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How Does Malnutrition Affect Health?

author image Dr. Tina M. St. John
Dr. Tina M. St. John owns and operates a health communications and consulting firm. She is also an accomplished medical writer and editor, and was formerly a senior medical officer with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. St. John holds an M.D. from Emory University School of Medicine.
How Does Malnutrition Affect Health?
A young girl is sitting outside. Photo Credit: ACKY YEUNG/iStock/Getty Images

The term malnutrition refers to an unhealthful intake of dietary nutrients. Malnutrition may arise with inadequate or overabundant food intake, an imbalance of dietary nutrients or an inability to digest, absorb or utilize the food you eat. Because all organ systems in your body require the building blocks and energy food provides, malnutrition can adversely affect your health in ways that range from mild to potentially life threatening. Eating a nutritious, well-balanced diet is one of the most important factors in achieving and maintaining your good health.

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Poor Growth and Development

Malnutrition frequently causes abnormal growth, development and body weight. Inadequate food intake, or undernutrition, among infants and children can lead to stunted growth and delayed physical and mental development. With moderate to severe malnutrition, children may be profoundly underweight. Undernutrition significantly increases the likelihood of death in infancy and childhood. The World Health Organization reports that in 2001, undernutrition was a contributing factor in 54 percent of childhood deaths in developing countries.

Reduced Lean Body Mass

Among children and adults, undernutrition may cause reduced lean body mass, reflecting abnormally low muscle volume and organ size. This condition typically occurs when your body breaks down its own structural proteins to generate the energy necessary for day-to-day survival. Persistent weakness, a limited ability to perform physical work and permanent organ damage may occur with prolonged undernutrition in any phase of life. Starvation, serious injuries, severe burns, cancer, HIV/AIDS, inflammatory bowel disease and eating disorders are among the many causes of undernutrition.

Overweight and Obesity

Malnutrition associated with excess consumption of calories and nutrients, or overnutrition, poses a significant and growing health threat in developed countries. Chronic overnutrition leads to overweight and obesity, which increase your risk of developing serious medical conditions such as type 2 diabetes mellitus, coronary heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, abnormal blood fat levels, osteoarthritis, menstrual irregularities, female infertility, fatty liver disease, gallstones and colon, breast and uterine cancer. Increased risk for noncancerous medical conditions occurs among overweight children as well as adults, which underscores the importance of managing overweight and obesity early in life to prevent premature death among at-risk children and young adults.

Increased Risk of Disease

Malnutrition increases your risk of developing medical conditions associated with inadequate or excessive consumption of specific nutrients. For example, deficiencies of vitamin C, B12, B6 or iron can lead to a low red blood cell count, or anemia. Excess consumption of cholesterol and saturated fats increases your risk of developing atherosclerosis, or fatty blockages in your arteries. Increased risk of infections may occur if your diet lacks adequate amounts of protein, zinc or vitamin C. Calcium and vitamin D deficiencies increase your risk of osteoporosis and bone fractures. Malnutrition during infancy and early childhood may increase your risk of developing chronic diseases, including diabetes, asthma, allergies and heart disease.

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