogastric tube) 
  • Employing a nutrient-rich solution that is injected directly into your blood through a tube in a vein, or by inserting a tube (percutaneous endoscopic gastrostomy, or PEG tube) through the skin of your stomach (parenteral nutrition)

These therapies are often started in a hospital, but if you are well enough, you can continue them there.

Services for support and care

Some malnourished persons require additional care to help them deal with underlying problems like poor mobility.

This could comprise:

  • Visiting carers who can assist you with cooking or grocery shopping if necessary learn more about receiving occupational therapy at home.
  • Speech and language therapy: A speech therapist can suggest dietary adjustments and teach you exercises to aid with swallowing issues.
  •  An occupational therapist can identify problems with daily activities and help find solutions. 
  • A "meals on wheels" or meals at home service can often be provided by the local authority, though there is typically a charge (such as foods that are easy to swallow)
  • Learn how to feed the person you care about.

Treating child malnutrition

Children's malnutrition is frequently brought on by chronic illnesses that require medical care. Nevertheless, not all malnourished children experience this.

Treatment options include:

  • Dietary adjustments, such as consuming meals high in nutrition and energy, 
  • Assistance for families, if the other therapies are ineffective on their own, they can supervise the child's nutritional intake, address any underlying medical issues that are causing malnutrition, and provide vitamin and mineral supplements as well as high-energy and protein nutritional supplements.
  • Children who are severely underweight require special attention when being fed and rehydrated. Children can not start eating normally right away. In hospitals, they will typically require specialised treatment.
  • They can progressively switch to a regular diet if they are well enough and continue doing so at home.
  • To ensure that the medication is effective, it is crucial that it be periodically checked. A child will have their weight and height measured, and if there are no problems, they will be referred to specialised programmes.

Complications of Malnutrition

Malnutrition has been linked to the emergence of illnesses and long-term health problems.

Undernutrition has long-term repercussions that increase the risk of obesity, heart disease, and diabetes 

Researchers believe that metabolic alterations brought on by childhood malnutrition increase the risk of acquiring chronic illnesses later in life 

Overeating can also aid in the emergence of specific health problems.

Particularly, children who are overweight or obese are more likely to develop type 2 diabetes and heart disease

Preventing and treating malnutrition may help decrease the incidence of chronic health disorders since the long-term consequences of malnutrition might raise your chance of contracting particular diseases.

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Page last reviewed: Mar 22, 2023

Next review due: Mar 22, 2025

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