6 Signs of Malnutrition and Causes of Insufficient (Poor) Nutrition

The word malnutrition often makes us think of starving people in war torn or drought stricken countries but the term actually refers to insufficient or poor nutrition. This is a problem that can affect any person, even those who are not living in poverty as well as people who reside in developed countries. It can affect the body in various ways, eventually compromising various organs and system. Malnutrition ultimately leads to death.

Why does malnutrition occur?

People who cannot access sufficient food due to financial restrictions or unavailability of food will understandably suffer with malnutrition. However, this is not the only reason why malnutrition occur. Malnutrition occurs for various reasons in people who otherwise have access to sufficient nutritious foods. It is important to understand why a person is not eating enough or not eating nutritious foods.

Eating Disorders

Due to psychological factors, a person may not eat sufficient food or purge after eating thereby preventing the body from absorbing any nutrients. This is seen in two of the more common eating disorders – anorexia nervosa and bulimia. It is often accompanied by a distortion in body image.

Read more on types of eating disorders.


Loss of appetite is a common symptom of depression. It may also be seen as part of grief and isolation leading to loneliness. However, in some cases there may be an increased appetite and even overeating. Sometimes these changes in appetite can be linked to the drugs being used to treat and manage these conditions.


Dementia is another fairly common cause of malnutrition, especially among the elderly. In these instances a person may forget to eat or not even understand that they need to eat on a regular basis. Furthermore the ability to prepare food and feed themselves may be impaired to a degree that it leads to malnutrition.

Dieting and Fasting

Strict food restriction is often seen with dieting to lose weight and fasting for various reasons. Malnutrition is more likely to occur in extreme cases of dieting and fasting. In the short term there may be no significant effects, especially if there is some food intake albeit in small quatities and of low calories.

Difficulty Eating

A number of different medical conditions may affect a person’s ability to eat. This may be seen in conditions where there are disturbances in taste and smell, dental problems, excessive dryness of the mouth, problems with swallowing and uncomfortable symptoms elicited from eating.


Alcohol and drug addiction can impair the hunger sensation and even affect the body’s ability to digest and absorb nutrients. When liver disease sets in with alcohol abuse, the body’s ability to assimilate these nutrients is also affected and can lead to malnutrition.


People who cannot move independently may be unable to prepare or access food without a caregiver. Debilitated patients who are restricted to bed may also experience a loss of appetite. It is also seen during and after hospitalization but is usually temporary in these cases.

Other Diseases

A range of other diseases can also contribute to malnutrition. This may occur with a loss of appetite, problems with the organs that secrete digestive enzymes, problems with the gut that impairs its ability to absorb nutrients, rapid movement through the gut, diarrheal illnesses, diseases with severe vomiting and various other conditions. People with AIDS and advanced stages of cancer may also experience a loss of appetite, chronic vomiting and diarrhea that can eventually lead to malnutrition.

How To Spot Malnutrition

Some of the signs and symptoms of malnutrition may be obvious while others are less so. Images of malnourished children with thin arms and enlarged bellies are not typical of malnutrition in developed nations or with mild cases. It is seen with severe malnutrition as is the case with kwashiokor.


Fatigue is a common symptom of malnutrition that often arises early, within hours and day. Without the proper nutrients, the body’s metabolism cannot be maintained at a normal level. As a result there is extreme tiredness. In subtle instead, a person may feel tired after just a short period of physical or mental activity. The fatigue is often accompanied by sleepiness although sleep does not entirely relieve it.

Read more on low energy levels.

Difficulty Concentrating

Another common and early symptom of malnutrition is difficulty concentrating. It is accompanied by impairement of other mental functions such as poor decision-making and problem solving. Memory may also be affected. A person may seem forgetful, disinterested in activities and these symptoms can be mistaken for attention deficit disorder in children or dementia in the elderly.

Weight Loss

Understandably weight loss will occur due to malnutrition. As the body is not receiving sufficient nutrition through food, it cannot maintain the fat stores, muscle and bone mass. The body utilizes resources within the body to continue functioning in order to maintain life functions. Fat cells are broken down and eventually muscle tissue and even bones are also affected.

Muscle Weakness

Weakness of the muscles is another common sign of malnutrition and accompanies fatigue. In chronic and severe cases there may even be loss of muscle bulk. This causes the characteristic thin appearance seen in malnutrition along with the loss of body fat. The muscle weakness may not always be obvious in mild cases. Instead a person may have difficulty standing or walking on their own and are prone to falling.

Weak Immunity

The effectiveness of the immune system is dependent on various factors and the nutritional status is one of the main such factors. With malnutrition, the immune system weakens and is therefore unable to defend the body is normal. A person may experience recurrent infections which are often severe and may lead to complications. Recovery is also slowed even with medical treatment.

Poor Wound Healing

All of the body’s systems and functions are impaired with malnutrition but this may not always be evident. Instead it may be seen with signs like poor wound healing. A wound may not only take longer to heal but it may also not heal properly. Due to the weakened immune system, wounds become infected more easily and these infections can be severe. Other wound healing complications may also arise.

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