Causes of malnutrition

By Dr Ananya Mandal, MD

Malnutrition occurs when a person does not receive adequate nutrients from diet. This causes damage to the vital organs and functions of the body. Lack of food is the most cause of malnutrition in the poorer and developing countries.

However, in developed countries like UK or USA the cause may be more varied. For example, those with a high calorie diet deficient in vital vitamins and minerals are also considered malnourished. This includes the obese and the overweight.

The causes of malnutrition include:

  • Lack of food: this is common among the low income group as well as those who are homeless.

  • Those having difficulty eating due to painful teeth or other painful lesions of the mouth. Those with dysphagia or difficulty swallowing are also at risk of malnutrition. This could be due to a blockage in the throat or mouth or due to sores in the mouth.

  • Loss of appetite. Common causes of loss of appetite include cancers, tumours, depressive illness and other mental illnesses, liver or kidney disease, chronic infections etc.

  • Those with a limited knowledge about nutrition tend to follow an unhealthy diet with not enough nutrients, vitamins and minerals and are at risk of malnutrition.

  • Elderly living alone, disabled persons living alone or young students living on their own often have difficulty cooking healthy balanced meals for themselves and may be at risk of malnutrition.

  • The elderly (over 65 years of age are), especially those living in care facilities are at a higher risk of malnutrition. These individuals have long term illnesses that affect their appetite and ability to absorb nutrients from food and they may also have difficulty feeding themselves. In addition, there may be concomitant mental ailments like depression that affect appetite and food intake.

  • Those who abuse drugs or are chronic alcoholics.

  • Those with eating disorders like anorexia nervosa have difficulty maintaining adequate nutrition.

  • Those with digestive illnesses like ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease or malabsorption syndrome have difficulty in assimilating the nutrients from diet and may suffer from malnutrition.

  • Those with diarrhea or persistent nausea or vomiting.

  • Some medications tend to alter the body’s ability to absorb and break down nutrients and taking these may lead to malnutrition.

  • The demand for energy from food exceeds the amount of food taken. This includes those who have suffered a serious injury, burn or after major surgical procedures. This also includes pregnant women and children whose growth and needs for the unborn baby causes increased demand for nutrients and calories that may be deficient in a normal diet.

  • Among children lack of knowledge of adequate feeding among parents is the leading cause of malnutrition worldwide.

  • Premature babies are at a higher risk of malnutrition as are infants at the time of weaning.

  • Childhood cancers, heart defects from birth (congenital heart disease), cystic fibrosis and other major long term diseases in children are the leading cause of malnutrition.

  • Neglected children, orphans and those living in care homes are at risk of malnutrition.

Reviewed by , BA Hons (Cantab)

Further Reading

Last Updated: Sep 9, 2012

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