Malnutrition —also called malnourishment— is ingrained in the collective psyche in the shape of a tiny child with protruding ribs and a bloated belly. But while acute starvation is a facet of malnutrition, the reach of this issue goes well beyond the people who have nothing to eat. This affirmation is supported by the malnutrition definition provided by Savage et al (2015) where: “Malnutrition occurs when the intake of essential macronutrients and micronutrients does not cover, or exceeds, the body’s needs for healthy growth and maintenance”. This malnutrition definition encompasses under-nutrition and over-nutrition, as well as micronutrient deficiencies caused by illnesses.
As cited above, not only the starving are malnourished and hence, hunger is not the sole cause for this issue. Over-eating, as well as neglecting the quality of food and the failure of the body to properly absorb and utilize nutrients are all causes of malnutrition that manifest themselves in different forms and must be treated differently. However, global organizations often narrow down the malnutrition definition until it is a synonym of undernourishment. The reason behind this is the urgency with which starvation needs to be tackled in order for the world to continue developing. In other words, when people are dying from hunger and the growth of millions of potentially bright minds is hindered due to a limited nutritional intake (Sunil et al, 2012), malnutrition types other than undernourishment take a secondary place in the global priority list.
Malnutrition - Photo Credit: Flickr
Evidently, this does not mean that all other types of malnutrition disappear; just that they are overlooked until their consequences become an epidemic. Such is the case of child and overall obesity in the United States and other countries of the developed world, where food security exists but nutrition security is not a priority. As a consequence, healthy food options are inaccessible to the poor, who can only afford their inferior substitutes —furthermore, those who can afford healthy food often lack the proper nutritional education to willingly choose them when faced with unhealthy but more popular alternatives.
Finally, however comprehensive or narrow the malnutrition definition implemented is, they all converge in that malnourishment is an issue that prevents the human body from working properly because of an imbalanced nutritional intake. An extreme lack or an overabundance of nutrients, as well as the presence of nutrients but the inability to utilize them lead to failures that become more severe as time passes. Malnutrition is especially dangerous when it is due to the first two causes, as chronic under-nutrition in women in reproductive age leads to children who are affected by intrauterine growth restriction and impaired “health, physical growth, mental function, reproduction and even future work productivity and capacity” (Sunil et al, 2012). Over-nutrition, on the other hand and without a proper nutritional education, can develop into a vicious cycle in households and lead to instances of child and overall obesity, as well as other ailments.