What do you think when you hear the term malnutrition?
Living in a first-world country like Canada, the idea of being malnourished may seem far-fetched. However, malnutrition involves more than the lack of food. If a person’s diet doesn’t contain enough nutrients or the correct balance of nutrients, then it can lead to malnourishment and poor nutrition.
Malnutrition can refer to undernutrition or overnutrition and can have a negative impact on a person’s health, further implicating health problems such as osteoporosis. Let’s explore the basics of malnutrition, how to identify the symptoms and prevent malnourishment.
What is malnutrition?
Essentially, malnutrition refers to the condition when a person’s diet doesn’t provide enough nutrients, or the correct balance of nutrients, for optimal health.
Malnutrition can be the result of personal choices, or conditions out of one’s control. For example, one can suffer from malnutrition because of low socioeconomic status or physical or mental health conditions. Essentially, there are two main types of malnutrition - undernutrition and overnutrition.
Undernutrition occurs when there is a deficiency of proteins, calories or micronutrients. When someone struggles with undernutrition, then they lack certain vitamins and minerals that the body needs to operate at its best.
Overnutrition is also a type of malnutrition. While the person may not appear emaciated, their bodies are still malnourished due to a deficiency. Consuming too many nutrients, particularly protein, calories, and fats, can lead to obesity, which is also a type of malnourishment.
Common foods that contribute to overnutrition include fried and sugary foods which are a stark contrast to healthy food that can boost health such as fruits, vegetables and lean proteins.
Signs and symptoms of malnutrition
Malnutrition can occur over a short period of time or chronic malnutrition can become part of one’s lifestyle. Noticing the symptoms of malnutrition is the first step to optimizing health.
Symptoms of malnutrition in adults
While adults are encouraged to make healthy food decisions, they sometimes fall short due to their own choices or uncontrollable circumstances.
Significant and drastic weight loss is one of the first warning signs of malnutrition. When a person loses 10% of their body weight within three months, then it could be the result of malnutrition. Alternatively, anyone with a BMI lower than 18.5, or higher than 24.9 could be malnourished.
Interested in your BMI? Use an online BMI calculator here!
There are several other signs that could suggest malnutrition, including the following;
- Fatigue and weakness as the result of losing muscle mass
- Lack of energy (often the result of anemia)
- Vulnerability to infections and infectious disease
- Slower healing of small cuts or wounds
- Frequent irritability
- Drying out of skin and hair
- Consistent diarrhea or constipation
Symptoms of malnutrition in children
It’s common for parents who lead a busy life to use time savers when feeding their children. Between fast-food, pre-packed meals and tight schedules, it’s easy to miss the correct balance of key nutrients required for proper nutrition in growing children.
As a loving parent, there are a few symptoms of malnutrition in children, such as the following;
- Abnormal growth rate
- Irritability and sluggish behaviour
- Drying out of skin and hair
- Wasting of muscle and lack of strength
- Swelling of limbs and the abdomen
- Stunted growth appearing as nutritional dwarfism
Two common types of protein deficiency in children are Marasmus and Kwashiorkor. Marasmus results in significant weight loss and muscle wasting, while Kwashiorkor leads to a swollen abdomen and legs.
Symptoms of a lack of vitamins and minerals
Ensuring the proper balance of vitamins, minerals and nutrients is essential for everyday functioning. For example, Vitamin A is important for growth, cell division and immunity, while protein is essential for energy and making antibodies to fight infection.
There are a few malnutrition symptoms that can indicate the lack of vitamins. Consider the following as a guide;
- Skin and hair issues
- Swollen tongue
- Developing sores around the corners of the mouth
- Poor vision
- Joint pains
- Anemia and dizziness
Causes of malnutrition
Malnutrition affects people from all walks of life and can be triggered by varying circumstances. Here are some of the most common causes of malnutrition.
Low intake of food
The low intake of food can be voluntary, in the instance of a diet or difficulty eating, or involuntary, in the case of low income or scarcity. When the body doesn’t receive enough of the correct food, then certain nutrients aren’t absorbed and there’s a low energy intake.
Various medical conditions can lead to a low intake of food and malnourishment. For example, cancer patients, those struggling with liver disease, conditions with nausea as a side effect, and certain medications that reduce the desire to eat.
