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Hunger and Malnutrition

If you're raising a picky eater, you might worry that your child isn't getting the nutrients necessary for proper growth and development. But you probably don't need to worry unless your doctor tells you that your child isn't growing at the normal rate for that age range. Over time, most finicky eaters do get enough calories and nutrients to meet their needs.

What Are Hunger and Malnutrition?

Everyone feels hungry at times. Hunger is the body's signal that it needs food. Once we've eaten enough food to satisfy our bodies' needs, hunger goes away until our stomachs are empty again.

Malnutrition is not the same thing as hunger, although they often go together. People who are chronically malnourished lack the nutrients needed for proper health and development. Someone can be malnourished for a long or short period of time, and the condition may be mild or severe. People who are malnourished are more likely to get sick and, in severe cases, might even die.

According to the UN World Food Programme, over 1 billion people in the world do not have enough to eat. That's more than the entire population of the United States, Canada, and the European Union. Every 6 seconds a child dies from malnutrition and related causes.

Chronic hunger and malnutrition can cause significant health problems. People who go hungry all the time are likely to be underweight, weighing significantly less than an average person of their size. Their growth may also be stunted, making them much shorter than average. (Of course, people can also be underweight or short because of an illness or their genetic makeup.) Worldwide, as many as 27% of children younger than age 5 are underweight.

What Causes Hunger and Malnutrition?

People who don't get enough food often experience hunger, and hunger can lead to malnutrition over the long term. But someone can become malnourished for reasons that have nothing to do with hunger. Even people who have plenty to eat may be malnourished if they don't eat food that provides the right nutrients, vitamins, and minerals.

Some diseases and conditions prevent people from digesting or absorbing their food properly. For example:

  • Someone with celiac disease has intestinal problems that are triggered by a protein called gluten, which is found in wheat, rye, and barley.
  • Kids with cystic fibrosis have trouble absorbing nutrients because the disease affects the pancreas, an organ that normally produces enzymes necessary for digestion.
  • Kids who are lactose intolerant have difficulty digesting milk and other dairy products. By avoiding dairy products, they're at higher risk of malnutrition because milk and dairy products provide 75% of the calcium in America's food supply.

Someone who doesn't get enough of one specific nutrient has a nutritional deficiency, a form of malnutrition (although it doesn't necessarily mean the person will become seriously ill). The most common form of malnutrition in the world is iron deficiency, which can lead to anemia. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that as many 2 billion people worldwide don't have enough iron (which is found in foods like red meat, egg yolks, and fortified flour, bread, and cereals) in their diets.

Who Is at Risk for Malnutrition?

All over the world, people who are poor or who live in poverty-stricken areas are at the greatest risk for hunger and malnutrition. In poor countries, wars and natural disasters such as droughts and earthquakes also can contribute to hunger and malnutrition by disrupting normal food production and distribution.

In the United States, food manufacturers fortify some common foods with vitamins and minerals to prevent certain nutritional deficiencies. For example, the addition of iodine to salt helps prevent some thyroid gland problems (such as goiter), folic acid added to foods can help prevent certain birth defects, and added iron can help prevent iron-deficiency anemia.

Malnutrition affects people of every age, although infants, children, and adolescents may suffer the most because many nutrients are critical for normal growth and development. Older people may develop malnutrition because aging, illness, and other factors can lead to a poor appetite, so they may not eat enough.

Alcohol can interfere with nutrient absorption, so alcoholics might not benefit from the vitamins and minerals they consume. People who abuse drugs or alcohol can be malnourished or underweight if they don't eat properly.

Children and teens on special diets — such as vegetarians — need to eat balanced meals and a variety of foods to get the right nutrients. Vegetarians and vegans, for example, should make sure they get enough protein and vitamins like B12.

Symptoms and Effects of Malnutrition

Malnutrition harms both the body and the mind. The more malnourished someone is — in other words, the more nutrients that are missing — the more likely he or she is to have problems.

The signs and symptoms of malnutrition depend on which nutritional deficiencies a person has, although they can include:

  • fatigue and low energy
  • dizziness
  • poor immune function (which can hamper the body's ability to fight off infections)
  • dry, scaly skin
  • swollen and bleeding gums
  • decaying teeth
  • slowed reaction times and trouble paying attention
  • underweight
  • poor growth
  • muscle weakness
  • bloated stomach
  • osteoporosis, or fragile bones that break easily
  • problems with organ function
  • problems learning

If a pregnant woman is malnourished, her child may weigh less at birth and have a lower chance of survival. Vitamin A deficiency from malnutrition is the chief cause of preventable blindness in the developing world, and kids with severe vitamin A deficiency have a greater chance of getting sick or dying from infections such as diarrhea or measles. Iodine deficiency, another form of malnutrition, can cause mental retardation and delayed development. Iron deficiency can make kids less active and less able to concentrate. Teens who are malnourished often have trouble keeping up in school.

Treating Malnourished Children

Fortunately, many of the harmful effects of malnutrition can be reversed, especially if a child is only mildly or briefly malnourished.

If you think your child isn't getting enough of the right nutrients, talk to your doctor, who may perform a physical exam and ask about the types and amounts of food your child eats. The doctor may also:

  • measure height, weight, and body mass index (BMI) to see if they're within a healthy range for your child's age
  • order blood tests to check for abnormalities
  • use X-rays or CT scans to look for signs of malnutrition in organs and bones
  • check for underlying conditions that could cause malnutrition

Treatment for malnutrition depends on its cause. A doctor or dietitian might recommend specific changes in the types and quantities of foods your child eats, and may prescribe dietary supplements, such as vitamins and minerals. If there's an underlying problem causing the malnutrition, the doctor will help you find ways to ensure your child gets the necessary nutrients.

Can a Picky Eater Become Malnourished?

Parents often worry that kids who seem to live on peanut butter sandwiches or hide at the sight of vegetables might not eat enough to stay healthy. Few kids in the United States and other developed nations experience severe malnutrition like that seen in Third World countries. Even finicky eaters usually get adequate calories and nutrients.

The best way for parents to ensure that kids are properly nourished is to serve a variety of healthy foods and limit unhealthy snacks. If you're concerned that your child's energy level is lagging or that he or she isn't growing as fast as other kids of the same age, share your concerns with your doctor.

Reviewed by: Mary L. Gavin, MD
Date reviewed: November 2009

Kids Health

Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor.

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