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What Can Happen if You Are Malnourished

By Shannon Marks ; Updated July 18, 2017

Malnourishment is a condition that occurs when a person does not get sufficient nutrition, which can affect mental health, physical health and development. It can result from an unbalanced diet, an illness that interferes with nutrient absorption, digestive abnormalities, disease and, as is the case in many impoverished nations, lack of food. Malnourishment can lead to stunted growth, inadequate weight, inability to fight off disease, disrupted menstrual cycles, brittle-bone disease and even premature death.


Malnutrition has many causes. Medical conditions such as celiac disease, lactose intolerance and cystic fibrosis interfere with the body's ability to absorb nutrients, according to the Nemours website KidsHealth. Eating disorders and extremely restrictive diets carry the risk of malnutrition, as both jeopardize a person's ability to get all the nutrients she needs. Ironically, someone who's obese may be malnourished, as well. She may be getting an abundance of calories, but from the wrong foods. Likewise, alcoholism can put a person at risk of developing malnutrition. Finally, a lack of access to healthy and inexpensive food can cause malnourishment. This is the situation in some parts of the world, where war and natural disasters disrupt the food supply, according to KidsHealth.

Single-Nutrient Malnourishment

Malnourishment can involve the lack of just one nutrient. For example, a lack of iron, called iron-deficiency anemia, hinders production of red-blood cells. Someone who's anemic may have no symptoms at all, according to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. Someone with a more pronounced deficiency may be fatigued and have symptoms including shortness of breath, headache and chest pain, according to the institute. A lack of vitamin C can cause scurvy and associated symptoms of fatigue, bone pain and shortness of breath. A lack of vitamin D can cause rickets, which can stunt growth and cause muscle weakness.

Medical Conditions Causing Malnutrition

Malabsorption of nutrients resulting from celiac disease can cause weight loss, diarrhea, weakness and fatigue, grayish stools with a foul odor, stunted growth in children and osteoporosis in the elderly. Those with cystic fibrosis lack essential enzymes. This interferes with the body's ability to absorb protein, fats and fat-soluble vitamins and can slow physical development. Dieters who consume too few calories and those with an eating disorder like anorexia are at risk of developing anemia, bone loss, susceptibility to infections, infertility, thyroid irregularities, cognitive impairment and inability to menstruate. If left untreated, malnutrition can lead to death.

What to Do

Malnourishment involving just one nutrient can be corrected relatively easily. Iron deficiency anemia, for example, can be corrected by eating more iron-iron rich foods or taking a supplement. Likewise, scurvy and rickets can be corrected with simple dietary changes. Other causes of malnourishment may need a more comprehensive approach. Someone with cystic fibrosis may need more fat and calories, while someone with celiac must avoid all gluten-containing foods. Someone with an eating disorder must get sufficient nutrition and calories. The National Institutes of Health advises that women should get at least 1,200 calories daily, while men need at least 1,500 calories. The American Heart Association advises a diet that contains vegetables, fruits, whole-grain products and fat-free or low-fat dairy products. If you are malnourished, talk with your doctor and nutritionist. They can help you correct your deficiencies and develop an eating plan that's right for you.

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