In the developed world, the word "malnutrition" calls to mind images of emaciated people in famine-struck, faraway lands. However, malnutrition doesn't always mean that the body isn't getting enough food -- only that it isn't getting enough of the nutrients it requires for optimum development and metabolic function. Overweight and obesity are also major risk factors for malnutrition, because nutritionally, the body can detect little nutritional difference between empty calories and an empty stomach. In the United States, about 1 percent of children are chronically malnourished, according to Johns Hopkins Children's Center.
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Diet and Learning Ability
According to Johns Hopkins Children's Center, more American children suffer from chronic malnutrition from eating too much of the wrong kinds of food, called "overnutrition," than from food deprivation. The sugary, fatty, processed foods and beverages often sold or served in schools actually undermine a child's ability to learn, says "Public School Review." The body needs carbohydrates to convert into glucose, but when the system is flooded with too much at the same time, energy is diverted from brain functions to help process the overload. The resulting "crash" leaves children jittery, irritable and tired, impairing their ability to concentrate. About a third of American schoolchildren are estimated to be overweight, the magazine says.
Obesity America explains how poor dietary habits can lead both to excess weight and malnutrition. When the body is chronically deprived of essential nutrients, it generates signals perceived by the mind as hunger. Junk food may be the fastest, easiest way to assuage hunger pangs, but the relief is short-lived. If the response to a hunger message is nutritionally inadequate food, the body will continue deploying hunger messages until it gets what it needs. Food cravings followed by the consumption of empty calories simply lead to more food cravings in a self-perpetuating cycle. The misinterpretation of the signals the body is sending out causes obese people to overeat even though they may be -- literally -- starving for nourishment.
The crucial window of opportunity to stave off permanent mental and physical damage from malnutrition is while the child is still in the womb and during the first two years of life, says Save the Children. After that, the consequences of malnutrition are likely to last a lifetime. Over the short term, symptoms include stunted growth, low IQ, substandard school achievement, poor endurance and physical coordination, and inadequate social skills. Malnutrition during a child's developing years also weakens the immune system and impedes the body's capacity to fight off infection, so illnesses tend to be more debilitating and longer-lasting.
In the Workplace
Whether the cause is undernutrition or overnutrition, malnourished adults are incapable of functioning at peak mental and physical efficiency, potentially putting them at an extreme disadvantage when they enter the working world. If the condition has been chronic since childhood, it may be characterized by "a lower physical capacity and energy for work as an adult, with associated economic costs," says Save the Children. Not only that, but the risk of dying prematurely from heart disease, diabetes, kidney damage and other afflictions is significantly higher among malnourished people, especially when obesity is combined with dietary inadequacies. Furthermore, a chronically malnourished woman is more likely to give birth to babies with similar nutritional deficiencies.