Malnutrition In Children – Causes, Symptoms And Treatment

Written by Ria Saha • 

Is your little angel losing weight and appearing weaker by the day? Does she often suffer from infections and other health problems, and are you worried that it may be due to malnutrition? If you nodded along anxiously, then it’s time you consult a doctor. But before you do that, read the post below to learn all about malnutrition and how it affects kids.

An insufficient supply of vital nutrients and minerals can lead to a lack of nutrients in your child’s body. With an adequate proportion of nutrients, your child can regain her good health and lead a disease-free life.

Here, we talk about malnutrition in children, and how you can help your kid overcome the disorder!

What Is Malnutrition In Children?

Your child suffers from malnutrition when her body does not get an adequate amount of nutrients, calories and minerals. All these essential components help her growth processes. Additionally, the intake of vital nutrients boosts the immune level and keeps her protected from harmful infections.

A form of malnutrition can also occur if your child consumes an excess amount of calories (over nutrition). It is important to maintain the right balance of the calories, as an excess or a lack of calories, can lead to malnutrition.

A lack of nutrition leads to several health disorders in your child’s body. The deficiency of nutrients affects her physical health, behavior, mood, growth processes and other body functions (1).

Types Of Malnutrition In Children:

The most common types of malnutrition are:

1. Protein Energy Malnutrition (PEM):

Due to the deficiency of protein and glucose from foods, your child experiences this particular type of malnutrition.

There are three subtypes of PEM: Acute malnutrition, Chronic malnutrition, and the third comprises both of them. Acute malnutrition causes your child to become thin, and she loses her body weight rapidly. In Chronic malnutrition, your child suffers from stunted growth. When your child suffers from both acute and chronic malnutrition, she becomes underweight and experiences numerous health discomforts.

2. Micronutrient (Vitamin And Mineral) Deficiency:

The shortage of certain micronutrients can lead to micronutrient deficiencies in your child. Micronutrients are nothing but vitamins and minerals. Your child requires these nutrients for proper body functions and growth processes (2).

[ Read: Vitamin Chart For Kids ]

Causes Of Malnutrition In Children:

Typically, a lack of essential nutrients and minerals triggers the condition of malnutrition in your child. It harshly affects the living conditions of a growing kid, and she may encounter numerous health disorders.

Some of the common causes to initiate condition of malnutrition are:

1. Poor Diet:

When your child does not get an adequate supply of nutrients through her food, she encounters the condition of malnutrition. Poor diet makes your child suffer from nutrients deficiency. As a result, she may experience terrible health diseases and face difficult to lead a healthy life. Being a victim of dysphagia (swallowing difficulties) can also lead to malnutrition. In such health conditions, your child finds it difficult to swallow her food and cannot get the essential nutrients.

2. Mental Health Problems:

A mentally retarded child has a higher chance of suffering from malnutrition. In such depressing mental condition, she cannot follow a proper eating habit. Children with mental illness of anorexia nervosa or bulimia ingest a small amount of food and suffer from malnutrition.

3. Digestive Disorders And Stomach Conditions:

Due to digestive disorders, your child’s body cannot absorb the nutrients present in food. The body is deprived of vital nutrients, and your child experiences malnutrition. If your child is a victim of Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis, her chances of malnutrition are high. In such conditions, the doctor may suggest removing a small portion of the small intestine (ileostomy).

If your child is gluten intolerant and suffers from Celiac disease, her lining of the small intestine can get damaged. Her body cannot absorb the food nutrients, and she thus suffers from nutritional deficiency. On the other hand, if your child experiences the stressful conditions of vomiting or bout of diarrhea, she loses her vital nutrients.

4. Diabetes:

Due to increased blood sugar level, your diabetic child’s body cannot absorb the vital nutrients. Her pancreas gets damaged or erupts due to the high blood sugar level. It hurts her body’s ability to digest food and acquire nutrient for body’s growth processes. Thus, your diabetic child suffers from malnutrition.

5. Lack Of Breastfeeding:

Breastfeeding helps your infants to stay healthy and disease-free. Sometimes, moms can deprive their child of breastfeeding, for an array of reasons, which may be recommended by the doctor. However, a lack of adequate breastfeeding can make your child unhealthy and with age he contracts malnutrition.

