Malnutrition: What you need to know (Malnutrition Awareness Week Sept. 23–27)

Malnutrition Awareness Week: How Malnutrition Affects the Life of Individuals

What is Malnutrition?

Malnutrition basically means bad nutrition. It is defined as an abnormal condition of the body brought about by imbalance, deficiency or excess of nutrients like protein, vitamins, carb, and others.

Malnutrition happens when your body gets insufficient nutrients from the food you eat and because of that, is unable to function properly (undernutrition). Nutrients present in food include vitamins, minerals, proteins, carbohydrates, and fat. Without sufficient nutrients, the body doesn’t get energy and is unable to grow or perform tissue repair. Its ability to regulate breathing and heartbeat is also impaired.

Malnutrition can also occur when there is overnutrition – an excess of nutrition with regard to the actual requirements of an individual. This can cause obesity and eventually, lead to metabolic syndrome, characterized by diabetes, heart diseases, hypertension, and high cholesterol levels.

The focus of this article is nutrition deficiency, its dangers, and how to prevent or manage the condition.

Under nutrition

An individual is undernutrition when there is an insufficiency of one or more vital nutrients in the body. This deficiency is likely when the body demands more nutrients than what it is supplied through intakes. It may also happen the body fails to digest food and absorb its nutrients properly.

These are the Individuals who are most susceptible to malnutrition:

Pregnant Women

Women need extra nutrition during pregnancy to facilitate proper growth and development for the baby in the womb and also, to maintain their own health. Folic acid is a very critical nutrient; its deficiency can lead to spina bifida or other birth defects, and may also cause the baby to be born prematurely or have very low birth weight.

Infants and Children

An unborn baby or a child under two years of age who is malnourished may suffer irreparable, lifelong damage. Children can get marasmus, which is a condition characterized by extreme protein and calorie deficiency due to insufficient food intake. Children with marasmus are extremely thin, and have stunted growth.

Another condition that children may develop is kwashiorkor – this happens because the food has sufficient calories but poor quantities of protein. These children can be seen with large stomachs; this is because of edema or fluid collection and enlarged livers. Children with kwashiorkor also have delayed growth and development.

Rickets is a condition caused by vitamin D deficiency that affects bone formation. Malnutrition causes 2.6 million deaths across the world – nearly 1/3rd of all childhood deaths. In developing countries, presence of intestinal parasites and shortage of food are the chief reasons for malnutrition.

Patients with Acute Conditions

Individuals suffering from infections, severe injuries, trauma, and those recovering from surgery usually have a sudden spurt in nutritional requirements.

People who have been malnourished for a certain period may also have compromised immunity with outcomes looking slightly bleak. Such people need more time to heal from surgeries, and may need to be hospitalized for longer. Doctors usually screen and keep track of the nutritional status of patients admitted to the hospital.

Individuals with Chronic Conditions

Chronic diseases like hypertension, heart disease, diabetes, celiac disease, pernicious anemia, cystic fibrosis, kidney disease, etc. can also cause loss of essential nutrients, increased requirement for nutrients, or malabsorption. Patients of chronic diseases should take advice from a dietician and ensure that they consume the right quantities of nutrients.

Women who have dysmenorrhea (prolonged and excessive menstrual bleeding) may also suffer nutrient loss. They need to up their intake of essential nutrients, especially iron and folate during those days.

Cancer patients may have poor appetites and nausea, or may find it difficult to swallow food.

Individuals indulging in substance abuse – alcohol, drugs, etc. also do not get adequate nutrition. They lose many nutrients, and are unable to absorb sufficient nutrients because of damage caused to internal organs or tissues.

People with mental health conditions may also suffer from malnutrition, because of improper food intakes or eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia. They may not be able to keep the food down, and vomit most of what they eat.

Senior Adults

Though it’s true that the elderly need fewer calories than active or younger adults, they still need adequate nutrition. With age, the production of stomach acids reduces, and their ability to absorb nutrients hampers greatly.

If they live alone, it may be difficult for them to prepare the right meals with all the essential healthy, nutritious foods. They are also likely to have decreased appetite and sense of smell, and may find it difficult to chew and swallow.

Signs and Symptoms of Malnutrition

  • Loss of interest in food and drink
  • Exhaustion and irritability
  • Lack of focus
  • Constant feeling of cold
  • Losing fat, muscle mass and tissue rapidly
  • Depression
  • Slow healing of wounds
  • Increased risk of complications during surgery

Severe cases:

  • Breathing difficulties
  • Pale, cold, thin and tight skin
  • Sunken eyes and hollow cheeks
  • Dry, brittle hair and rapid hair loss

Diagnosis

Mostly, doctors can form an opinion regarding malnutrition with just a physical examination. However, to confirm, they will measure your height and weight to calculate your BMI. They will then note the percentage of unplanned weight loss has happened. This will help the physician ascertain the level of risk; based on this, a treatment plan will be formulated.

Nutrients your Body Requires

Depending on your age, sex, level of physical activity, health status, presence of acute or chronic conditions, and so on, every individual has varying nutritional requirements. While the quantities may differ, the type of nutrients we need on an everyday basis are:

  • Fats including saturated fatty acids, cholesterol, Omega-3 fatty acids
  • Carbohydrates
  • Proteins
  • Vitamins A,, C, D, E, and K
  • Vitamin B – including Thiamine, Riboflavin, B6, B12, Niacin, Biotin, Pantothenic acid et.c
  • Calcium
  • Iron
  • Magnesium
  • Potassium
  • Sodium
  • Iodine
  • Zinc
  • Selenium
  • Copper
  • Manganese
  • Chromium
  • Chloride
  • Phosphorous
  • Fiber

It is advisable to ask the dietician for a personalized nutrition chart. At EPIC Primary Care, we have a certified dietician/nutritionist in-house; she will create an extensive and exclusive diet plan and nutrition chart for you based on your medical history and food preferences. She will also explain frequency, portion sizes, healthy alternatives to unhealthy foods you like, and more.

We hope you found this article helpful – don’t forget to share it with your friends and family. If you have anything to share regarding your experience with malnutrition or have any tips about nutrition, do mention in the comments section below. Stay in touch for more tips and tricks through our Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn pages. Thank you for reading!

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