Malnutrition: Symptoms, Causes and Treatment

Malnutrition: Symptoms, Causes and Treatment

The foods we consume provide us with the nutrients and energy we need to stay healthy. However, if a person does not get enough nutrients such as proteins, vitamins, carbohydrates, and fats, he/she may suffer from malnutrition. Malnutrition, also known as “poor nutrition,” is a serious condition that occurs when you deprive your body of nutrients needed to maintain healthy tissues, various physical and mental health conditions, and organ functions. Besides that, it also happens when a person gets too little of certain nutrients (undernourished or overnourished). 

Furthermore, malnutrition affects millions worldwide, and some populations have a higher risk of developing certain types of malnutrition depending on their lifestyle, environment, and food availability. There are numerous causes of malnutrition, including dietary patterns, food availability, low income, and certain physical and health conditions. It can lead to serious health issues, including eye problems, stunted growth, impaired wound healing, diabetes, heart disease, etc.

Types of Malnutrition

  • Undernutrition:  Undernutrition occurs when the body does not get enough nutrients due to a limited food supply. This condition prevents the body from obtaining the right balance of nutrients. Undernourished people often have deficiencies of minerals and vitamins such as vitamin A, zinc, iron, and iodine, leading to low weight and other health complications.
  • Overnutrition:  This involves getting more nutrients than needed. Overnutrition normally occurs in people who either overeat or eat the wrong things. In addition, it can also occur if you don’t exercise enough or take too many vitamins/supplements or other dietary replacements. Overconsumption of certain nutrients (like protein, fat, or calories) can lead to malnutrition and eventually lead to being overweight or obese. The risk of being overnourished increases by more than 20 percent when you take a diet high in fat and salt.

Symptoms of Malnutrition

Being malnourished can have a lot of adverse effects on the body. If you are malnourished, your body will slow down and will not work as it used to. Below are some major signs and symptoms of malnutrition;

  • weight loss
  • rashes
  • reduced muscle and tissue mass,
  • feeling tired and weak all the time
  • getting ill often and taking time to recover 
  • always feeling cold
  • night blindness
  • achy joints
  • irritability and anxiety
  • depression
  • lack of appetite or interest in foods
  • inability to concentrate
  • higher risk of complications after surgery

 With time, a person may experience heart failure and breathing problems.


Malnutrition occurs for various reasons, but the major causes include poverty, dietary patterns, food prices, and agricultural productivity. Many people even suffer from more than one cause of malnutrition. The sections below outline these potential causes in more detail;

  • Lack of access to Foods: This is the primary reason for malnutrition in underdeveloped and developing countries. Lack of food will generally make a person short of the required vitamins, minerals, and nutrients needed for healthy living.
  • Mental health disorders: Malnutrition can affect many people with mental health disorders such as depression, dementia, schizophrenia, anorexia nervosa, etc.
  •  Excessive alcohol consumption: Consuming a lot of alcohol can lead to gastritis and affect how your body digests and absorbs useful vitamins, minerals and nutrients.
  • Digestive disorders: Examples of digestive and stomach conditions such as ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s disease, persistent diarrhea, etc., may increase the risk of malnutrition even when you eat a healthful diet.
  • Social and mobility problems: Social and mobility problems such as the inability to prepare meals, get to the store to buy foods, etc., can potentially lead to malnutrition.


Malnutrition treatment depends on the underlying cause and the severity of the malnutrition. Treatment often involves assessment and recommendations from a doctor/dietician(you may be given advice to follow at home). However, in some severe cases, you may need to be treated in the hospital. A dietitian helps assess the signs and symptoms of malnutrition, recommends interventions, and develops feeding schedules that may include supplements.

The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) has given guidelines for treating people with malnutrition. This includes:

  1. Identifying and caring for adults that are malnourished.
  2. Treatment should consider the patient’s needs and preferences. 3. The patient should have the opportunity to make informed decisions about their care and treatment in partnership with their healthcare professionals. 


In conclusion, you can also prevent malnutrition by eating various foods that offer ample amounts of vitamins, minerals, and nutrients, including carbs, proteins, fats, vitamins, minerals, and water. In addition, government and independent organizations can also play important roles in preventing malnutrition.

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