Mental health conditions
When people struggle with certain mental health conditions, it can also be a factor in malnutrition. Depression, dementia, schizophrenia and anorexia are all examples of mental health conditions connected to diet. There are various ways to improve mental health and in turn your physical health.
Social and mobility problems
In some instances, food isn't available and the body becomes malnourished. Some people are unable to leave the home or access a store, while others physically struggle to prepare meals or keep up with rising food prices.
Living alone can impact a person’s motivation to cook, and so can a lack of cooking skills. In other situations, a person may have a limited budget to spend on healthy, wholesome food.
Digestive disorders and stomach conditions
If the body can’t absorb nutrients efficiently, then no amount of consumption will make a difference. Some common digestive disorders include Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, celiac disease, and frequent diarrhoea or vomiting.
Alcohol use disorder
Some research shows that the occasional glass of wine can offer health benefits (when enjoyed responsibly). However, excessive alcohol consumption can lead to stomach irritation or long-term damage to organs responsible for digestion.
Another way that alcohol disrupts nutrition is by suppressing a person’s hunger. When the body feels satiated by alcohol’s calories, then nutritional food becomes an optional extra.
Malnutrition risk among Canadians
Did you know that approximately 45% of hospitalized medical and surgical patients in Canada are identified as malnourished?
Malnutrition doesn’t only impact starving children in developing countries but also the lives of people all over the world. In Canada, specifically, the elderly are at higher risk of being malnourished as their ability to cook for themselves and access nutrient-rich food decreases. In turn, this introduces an increased risk for future health problems.
Age-related changes, such as a decreased appetite, can also contribute to malnutrition. Reduced mobility, increased medication and financial restrictions also play a role in malnutrition among the elderly.
Yet it’s not only those older than 65 years old that are at risk of malnutrition in Canada.
Despite having a comparatively low poverty rate of 10.1%, data shows that up to four million people in Canada struggle to get enough nutrient-rich food to eat. Reasons include running out of food, skipping meals and compromising on quantity and quality.
Nutritional status assessment
One of the most effective ways to avoid malnourishment is to complete a nutritional screening and be aware of your nutritional status. The nutritional status refers to the balance between the intake of nutrients and how they are used in daily processes such as growth, reproduction and health maintenance.
Several measurements exist to assess the nutritional status of an individual and help with treating malnutrition. A comprehensive nutritional assessment will include various aspects, such as;
- Anthropometric measurements of body composition, for example, body mass index is calculated by dividing a person’s weight by their height2
- Biochemical measurements of serum protein, micronutrients, and metabolic parameters
- Clinical assessment of altered nutritional requirements as well as social and psychological issues that may impact intake
- Measurement of dietary intake
There are various degrees of malnutrition, depending on the nutrients missing from the diet, for how long, and the age of the individual.
Essentially, there are different stages of malnutrition;
- First degree - at risk of being malnourished
- Second degree - moderately malnourished
- Third degree - severe malnutrition
Strategies to improve your nutrition
If you or a loved one are struggling to optimize your nutrition and meet your daily nutritional needs, then consider the following easy strategies to improve your nutrition.
- Monitor your daily calorie intake to meet your daily nutritional requirements
- Portion your food as recommended by a healthcare professional
- Include more nutritious food such as plants, fruits, whole grains and lean proteins in your diet
- Eat less processed foods
- Cut back on foods that are high in saturated fats, added sugar and salt
- Drink more water
Being aware of your nutritional status is the first step toward making sure that you are well-nourished and preventing malnutrition. Make sure that your daily nutrient intake is optimized and that you prioritize nutrients for health.
If you need any supplements or medication delivered to your door, then you can get started with Canada’s online neighbourhood pharmacy, available online. Manage any nutritional deficiencies and start combating malnutrition today.
This article offers general information only and is not intended as medical or other professional advice. A healthcare provider should be consulted regarding your specific situation. While the information presented is believed to be factual and current, its accuracy is not guaranteed and it should not be regarded as a complete analysis of the subjects discussed. All expressions of opinion reflect the judgement of the authors as of the date of publication and are subject to change. No endorsement of any third parties or their advice, opinions, information, products or services is expressly given or implied by Mednow or its affiliates.Get Started