By Medically reviewed by hellodoktor


What is malnutrition?

Malnutrition is the condition that occurs when your body does not get enough nutrients. Malnutrition can affect people at any ages.

Children who are severely malnourished typically experience slow behavioral development, even mental retardation may occur. Even when treated, undernutrition may have long-term effects in children, with impairments in mental function and digestive problems persisting – in some cases for the rest of their lives.

Adults whose severe undernourishment started during adulthood usually make a full recovery when treated. Malnutrition in older adults can lead to various health concerns, including:

  • A weak immune system, which increases the risk of infections
  • Poor wound healing
  • Muscle weakness, which can lead to falls and fractures

In addition, malnutrition can lead to further disinterest in eating or lack of appetite — which only makes the problem worse.

How common is Malnutrition?

Malnutrition is extremely common. It can affect patients at any age. It can be managed by reducing your risk factors. Please discuss with your doctor for further information.


What are the symptoms of Malnutrition?

The common symptoms of Malnutrition are:

  • Loss of fat (adipose tissue);
  • Breathing difficulties, a higher risk of respiratory failure;
  • Depression;
  • Higher risk of complications after surgery;
  • Higher risk of hypothermia – abnormally low body temperature;
  • The total number of some types of white blood cells falls; consequently, the immune system is weakened, increasing the risk of infections.
  • Higher susceptibility to feeling cold;
  • Longer healing times for wounds;
  • Longer recover times from infections;
  • Longer recovery from illnesses
  • Lower sex drive;
  • Problems with fertility;
  • Reduced muscle mass;
  • Reduced tissue mass;
  • Tiredness, fatigue, or apathy;

In more severe cases:

  • Skin may become thin, dry, inelastic, pale, and cold.
  • Eventually, as fat in the face is lost, the cheeks look hollow and the eyes sunken.
  • Hair becomes dry and sparse, falling out easily.
  • Sometimes, severe malnutrition may lead to unresponsiveness (stupor).
  • If calorie deficiency continues for long enough, there may be heart, liver and respiratory failure.
  • Total starvation is said to be fatal within 8 to 12 weeks (no calorie consumption at all).

There may be some symptoms not listed above. If you have any concerns about a symptom, please consult your doctor.

When should I see my doctor?

You should contact your doctor if you have any of the following:

  • Fainting;
  • Lack of menstruation;
  • Lack of growth in children;
  • Rapid hair loss.


What causes malnutrition?

Malnutrition, the result of a lack of essential nutrients, resulting in poorer health, may be caused by a number of conditions or circumstances.

In more wealthy industrialized nations, malnutrition is usually caused by:

  • Poor diet: If a person does not eat enough food, or if what they eat does not provide them with the nutrients they require for good health, they suffer from malnutrition. Poor diet may be caused by one of several different factors. If the patient develops dysphagia (swallowing difficulties) because of an illness, or when recovering from an illness, they may not be able to consume enough of the right nutrients.
  • Mental health problems: Some patients with mental health conditions, such as depression, may develop eating habits which lead to malnutrition. Patients with anorexia nervosa or bulimia may develop malnutrition because they are ingesting too little food.
  • Mobility problems: People with mobility problems may suffer from malnutrition simply because they either cannot get out enough to buy foods, or find preparing them too arduous.
  • Digestive disorders and stomach conditions: Some people may eat properly, but their bodies cannot absorb the nutrients they need for good health. Examples include patients with Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis. Such patients may need to have part of the small intestine removed (ileostomy). Individuals who suffer from Celiac disease have a genetic disorder that makes them intolerant to gluten. Patients with Celiac disease have a higher risk of damage to the lining of their intestines, resulting in poorer food absorption. Patients who experience serious bouts of diarrhea and/or vomiting may lose vital nutrients and are at higher risk of suffering from malnutrition.
  • Alcoholism: Alcoholism is a chronic (long-term) disease. Individuals who suffer from alcoholism can develop gastritis, or pancreas damage. These problems also seriously undermine the body’s ability to digest food, absorb certain vitamins, and produce hormones which regulate metabolism. Alcohol contains calories, reducing the patient’s feeling of hunger, so he/she consequently may not eat enough proper food to supply the body with essential nutrients.

