Do you know someone so poor that eating is a constant concern? Do you have a child who is a finicky eater? Have you ever been concerned that your child might become malnourished? Whether or not your thoughts have reached the level of concern, you should be aware of the notion. After all, malnutrition is directly responsible for 300,000 deaths per year in children younger than 5 years old, especially in developing countries. It is the number one cause of child deaths across the world, contributing directly or indirectly to over half of all deaths in children. According to the UN World Food Programme, 925 million people in the world do not have enough to eat.
What is malnutrition?
Malnutrition is a state of being in which the body fails to receive adequate nutrition, and this state prevents proper health and development.
Causes of Malnutrition
All over the world, the poor are at the greatest risk malnutrition. Wars and natural disasters such as droughts, tsunamis, hurricanes and earthquakes can have disruptive effects on food production and distribution, contributing to hunger and subsequent malnutrition.
Also those who can’t respond to the body’s hunger signals (e.g. due to injury or loss of extremity use while living without adequate support; aging or other illness may reduce appetite) are at risk for malnutrition. However, someone can become malnourished for reasons that have nothing to do with hunger. You can still be malnourished even relatively having plenty to eat if the foods consumed don’t provide the right nutrients, vitamins, and minerals.
Another consideration in malnutrition is the presence of a disease or conditions that prevents you from digesting or absorbing your food properly. For example:
- Someone with celiac disease has intestinal problems that are triggered by a gluten, which is a protein found in wheat, rye, and barley.
- Those with cystic fibrosis have trouble absorbing nutrients because the disease affects the pancreas and its ability to produce enzymes necessary for digestion.
Malnutrition can be limited to a specific nutritional deficiency. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that as many 2 billion people worldwide have insufficient dietary intake of nutrients like iron, vitamin A, and zinc.
- Iron deficiency is the most common nutritional deficiency in the world. You may be aware that this deficiency causes anemia and can retard development in kids.
- Vitamin A deficiency from malnutrition is the chief cause of preventable blindness in the developing world; it also increases the risk of dying from infections, from measles, or diarrhea.
What are the symptoms of malnutrition?
Malnutrition negatively impacts both the body and the mind; as such, a variety of symptoms are produced.
- Hunger is a sign that your body needs food. You need food to assist your various organs in performing adequately.
- If you’re malnourished, your immunity is reduced. This means you more likely to become sick from a variety of causes.
- Malnourished individuals are likely to be significantly underweight.
- Malnourished children’s growth may be stunted, making them much shorter than average.
Other symptoms include the following:
- Abnormal bodily organ function
- Decaying teeth
- Dry, scaly skin
- Fatigue and low energy
- Learning difficulty
- Muscle weakness
- Osteoporosis (fragile bones that break easily)
- Poor attention span
- Stomach bloating
- Swollen and bleeding gums
- Slowed reaction times
Those pregnant and malnourished, may have offspring that weigh less at birth and have a lower chance of survival.
Addressing hunger and malnutrition
There are two considerations here: limiting your risk and treating hunger and malnutrition.
- In the U.S., foods are typically fortified with vitamins and minerals to prevent certain nutritional deficiencies. For example, adding iodine to salt helps prevent some thyroid gland problems (such as goiter), folic acid added to foods helps prevent certain birth defects, and supplemental iron can help prevent iron-deficiency anemia.
- Alcohol can interfere with nutrient absorption such that even if vitamins and minerals are consumed, alcoholics can still develop deficiencies. It’s more likely that alcoholics aren’t engaging in healthy eating habits.
- Vegetarians, vegans and others on special diets should be mindful to eat balanced meals and a variety of foods to get the right nutrients.
Treating Malnourished Children
Fortunately, many of the harmful effects of malnutrition can be reversed, especially if a child is only mildly or briefly malnourished. You don’t need a pill. Learn to engage in healthy eating habits, which can be done at any budget. The best way to ensure that kids are properly nourished is to serve a variety of healthy foods. Try to limit unhealthy snacks and those empty calories that make them feel full prior to getting adequate nutrition with their meal. If you’re concerned that your child’s energy level is lagging or that he or she isn’t growing normally, ask your physician for an evaluation.
If you think your child isn’t getting enough of the right nutrients, talk to your doctor. Fortunately, many effects of malnutrition can be reversed if it’s early in the process. Unfortunately, too often malnourished children aren’t discovered until the effects of malnutrition have permitted other illnesses to take hold.
As a final thought, please consider supporting one of the entities dedicated to combating hunger. To support Feeding America, visit their site at http://feedingamerica.org. Around the world, you can support organizations such as Hunger Relief International; visit their site at www.hungerreliefinternational.org.
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