About 25,000 people die every day of hunger-related causes, according to the United Nations. Yet, there is plenty of food for everyone in the world. The problem is that hungry people are trapped in severe poverty. On the other hand, ill-effects from consuming too much is also on the rise. In both cases, the body does not get optimum nutrition, leading to a condition called “malnutrition”.
Malnutrition is the condition that develops when the body does not get the right amount of vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients it needs to maintain healthy bodily functions. Malnutrition occurs in people who are either under-nourished or over-nourished.
Under nutrition is a consequence of consuming too few essential nutrients or using or excreting them more rapidly than they can be replaced.The following groups of people are at an increased risk for undernutrition.
- Young children
- Pregnant or breast feeding women
- Increased nutritional needs during growth, pregnancy, lactation, old age, infection, certain cancer therapies, or immune deficiency disorders increase the risk of malnutrition.
- Diets that focus on a narrow range of foods may not provide the variety of nutrients required and lead to deficiencies.
- Lack of money to purchase an adequate diet or cultural practices that dictate which members in the family get a large or small amount of food may also lead to malnutrition.
- Any medical condition that affects the absorption of nutrients from foods, or requires medication that has adverse consequences on appetite, may cause malnutrition.
Though a number of people may be at risk for under nutrition, unfortunately, it is children who die most often. As rightly said by Gabriela Mistral, 1948 “We are guilty of many errors and many faults, but our worst crime is abandoning the children, neglecting the foundation of life. Many of the things we need can wait. The child cannot. Right now is the time his bones are being formed, his blood is being made and his senses are being developed. To him we cannot answer "Tomorrow". His name is "Today"."
Causes and Symptoms of Malnutrition
Most malnourished people live in developing countries where income, education, and housing are inadequate to buy, transport, store, and prepare food and where nutritional deficiencies are almost always related to poverty. In industrialized countries, chronic conditions of deficient dietary intake occur far less frequently but are reported occasionally among people who are dieting to lose weight, fasting, or on an unusually restrictive (“fad”) diet. Pregnant women, infants, and children are most at risk for inadequate dietary intake because their nutritional requirements are relatively high.
The combined effects of malnutrition and infection in young children are referred to as protein-calorie malnutrition. This type of malnutrition is a result of inadequate intake of both calories and proteins. It is classified into two entities, marasmus and kwashiorkor.
Children with the marasmus form appear generally wasted as a result of diets that are chronically deficient in calories as well as protein and other nutrients. Children with kwashiorkor are also very thin but have characteristically bloated bellies due to fluid retention and accumulation of fat in the liver, symptoms attributed to diets relatively deficient in protein.
- goiter (enlarged thyroid gland)
- loss of reflexes and lack of coordination
- muscle twitches
- scaling and cracking of the lips and mouth
Malnourished children may be short for their age, thin, listless, and have weakened immune systems.
Treatment and Prevention
Treatment includes nutritional assessment to assess the effects of the disorder and formulate diets that will restore adequate nutrition. Prevention should be targeted at early-childhood malnutrition itself. This can be achieved by breastfeeding a baby for at least six months to prevent early-childhood malnutrition. Other recommendations for those over the age of two include:
- consumption of plenty of fruits, grains, and vegetables
- eating a variety of foods that are low in fats and cholesterols and containing only moderate amounts of salt, sugars, and sodium
- engaging in moderate physical activity for at least 30 minutes, at least several times a week
- achieving or maintaining their ideal weight
- using alcohol sparingly or avoiding it altogether
Over nutrition results from eating too much, eating too many of the wrong things, not exercising enough, or taking too many vitamins or other dietary replacements. Developed countries, with their abundant food supplies and processed foods, are most afflicted with over nutrition and the medical complications associated with it. Due to the excessive intake of food products, the amount of fat-soluble vitamins and minerals in the body can rise to toxic levels because they are stored in the body.
Developed countries have greater incidences of cardiovascular disease, blood lipids, diabetes mellitus, hypertension, respiratory problems, gallbladder disease, arthritis, and cancer, all of which are connected to complications stemming directly from over nutrition.
Parental Role in Combating Malnutrition
Infants, young children, and teenagers need additional nutrients to provide for growth requirements. Children usually eat as much or as little as they need in order to feel satisfied. Children should be allowed to select what they want to eat among healthy food choices; they should be allowed to stop eating when they feel full. An underweight, overweight, or normal weight child should be allowed to decide how much to eat or whether to eat at all, within reason.
Parents must proactively prevent childhood obesity by recognizing weight imbalances when they begin. They can help an overweight child to lose weight (if medically necessary) by being supportive, rather than scolding. Parents should offer their children nutritious food choices and encourage physical activity. With proper intervention, an overweight child is not destined to become an overweight adult, but weight loss goals should be realistic.
Good nutrition is the cornerstone for survival, health and development for current and succeeding generations. Well-nourished children perform better in school, grow into healthy adults and in turn give their children a better start in life.
Malnutrition continues to be a worldwide problem. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, "850 million people worldwide were undernourished in 1999 to 2005.
Amartya Sen won his 1998 Nobel Prize in part for his work demonstrating that malnutrition in modern times was not typically the product of a lack of food; rather, malnutrition usually arose from problems in food distribution networks or from governmental policies in the developing world. As of 2006 there are more overweight people than undernourished people in the world.
Thus, the real challenge in combating malnutrition lies not only in providing adequate food for all, but also in the proper utilization of food the world over.
World Bank itself claims to be part of the solution to malnutrition, claiming that the best way for countries to succeed in breaking the cycle of poverty and malnutrition is to build export-led economies that will give them the financial means to buy foodstuffs on the world market. One policy adopted in recent decades to alleviate world malnutrition is food aid, i.e. the physical donation of food from rich to poor countries. But the long-term food-aid programs should be gradually replaced by aid oriented towards economic development, ultimately enabling poor people to get rid of aid and earn enough income to purchase their food.