Malnutrition is often associated with people living under extreme conditions, usually due to natural disasters or from living in underdeveloped parts of the world. But even in developed countries, under-nutrition occurs in people who are poor or homeless and who are ill or have psychiatric disorders. About 1 in 7 senior citizens are at risk for malnutrition when they consume fewer than 1,000 calories, according to the Merck Manual. Malnutrition occurs when you do not get enough calories or nutrients. You can prevent malnutrition by learning its causes and symptoms, and treating the problem.
Learn the causes of malnutrition. Lack of nutrients, even just one vitamin or mineral, can lead to malnutrition. Insufficient nutrition can be caused by an unbalanced diet, eating too little, excreting too much of a nutrient, some medications, malabsorption of nutrients and a variety of medical conditions.
Watch for high risk factors. Some life stages, such as infancy, childhood, adolescence, pregnancy and old age, demand more nutrition than others, and people in these groups might be at a higher risk. Surgery, trauma, infections, burns and chronic diseases also can affect nutritional needs and increase the chance of malnutrition.
Identify the symptoms, which might be slow to appear, but the most obvious one is weight loss. Other symptoms include fatigue, dizziness, brittle nails, chronic diarrhea, slow wound healing, bone or joint pain and confusion. Children might become extremely thin, have stunted growth or have a swollen gut.
Replace missing nutrients. A well-balanced diet must be consumed. You might need to gradually increase the number of calories through several small meals at regular intervals during the day. Nutritional supplements, or liquid nutrition, might be needed, depending on the severity of the malnutrition. In severe cases, hospitalization might be necessary.
Treat underlying medical conditions. If an underlying medical condition or medication caused the malnutrition, then it must be treated to prevent ongoing loss of nutrients. Chronic lack of nutrients might also cause a medical condition that needs treatment.
Monitor eating habits and conditions. If malnutrition occurs due to environmental, financial or psychological reasons, ongoing supervision might be necessary to ensure that adequate nutrition is consumed. Teach about nutrition and how to maintain a balanced diet, especially if medical problems demand a special diet.
If you have any concerns about a person's nutritional status, encourage her to talk to her health care provider so that it can be treated before serious, potentially irreversible medical problems arise.