In the poorer nations malnutrition is commonly caused by:

  • Food shortages: In the poorer developing nations food shortages are mainly caused by a lack of technology needed for higher yields found in modern agriculture, such as nitrogen fertilizers, pesticides and irrigation. Food shortages are a significant cause of malnutrition in many parts of the world.
  • Food prices and food distribution: Some leading economists say that famine is closely linked to high food prices and problems with food distribution.
  • Lack of breastfeeding: Experts say that lack of breastfeeding, especially in the developing world, leads to malnutrition in infants and children. In some parts of the world mothers still believe that bottle feeding is better for the child. Another reason for lack of breastfeeding, mainly in the developing world, is that mothers abandon breastfeeding because they do not know how to get their baby to latch on properly, or suffer pain and discomfort.

Risk factors

What increases my risk for malnutrition?

There are many risk factors for malnutrition, such as:

  • Elderly people, especially those who are hospitalized or in long-term institutional care.
  • Individuals who are socially isolated;
  • People on low incomes (poor people);
  • People with chronic eating disorders, such as bulimia or anorexia nervosa;
  • People convalescing after a serious illness or condition.

Diagnosis & treatment

The information provided is not a substitute for any medical advice. ALWAYS consult with your doctor for more information.

How is malnutrition diagnosed?

Testing depends on the specific disorder. Most health care providers will do a nutritional assessment and blood work.

How is malnutrition treated?

Treatment usually consists of replacing missing nutrients, treating symptoms as needed, and treating any underlying medical condition.

When a diagnosis of either malnutrition or malnutrition risk has been made, the healthcare professional (either a doctor or dietician) who is responsible for the patient will devise a targeted care plan.

  • The care plan: Aims for treatment will be set out, which should include the treatment for any underlying conditions/illnesses which are contributory factors to the malnutrition. Typically, treatment will include a feeding program with a specially planned diet, and possibly some additional nutritional supplements. Severely malnourished patients, or individuals who cannot get sufficient nutrition by eating or drinking may need and should receive artificial nutritional support. The patient will be closely monitored for progress. Their treatment will be regularly reviewed to make sure their nutritional needs are being met.
  • Diet: A good healthcare professional will discuss eating and drinking with the patient and provide advice regarding healthy food choices. The aim is to make sure the patient is receiving a healthy, nutritious diet. The doctor or dietitian will work with the patient to make sure enough calories are being consumed from carbohydrates, proteins, fats and diary, as well as vitamins and minerals. If the patient cannot get their nutritional requirements from the food they eat, oral supplements may be needed. An additional 250kcal to 600kcal may be advised.
  • Artificial nutritional support: There are two main types of artificial nutritional support, mainly for patients with severe malnutrition:
    • Enteral nutrition (tube feeding) – a tube is placed in the nose, the stomach or small intestine.
    • Parenteral feeding – a sterile liquid is fed directly into the bloodstream (intravenously). Some patients may not be able to take nourishment directly into their stomach or small intestine.
  • Monitoring progress: The patient will be regularly monitored to check that he/she is receiving the right amount of calories and nutritional needs. This may be adjusted as the patient’s requirements change. Patients receiving artificial nutritional support will be switched over to normal eating as soon as they are able to.

Lifestyle changes & home remedies

What are some lifestyle changes or home remedies that can help me manage malnutrition?

The following lifestyles and home remedies might help you cope with malnutrition:

  • Encourage your loved one to eat foods packed with nutrients: Spread peanut or other nut butters on toast and crackers, fresh fruits, and raw vegetables. Sprinkle finely chopped nuts or wheat germ on yogurt, fruit and cereal. Add extra egg whites to scrambled eggs and omelets and encourage use of whole milk. Add cheese to sandwiches, vegetables, soups, rice and noodles.
  • Restore life to bland food: Make a restricted diet more appealing by using lemon juice, herbs and spices. If loss of taste and smell is a problem, experiment with seasonings and recipes.
  • Plan between-meal snacks: A piece of fruit or cheese, a spoonful of peanut butter, or a fruit smoothie can provide nutrients and calories.
  • Make meals social events: Drop by during mealtime or invite your loved one to your home for occasional meals. Encourage your loved one to join programs where he or she can eat with others.
  • Encourage regular physical activity: Daily exercise — even if it’s light — can stimulate appetite and strengthen bones and muscles.
  • Provide food-savings tips: If your loved one shop for groceries, encourage him or her to bring a shopping list, check store fliers for sales and choose less expensive brands. Suggested splitting the cost of bulk goods or meals with a friend or neighbor, and frequenting restaurants that offer discounts for older adults.

If you have any questions, please consult with your doctor to better understand the best solution for you.

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

Review Date: December 5, 2016 | Last Modified: September 12, 2019

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