Causes Of Malnutrition In Underdeveloped Countries:

In certain underdeveloped countries, the condition of malnutrition can escalate and turn into an epidemic. Children from the underprivileged families do not get enough food, to lead a healthy living.

Some of the causes of malnutrition in poorer nations are:

1. Food Shortage:

In the poor developing nations, malnutrition occurs due to a shortage of food supply. The country cannot produce enough amounts of food supplies for its population. They lack in agricultural resources, technology, fertilizers and other vital things. As a result, underprivileged families and the children experience the condition of malnutrition.

2. High Food Prices:

Most malnourished children belong to poor families. Even in developing countries, some families do not get enough food, due to the high food prices. They cannot afford such costly living, and their children get deprived of their nutritional needs (3).

Symptoms Of Malnutrition In Children:

Some of the common symptoms of malnutrition are:

  • Breathing difficulties
  • Sudden loss of weight
  • Irritability
  • Extreme tiredness
  • Mental depression
  • Loss of fat (adipose tissue)
  • Greater risk of hypothermia – abnormally low body temperature
  • Weakened immune system
  • Reduced muscle mass
  • Reduced tissue mass
  • Fatigue
  • Higher susceptibility to feeling cold
  • Longer healing times for cuts, wounds, and infections
  • Longer recovery from illnesses
  • Poor concentration level
  • Physically inactive

In severe cases, your child may experience some of these symptoms of malnutrition:

  • Skin turns dry, pale, rough, and cold
  • Hair becomes rough and dry
  • Tendency of hair fall increases
  • Due to extreme weight loss, the cheeks look hollow
  • Visible dark circles under eyes

Due to calorie deficiency, your child may experience heart, respiratory or liver failure issues (4).

Effects Of Malnutrition On Children:

With severe conditions of malnutrition, your child may experience some complications, which include:

  • Immune Implications:

Malnutrition makes your child’s immune system weak and susceptible to infectious diseases. If your child follows unhygienic sanitary practices, he becomes more vulnerable to contagious infections. The deficiency of zinc, iron and vitamins triggers the condition of malnutrition and weakens the immune system in children. Malnourishment affects your child’s immune system functioning, and he can contract many life-threatening health conditions.

[ Read: Natural Ways To Boost Kids Immune System ]

  • Growth Implications:

Nutrient deficiency and digestive infections commonly occur in toddlers and growing kids. A poor nutritional intake can lead to malnourishment in your children. With gastrointestinal infection, your child’s body cannot absorb the nutrients present in the food element. Consequently, nutritional deficiency combined with infection retards the growth process completely.

  • Deficiency Of Specific Nutrients:

A deficiency of some specific nutrients can trigger health complexities in your kid. For instance, deficiency of iron, zinc and magnesium elevates the condition of anorexia. Low lipid intake prevents your child’s body from acquiring the requisite quantity of fat-soluble vitamins such as Vitamin D and Vitamin A. It hampers your child’s visual ability. Protein and Zinc deficiency retards bone growth and development and puts your child in long-term health complexities.

  • Organ Failure:

Severe malnutrition makes your child’s organs dysfunctional. Some of the organs highly affected by the deficiency of nutritional intake are liver, heart and kidneys.

  • Onset Of Harmful Diseases:

The Prolonged condition of malnutrition triggers numerous health disorders in your little kid. Some of the common health diseases include gastroenteritis, urinary tract infection, and pneumonia. Due to over nutrition your child encounters conditions of obesity, heart diseases, stroke, diabetes, high blood pressure and some specific kind of cancers.

Malnutrition can also lead to other adverse effects like:

  • Slow behavioral development
  • Mental retardation
  • Sarcopenia, or constant loss of body mass
  • Learning disabilities
  • Stunted growth
  • Reduced problem-solving abilities
  • Reduce social skills
  • Decreased IQ level
  • Attention deficit disorder
  • Slow body growth
  • Memory deficiency
  • Digestive disorders
  • Reduced language development
  • Poor wound healing
  • Cachexia, or severe weight loss
  • Impairment of mental function (5)

[ Read: Symptoms Of Gastroenteritis In Children ]

Diagnosing Malnutrition In Children:

The doctor examines your child’s weight and height and compares it with the chart that lists the expected weight and height based on the age. Extremely underweight indicates that your child suffers from nutritional deficiencies.

