Malnutrition is the condition that occurs when your body does not get enough nutrients.
There are many types of malnutrition, and they have different causes. Some causes include:
- Poor diet
- Starvation due to food not being available
- Eating disorders
- Problems with digesting food or absorbing nutrients from food
- Certain medical conditions that make a person unable to eat
You may develop malnutrition if you lack a single vitamin in your diet. Lacking a vitamin or other nutrient is called a deficiency.
Sometimes malnutrition is very mild and causes no symptoms. Other times it can be so severe that the damage it does to the body is permanent, even though you survive.
Poverty, natural disasters, political problems, and war can all contribute to malnutrition and starvation, and not just in developing countries.
Some health conditions that are related to malnutrition are:
- Binge eating
- Deficiency - Vitamin A
- Deficiency - Vitamin B1 (thiamine)
- Deficiency - Vitamin B2 (riboflavin)
- Deficiency - Vitamin B6 (pyridoxine)
- Deficiency - Vitamin B9 (folacin)
- Deficiency - Vitamin E
- Deficiency - Vitamin K
- Eating disorders
- Megaloblastic anemia
- Spina bifida
Malnutrition is a significant problem all over the world, especially among children. It is very harmful to children because it affects brain development and other growth. Children who suffer from malnutrition may have lifelong problems.
Symptoms of malnutrition vary and depend on its cause. General symptoms include fatigue, dizziness, and weight loss.
Exams and Tests
Testing depends on the specific disorder. Most health care providers will do a nutritional assessment and blood work.
Treatment most often consists of:
- Replacing missing nutrients
- Treating symptoms as needed
- Treating any underlying medical condition
The outlook depends on the cause of the malnutrition. Most nutritional deficiencies can be corrected. However, if malnutrition is caused by a medical condition, that illness has to be treated in order to reverse the nutritional deficiency.
If untreated, malnutrition can lead to mental or physical disability, illness, and possibly death.
When to Contact a Medical Professional
Talk to your provider about the risk of malnutrition. Treatment is necessary if you or your child have any changes in the body's ability to function. Contact your provider if these symptoms develop:
- Lack of menstruation
- Lack of growth in children
- Rapid hair loss
Eating a well-balanced diet helps to prevent most forms of malnutrition.
Nutrition - inadequate
Ashworth A. Nutrition, food security, and health. In: Kliegman RM, St. Geme JW, Blum NJ, Shah SS, Tasker RC, Wilson KM, eds. Nelson Textbook of Pediatrics. 21st ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier;2020:chap 57.
Becker PJ, Nieman Carney L, Corkins MR, et al. Consensus statement of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics/American Society for Parenteral and Enteral Nutrition: indicators recommended for the identification and documentation of pediatric malnutrition (undernutrition). J Acad Nutr Diet. 2014;114(12):1988-2000. PMID: 2548748 www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25458748.
Manary MJ, Trehan I. Protein-energy malnutrition. In: Goldman L, Schafer AI, eds. Goldman-Cecil Medicine. 25th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2016:chap 215.
Review Date 5/13/2019
Updated by: Linda J. Vorvick, MD, Clinical Associate Professor, Department of Family Medicine, UW Medicine, School of Medicine, University of Washington, Seattle, WA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.