Malnutrition can occur from various causes and is the result of the body not getting enough of the nutrients that it needs. Malnutrition is not just limited to sick people or people in developing countries. Though surprising to some people, malnutrition includes both overnutrition and undernutrition. So people who are overweight or obese can still fall into the category of being malnourished.
People who are suffering from overnutrition are typically overweight or obese. But they can be malnourished if they are eating a calorically dense diet that is lacking in essential vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals, or antioxidants.
However, for those suffering from undernutrition, a status in which people are having an inadequate diet or having problems absorbing nutrients from food, there may many different issues going on. Some illnesses that might lead to malnutrition include:
- Celiac Disease
- Wilson’s Disease
- Lactose Intolerance
- Inflammatory Bowel Disease: Crohn’s Disease or Ulcerative Colitis
- Chronic or intense diarrhea
- Issues in parts of the digestive system
- Diabetes Mellitus
- Congestive Heart Failure
- Excessive alcohol
- Chronic Pancreatitis
- Parasites or worms
In addition to these, there are many other issues that can affect people’s dietary choices or hunger response. Sometimes malnutrition, especially seen in older adults can be affected by reduced mobility, low income, and a long-term health condition.
Signs of Malnutrition
The most common symptom you will see in people who are undernourished is an unintentional weight loss of 5-10% or more of your body weight over a short period of time like 3-6 months.
Some physical signs can include the following:
- Fatigue or chronic exhaustion
- Tired or weak muscles
- Decreased ability of the body to fight off infections or illnesses
- Behavior changes
Specific micronutrient deficiencies like not getting enough iron or vitamin D in the diet are associated with additional physical signs like weakened bones, cognitive changes, or more serious risks in pregnant women. Often micronutrient deficiencies might develop over a long period of time and initially have minimal or no symptoms. In children, malnutrition is especially impactful and can lead to stunted growth or changes in their behavior.
How to Avoid Being Malnourished
Eating a diverse diet of fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, fats, carbohydrates, and protein sources is the best way. But if you suffer from a chronic illness or have had an acute issue, you want to find ways to increase the nutritional content of your diet or improve your ability to absorb the food so that more intensive treatments are not needed. For some people, taking supplements may be recommended to get enough vitamins and minerals in your diet to avoid specific micronutrient deficiencies.
When to Seek Help
If you have concerns that you might be at risk of malnutrition you should consult a registered dietitian or your doctor. Immediate consideration should be taken for those who have a body mass index (BMI) of less than 18.5 or if you have combined symptoms, diseases, or environmental issues.
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