Some of the diagnostic procedures doctors typically adopt include:

Measuring the mid-upper arm diameter- The doctor measures the mid-upper arm diameter of your child. If the circumference reads below 110 mm, it clearly indicates the condition of malnutrition.

Blood tests- Routine blood tests diagnose the condition of malnutrition in your child. Some of the specific blood tests are blood counts, blood glucose, blood protein or albumin levels, tests for other infections and HIV test. To estimate the protein levels the blood tests are retinol-binding protein and Pre-albumin.

Other medical tests- Doctors recommend performing some additional medical tests, to diagnose malnutrition in your child. Some of such tests are thyroid function tests, levels of Calcium, Zinc, and vitamins (6).

Treating Malnutrition In Children:

1. At Home:

During the initial stage of malnutrition, your child can get proper treatment by adopting specific treatment procedures at home:

A dietician pays close attention to your child’s food chart and makes suitable changes. The main aim of the dietician is to improve the nutritional intake of your growing kid. It helps to boost her immune system and stay away from the condition of malnutrition.

Malnutrition mostly affects growing kids, at their tender age. It increases their chances of getting infections and encountering slow or stunted growth. To overcome such situations, feed your child with a well-balanced diet.

As your little kid passes through the vital period of body growth and development, her body requires a proper proportion of calcium, calories, and protein. You have to include nutrient-rich foods in your child’s diet menu.

To overcome the condition of malnutrition, you child can also take vitamin and mineral supplements. But it is better to consult your doctor first.

If your child experiences stunted growth due to protein deficiency, he must take protein bars or supplements.

Try to keep a close track of your child’s basal metabolic index. The reading accurately indicates your child’s wellness. You can make a weekly chart and record the BMI to check for improvement or responsiveness.

If your child experiences difficulty in swallowing, eating or chewing her food you need to pay special attention to her dietary food menu. Feed her soft and pureed food. She can eat these foods comfortably, and her body gets all the vital nutrients.

During the growth period, take your child to a pediatrician, once in a month. The specialist examines her BMI, height and weight. It can help to keep a close track of your child’s growth processes. Any abnormality or sudden weight loss indicates the onset of malnutrition in your child.

2. At Hospital:

The specialist treats the specific health disorder of your malnourished child. If your child experiences digestive disorders, the doctor prescribes effective medications.

Nasogastric tube feeding –The special procedure helps severely malnourished patients acquire vital food nutrients. If your child suffers from an extreme condition of malnutrition, the doctor suggests this treatment procedure.

If your child experiences chronic malnutrition, the doctor suggests regular clinical therapy as a prophylactic measure. Additionally, she needs to take nutrients, vitamins and mineral supplements regularly (7).

Preventing Malnutrition In Children:

Here are few effective tips to help children with malnutrition at a tender age:

Take professional guidance from the pediatrician- If your little angel in constantly losing her weight day by day, consult your doctor immediately. Doctors examine your child minutely and investigate about every minute health transformation or difficulty. Malnutrition can attack your child due to numerous factors. It can be due to medications, certain health diseases, or dietary insufficiency. The pediatrician checks for each of these contributing factors and suggests suitable treatment procedures. In some conditions, you child has to take nutrient or vitamin supplements for a certain period. You might also get the reference of an experienced dietician from your medical consultant.

Encourage your little one to eat foods rich in vital nutrients- Make your growing kid eat a well-balanced diet. Such foods supply essential nutrients, minerals and calories to your kid’s body. It enhances her growth processes and boosts the immune system.

Restrict your child from eating unhealthy diet-Restrict your child from having excess oily and spicy foods. Such foods degrade the health conditions of your growing kid and also turn her obese and lethargic.

Eat small meals at regular interval of time- This is one of the best eating habits, to keep your child well-nourished and healthy. Make your child have a small quantity of food at every 3-4 hours. It can keep her appetite full and prevent unnecessary fat deposits on the body.

Encourage regular physical activity- Apart from eating healthy and nutritious food, your child needs to practice regular exercises. Exercising keeps her metabolic activity normal and excretes unwanted toxins from her body. If your child is not interested in performing tiring exercising postures, you can include some fun filled daily activity. You can buy her a bicycle or take her to swimming classes. Children love to perform such adventurous activities. These activities keep her active and maintain the other body functioning (8).

