Effects of Malnutrition on Children

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As many as 17 million children in the United States are at risk of becoming malnourished.

Malnutrition is a dangerous condition that develops when your body does not get enough nutrients to function properly. Malnutrition can be caused by a lack of food or an unbalanced diet that's missing or insufficient in one or more nutrients. The World Health Organization says that malnutrition affects about 792 million people worldwide. At least a third of them are children. Childhood hunger affects one of every four children in the United States, with as many as 17 million children at risk of malnutrition.


Stunting is one of the main long-term effects of malnutrition in children. Malnutrition can hinder a child's ability to grow normally, leaving both his height and his weight well under normal when he's compared with children the same age. Stunted growth can be permanent, and a child may never achieve normal height or body weight if he is chronically malnourished. According to the "British Medical Journal," malnutrition in children can also adversely hinder brain development and intellectual capacity in the early stages of life.


Marsamus is a severe protein-energy deficiency that can develop as a result of malnutrition. It is characterized by a lack of nearly all nutrients, particularly protein and calories. Also called an energy deficiency, marsamus is characterized by pronounced and severe weight loss, thin and papery skin that is sometimes darker than normal, pronounced hair loss, a pinched facial expression and long periods of apathy.


Kwashiorkor is an acute type of protein-energy deficiency that is common in children who are malnourished. Kwashiorkor differs from marsamus in that calorie intake can be sufficient, but protein intake is severely restricted. Symptoms of kwashiorkor include discolored, brittle hair that has a copper sheen, rashes, water retention, a distended belly caused by bloating, an enlarged liver and apathy. Severe cases of kwashiorkor are rare in the United States. If left untreated, this condition leads to coma and death.

Vitamin and Mineral Deficiency

Malnutrition can involve not only insufficient macronutrients such as protein, carbohydrates and fat, but also insufficient micronutrients such as vitamins and minerals. Vitamin and mineral malnutrition can have an array of effects, depending on the specific micronutrient that is lacking in the diet. For example, a deficiency in the mineral iron can lead to anemia, or a low red blood cell count. A deficiency in vitamin C can lead to scurvy, which causes apathy and discoloration of the skin. Ingesting adequate amounts of vitamins and minerals can prevent deficiency.

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