Malnutrition: Signs, Associated Diseases, and Treatments

Malnutrition is a condition where your body is not getting enough nutrients. The effects can include developmental delay, muscle loss, and chronic fatigue, among others. Here are the symptoms of malnutrition and what to expect from a visit to the doctor.

7 minute read

Last Updated July 17, 2020

Malnutrition: Signs, Associated Diseases, and Treatments

Malnutrition is a condition where your body is not getting enough or getting too much of certain nutrients. Our body relies on nutrients from food to function, and without them, your risk for serious health issues increases. 

Billions of people across the world are affected by malnutrition, and some populations have higher risks of this than others. The environment, lifestyle choices, and resources all impact the nutritional value and health of an area.

What is Malnutrition?

Nutrient deficiency, or undernutrition, is when your body does not get enough nutrients, calories, or protein. You can be deficient in any of the essential vitamins or minerals the body needs. The most common deficiencies include vitamin A, vitamin D, vitamin C, iron, zinc, magnesium, and iodine deficiencies. 

Overnutrition involves consumption of too many calories, fat, or proteins, which typically results in obesity. With overnutrition, you typically are deficient in essential nutrients too. 

Signs of Malnutrition

Malnutrition symptoms will depend on which type you have. By recognizing the effects, you and your doctor can better identify and treat the issues related to your malnutrition. 

Identification of the cause is important as nutrient deficiencies can increase your risk of health problems and death. The signs of undernutrition include:

Weight loss
♦ Loss of fat and muscle mass
♦ Swollen stomach
Fatigue
♦ Sunken eyes
♦ Irritability
♦ Difficulty concentrating
♦ Depression and anxiety

Undernutrition is strongly associated with vitamin and mineral deficiencies. The most common deficiencies have distinct symptoms to help you identify the cause of your health issues. 

♦ Vitamin A deficiency causes dry eyes and an increased risk of infection. 

Zinc deficiency causes loss of appetite, hair loss, diarrhea, and delayed wound healing.

♦ Iron deficiency causes stomach problems and impaired brain function.

♦ Iodine deficiency causes enlarged thyroid glands and growth and development issues.

The main sign of overnutrition is obesity. The foods that contribute to obesity are typically processed, fried, and foods high in fats and sugars, and these foods usually also lack nutritional value. 

As a result, your calories increase, but you still lack the vitamins and minerals your body needs. The combination of excess body fat and a lack of essential nutrients increases your risk for serious health problems and death.

Diseases Associated With Malnutrition

Economic and environmental factors can influence the levels of malnutrition in an area, but there are other causes of nutrient deficiencies. Sometimes you can eat the right foods and still develop malnutrition. 

Just as malnutrition can increase your risk for diseases, there are conditions that can cause it too. The most common conditions associated with malnutrition include:

Celiac disease: Celiac disease is characterized by an allergy to the protein gluten, which is found in wheat. When individuals with celiac disease consume gluten, their digestive tract becomes impaired. The inflammation of the intestinal lining prevents any nutrients from being absorbed. As a result, malnutrition is a common symptom of celiac disease.

Crohn’s disease: Crohn’s disease is an inflammatory bowel disease that causes chronic inflammation along the digestive tract. As a result, digestion and nutrient absorption are impaired, and without treatment, you can become malnourished.

Depression: Depression causes people to lose interest in activities and eating, and as a result, you can develop malnutrition. This will only happen if you avoid eating or eat unhealthy foods for an extended period of time. 

Alcoholism: Alcoholism is a disease characterized by chronic drinking. Malnutrition is a common symptom of alcoholism along with a bloated abdomen. Alcohol may seem to act as a stimulant in the short term, but long term use of alcohol has a depressive effect on your nervous system and your appetite. Alcohol also interferes with your body’s ability to effectively process food for nutrients.

Inflammatory bowel disease: IDB is a collection of disease that causes inflammation along the digestive tract. With inflamed intestinal lining, your body cannot absorb nutrients it needs. Untreated IBD can, therefore, lead to malnutrition. 

Chronic pancreatitis: Chronic pancreatitis causes your pancreas to produce fewer enzymes. Without these enzymes to breakdown your food into valuable nutrients, you can develop malnutrition and severe weight loss. 

♦ Cystic fibrosis: Cystic fibrosis is a disease affecting the lungs and digestive system. Mucous clogs the pancreas, so it is unable to release enzymes needed to breakdown food. Malnutrition is one of the main burdens of cystic fibrosis, along with reduced energy. 

Lactose intolerance: Individuals with lactose intolerance need to avoid the protein lactose typically found in dairy products. Consuming this protein causes an inflammatory reaction in the gut, which prevents nutrients from being absorbed. You can avoid malnutrition by avoiding the foods that will trigger the inflammatory response. 

Diabetes: Diabetics are at risk for malnutrition as research has shown that vitamin D, vitamin B12, zinc, and magnesium deficiencies are common in individuals with diabetes. Malnutrition worsens the symptoms associated with diabetes, especially foot ulcers.

Treatment for Malnutrition

A MUST (Malnutrition Universal Screening Tool) is used to diagnose malnutrition or the risk of malnutrition, and once this is completed, treatment will depend on the rating you are given. 

♦ Those at low risk will undergo regular screening at home and the hospital. 

♦ Those at medium risk will undergo observation and have their dietary intake monitored along with screening.

♦ Those at high risk will need treatment from a nutritionist and continue with ongoing care.

Treatment will depend on the severity of the malnutrition, but it typically involves a targeted care and diet plan. Those with severe malnourishment may be given artificial nutrient support through feeding tubes. 

What Is the Long-Term Outlook?

The effects of malnutrition can include developmental delay, muscle weakness or loss, chronic fatigue, and mental disability. Both undernutrition and overnutrition can lead to serious health complications if not addressed, so if you think that you are malnourished, then you need to speak to your doctor right away. 

If there is an underlying cause, it can be treated, and a plan for lifestyle changes can be made if necessary. Addressing malnutrition early is important to improve your nutritional intake, your health, and your life.

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