Effects of Malnutrition

Malnutrition is an imbalance in micro and macronutrients —either a deficit or surplus of them— which impedes the body’s capability of growing and staying healthy. As mentioned in previous articles, malnutrition can be caused by several different factors, which include but are not limited to disease, lack of access to safe drinking water, eating disorders, mental health illnesses, and even climate change. With such a wide range of causes, it is expected that the effects of malnutrition are just as varied. Keep reading for more information on the effects of malnutrition on the human body and overall health.

The effects of malnutrition in children are irreversible after their second to third year of age - Photo Credit: Flickr


Sources: Livestrong.com, Nursingtimes.net, Bapen.org.uk

As described on Livestrong.com, malnutrition occurs in stages. The imbalance in nutrients first shows in blood and tissue, followed by metabolic processes —finally, tell-tale signs and symptoms appear. The effects of malnutrition include: changes in body mass, poor wound healing, severe weight loss (cachexia), and organ failure —among others—, all of which are described below.

Sarcopenia, as seen here, is common in old-age. However, sarcopenia can be one of the effects of malnutrition - Photo Credit: Wikipedia

  • Sarcopenia: It is the progressive loss of lean body mass, which normally starts after age 40. During natural sarcopenia, men typically shed 22 pounds of lean body mass, with women losing half of this amount. When an individual endures undernutrition, an abnormal case of sarcopenia may ensue, triggering other effects of malnutrition, such as an increase in susceptibility to infections. Those with a case of overnutrition are not exempt of suffering sarcopenia, however, this is often camouflaged by an excess of adipose tissue around the internal organs.
  • Poor wound healing: Typically, when there is a deficit in the protein, carbohydrates and vitamins, the body cannot heal. Malnutrition is not only responsible for increased risk of infections, but also of impairing and delaying healing from common diseases or surgery. In the overnourished, obese patient, poor wound healing is largely due to poor oxygenation of tissues and the inability to provide necessary nutrients and generate enough white blood cells, as well as an increased tension on wound edges.
  • Cachexia: Among the effects of malnutrition, this is perhaps one of the most evident ones. It is also very dangerous. Cachexia, or wasting syndrome, encompasses a severe weight loss, along with muscle atrophy, fatigue, weakness and loss of appetite. A person with cachexia typically looks like they have shrunk and withered: the skin loses its elasticity and becomes dry. The hair falls out and there is risk of pressure ulcers, blood clots and hip fractures. People with cachexia also lose some of their motor coordination, thus being more prone to falling.
  • Organ failure:

—Kidneys: Malfunctioning kidneys can cause failure in the regulation of salt and fluid, which in turn can trigger over-hydration or dehydration.

—Brain: Mental health illnesses can cause malnutrition and malnutrition can be a decisive factor in the development of mental health illnesses, such as apathy, depression, introversion, self-neglect and deterioration in social interactions.

—Reproduction: Reduced fertility and a poor sex drive are other effects of malnutrition. Moreover, malnutrition during pregnancy can make the baby more prone to disease, strokes and developing diabetes later in life.

—Impaired temperature regulation: Especially seen in people with cachexia, people who endure severe weight loss due to undernutrition find themselves unable to store body heat, which can lead to hypothermia.

  • Increased risk of pulmonary infections and respiratory failure.

There is no doubt that the effects of malnutrition can be severe –and even deadly—for the population at large. However, this issue is worse yet for newborns, small children and pregnant women. As said by MotherChildNutrition.org, “beyond the age of 2-3 years, the effects of chronic malnutrition are irreversible”. This implies that malnutrition in children must be tackled before they turn two years old, or the future of that child may be impaired.

A child receiving treatment for chronic malnutrition - Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Statistically, children who are low-for-age or constantly experience weight loss are affected in the long term, namely by not reaching their optimum size and physical capacity as adults. Also, malnourished kids make sickly men and the illness also affects their mental capacity, with undernourished children typically having lower IQs than their well-fed counterparts.

Furthermore, acute malnutrition is the biggest contributor to under-five mortality. This is caused two of the effects of malnutrition: susceptibility to infections and a slow recovery from illness. Finally, undernourished mothers not only give birth to undernourished children, but are at a higher risk of perishing during or after the birth. Malnutrition causes issues such as obstructed labor and postpartum haemorrhage, with anemia –one of the effects of malnutrition— in mothers being linked to increase mortality at labour.


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