Malnutrition is a broad term which refers to both undernutrition and overnutrition. Individuals are malnourished, or suffer from undernutrition if their diet does not provide them with adequate calories and protein for maintenance and growth, or they cannot fully utilize the food they eat due to illness. People are also malnourished or suffer from overnutrition if they consume too many calories
Malnutrition can also be defined as the insufficient, excessive or imbalanced consumption of nutrients. Several different nutrition disorders may develop, depending on which nutrients are lacking or consumed in excess.
Malnutrition may be caused by a number of conditions or circumstances. In many developing countries long-term (chronic) malnutrition is widespread – simply because people do not have enough food to eat.
In more wealthy industrialized nations malnutrition is usually caused by:
1. 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.
2. 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.
3. 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.
4. 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 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 poorer nations malnutrition is commonly caused by:
1. Food shortages
In 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.
2. High food prices and inefficient food distribution
It is ironic that approximately 80% of malnourished children live in developing nations that actually produce food surpluses (Food and Agriculture Organization). Some leading economists say that famine is closely linked to high food prices and problems with food distribution.
3. 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 it because they do not know how to get their baby to latch on properly, or suffer pain and discomfort.