[ Read: Types Of Eating Disorders In Children ]

Important Nutrients That Prevent Malnutrition In Children:

With the intake of vital nutrients, children can overcome the stressful condition of malnutrition and lead a healthier lifestyle. The important nutrients to prevent condition of malnutrition in your child are:

1. Carbohydrates:

Carbohydrates supply energy to your child’s body. Your child’s brain optimally utilizes carbohydrates for the energy production. But, with a low amount of carbohydrates, your kid’s body cannot metabolize the fatty acids completely. As a consequence, her body starts to lose the essential protein and becomes weak. Research concludes that every human body derives half of its calories from the consumed carbohydrates. To get an adequate supply of calories, your child needs to intake 50 to 100 grams of carbohydrates daily.

2. Protein:

The vital nutrient boosts the growth processes of your child’s body. Additionally protein regulates the pH and acid-base balance of the blood. It helps synthesize and stimulate the secretion of many hormones and enzymes. Most importantly, protein is a crucial part in cell formation, and it also helps improve your child’s immune system. When your kid is hungry or starved, the excess muscle tissue of your child’s body gets wasted, and she starts losing weight.

Like carbohydrates, proteins provide around 4kcal of energy to your kid’s body. The energy effectively helps maintain metabolic processes and enhances the performance of the liver and kidneys.

[ Read: Protein Rich Foods For Kids ]

3. Fats:

Though excess consumption of fats induces harmful effects on your child’s health condition, but a small amount of healthy fat is necessary. Fats from the foods help maintain your child’s skin and hair. It maintains the body temperature and promotes healthy cell function. Additionally, vital fat-soluble vitamins such as Vitamin A, D, E, and K help impart healthy conditions. Fats serve as the elementary source of essentially fatty acids.

4. Vitamins and Minerals:

The nutrients help to maintain crucial body functions of your child’s body. It promotes overall health and protects your child from harmful infections and diseases. Vitamins and Minerals help in body growth processes of your child. The metabolic activity runs at its normal pace and eliminates harmful toxins from your child’s body.

Doctors suggest that you have fresh fruits and vegetable regularly. They can acquire the requisite amount of vitamins for the growth process. When the dietary sources could not supply enough vitamins, your kid needs to intake vitamin supplements as an excellent alternative (9).

Foods That Help Avoid Malnutrition In Children:

Your child needs to consume a healthy, well-balanced diet, which comprises of all the vital nutrients in proper proportions. Some of the healthy food for malnutrition child to help your little one overcome the condition of malnutrition are:

  • Fresh fruits and vegetables
  • Carbohydrates- White rice, pasta, wheat, oats, potatoes, roots and tubers, sugars and cereals
  • Protein- Eggs, nuts, oatmeal, grains, peanut butter and lean meat.
  • Fats- Oils, nuts and seeds
  • Milk and dairy products including cheese and yogurt (10)

[ Read: Best Nutritious Foods For Kids ]

Nutritional Needs Of Children:

Here, we list the recommended nutritional needs of young children. Include these foods in a malnutrition child diet:

1. Fruits And Vegetables:

Two servings each, every day. Serve fresh fruits and veggies in the form of snacks. You can also add green vegetables to soups.

2. Whole Grains:

Four daily servings. You can serve multi-grain bread, a sandwich made of white bread, brown rice or buckwheat pancakes.

3. Milk And Dairy Products:

Three servings, or a full glass of milk per day. Yogurt, Cheese, and milk puddings can be some healthy alternatives.

4. Protein:

Two servings a day. Indulge your child in trying a variety of proteins like eggs, fishes, lean meat, baked beans and lentils.

5. Vitamins And Minerals:

Your child can take supplements of vitamins, as suggested by the medical consultant (11).

[ Read: Nutrition For Kids ]

When To Visit The Doctor?

If you are worried that your little one is suffering from Parents who worry about malnutrition in their children needs to consult a registered dietitian or specialist immediately. Some of the alarming signs for which professional guidance is must, include:

  • Stunted growth of the child
  • Child faints more often
  • Child rapidly loses her hair
  • Significant weight loss of the child

You can help your child to overcome the conditions of malnutrition, through suitable dietary intervention and a healthy lifestyle.

[ Read: Types Of Learning Disabilities In Children ]

Was your child a victim of childhood malnutrition? How did you help your child to overcome such difficult health conditions? Did the doctor prescribe any vitamin or mineral supplements? Tell us about your story here. Fellow moms would love to hear from you. We need all the help we can get.

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