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Insufficient supply of nutrients to the body results in various health problems. The condition wherein the body does not get the required amounts of nutrients is known as undernutrition. Sometimes, the body is unable to absorb or use the nutrients that are provided to it through food. This also leads to undernutrition. Lack of nutrients in diet can seriously affect the health of an individual. In poor or developing countries, undernutrition is a common problem. Even in developed countries, many older people who live alone or in nursing homes suffer from undernutrition. What are some of the health problems associated with undernutrition? Here is an overview.

Effects of Undernutrition on Health

Poor Immunity: Undernutrition is the main cause of weak immune system. Undernourished bodies cannot fight infections. Lack of nutrients leads to slow recovery, recurrent infections and slow healing of wounds. Undernourished people, therefore, frequently fall ill. Swollen and bleeding gums, decaying teeth are some of the important symptoms of undernutrition.

Look Pale and Weak: Vitamin deficiency can lead to dry, scaly skin, dry, sparse and easily falling hair, protruding bones, etc. Undernourished people look tired, sleepy, weak, and dizzy. Stunted growth and excessive fatigue can be noticed in such cases.

Dysfunction of Heart, Lungs and Muscles: Undernourished people have difficulty in exercising. They cannot work like normal people. The size of the heart and lungs decreases. Their pulse rate, blood pressure, respiration is slow. They lose muscle strength significantly.

Series of Diseases and Disorders: People who do not get adequate food are likely to suffer from anemia. Their skin may lose elasticity. They may experience drastic weight loss. The bones may lose density (osteoporosis or fragile bones). Frequent infections, dysfunction of bodily systems/organs can result in various types of diseases and disorders. Prolonged undernutrition can eventually lead to liver failure. Dysfunction of the respiratory system and heart can lead to the death of the person.

Impaired Digestive Health: Deteriorating digestive health affects the overall health of the undernourished person. Vitamin deficiency destroys the capacity of the stomach to digest food. The stomach shrinks. Frequent diarrhea ruins the overall health.

Affected Mental Health: Children or adults who suffer from undernutrition become irritable and apathetic. Mental retardation is quite common in undernourished children. The elderly lose their capacity to think clearly. Depression is also a common problem. Undernourished children may have a learning disability. They may find it difficult to stay focused. Even undernourished adults may find it difficult to pay attention and their reactions can be very slow.

Sexual Problems: Lack of nutrients eventually results in lack of sex drive, loss of libido, impotence and infertility. Women may have irregular menstruation or no menstruation at all.

Internal Changes: Supply of insufficient number of calories compels the body to use its fat reserves. The body starts breaking down fat for energy. It's just like 'burning the furniture to keep the house warm'. When the stored fat is used up, the body starts breaking down the muscles and tissues of the internal organs, leading to serious problems. This can eventually lead to death of the person.

Marasmus: Severe deficiency of calories and proteins leads to a malnutrition disease called marasmus. It often occurs in infants and young children in developing countries and contributes to death in more than half of those children. Weight loss and dehydration are the main symptoms of marasmus. Breastfeeding helps prevent marasmus. Starvation is nothing but the most extreme form of marasmus or undernutrition. Insufficient supply or total lack of nutrients for a long time results in marasmus.

Kwashiorkor: In economically backward countries, children tend to develop kwashiorkor after they are weaned. These children are usually older than those who have marasmus. When the second newborn child replaces the first-born child at the mother's breast, the first-born child often develops kwashiorkor. These children suffer from a severe deficiency, more of protein than of calories. Kwashiorkor is a health problem associated with undernutrition and it is less common than marasmus. It is noticed in certain areas of the world where protein deficient foods that contain enough calories (as carbohydrates) are used to wean. Foods like yams, cassava, rice, sweet potatoes, and green bananas are generally used to wean. Those whose diet mainly consists of carbohydrates can also develop kwashiorkor. Such people have a protruding abdomen and they appear puffy and swollen as they tend to retain fluid.

Common Causes of Undernutrition

According to the definition of UNICEF, the outcome of insufficient food intake and repeated infectious diseases is known as undernutrition. A person suffering from undernutrition is usually underweight for his/her age and dangerously thin for his/her height. Even overweight people can be undernourished.
  • Eating empty-calorie foods results in undernutrition.
  • Deficiency of vitamins and minerals (micronutrient malnutrition) results in stunted growth and so those who suffer from undernutrition are short for their age.
  • Aging results in decreased appetite which can eventually lead to undernutrition.
  • Certain drugs and disorders can lead to difficulty in eating or absorbing nutrients.
  • Imbalance of nutrients is known as malnutrition which is usually a result of wrong diet, wrong eating habits, eating disorders, excessive intake or side effects of drugs and supplements.
People at Risk
  • Very ill people are likely to suffer from undernutrition.
  • People with celiac disease, cystic fibrosis may have to face the problems caused by insufficient supply of nutrients.
  • Lactose intolerant babies can be found undernourished.
  • Hospitalized older people are more susceptible to undernutrition.
  • Alcohol abuse or drug abuse can interfere with absorption of nutrients.
  • In developed countries, almost 50% older people are undernourished. Older people usually live and eat alone and there is no one to motivate them to prepare and eat food. Shortage of funds, dental problems or inability to buy and prepare food results in undernutrition.
  • Older people in hospitals and those admitted in long-term care centers may have to face health problems due to low-calorie intake. Caregivers are sometimes unaware of the concept of healthy diet. Older people may not get the food they like. Sometimes they may not get the help or time they need to eat.
Undernutrition is more common in poor, homeless people and in those who have psychiatric disorders. Often, loss of weight is misinterpreted as 'effect of aging' or 'loss of appetite'. Now that you have some idea about health problems associated with undernutrition, I hope you would take part in the campaigns organized to create awareness about undernutrition in children and elderly. A healthy diet and supply of multivitamins can prevent undernutrition and its serious consequences.