Malnutrition (mal-noo-TRIH-shun) is the lack of sufficient nutrients in the body.

What Is Malnutrition?

Malnutrition is the lack of nutrients in the body. Nutrients can be classified as macronutrients * , which include protein, carbohydrates, and fats, or micronutrients * , such as iron, iodine, vitamin A, folate, and zinc. Malnutrition does not always mean that the person is not getting enough food. It can also mean that the food that the person gets does not provide the nutrients to meet daily needs. Malnutrition is often described by the specific nutritional deficiency, such as protein–energy malnutrition. In protein–energy malnutrition, all the required macro- and micronutrients are lacking. In iron deficiency, iron is the only micronutrient lacking. When a person is malnourished, he or she may:

Lack of one or more nutrients or the body's inability to use one or more nutrients can result in disease. Conversely, diseases that affect one's appetite or cause the person to become too tired to eat can result in malnutrition.

How Common Is Malnutrition?

The United Nations World Food Programme estimates that 870 million people worldwide suffer from hunger and malnutrition. Most of these people live in developing countries. Children suffer most from malnutrition, which causes approximately 3.1 million deaths worldwide each year in children under five years of age. Poverty * * can contribute to malnutrition. People in developed countries also can suffer from food insecurity or undernutrition. Food insecure people may not have access to enough food at all times of the year, may eat diets without enough variety due to poverty, or may reduce food intake when money for food is unavailable. In serious circumstances, food insecurity may lead to undernutrition, which is not getting enough food to meet the body's energy demands. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), an average of 7.9 million children lived in food insecure households in the United States in 2014, while 914,000 children had to reduce food intake at least part of the time. In addition, people in developed countries may get enough calories and not be hungry but still be deficient in one or more micronutrients and therefore experience undernutrition or malnutrition. About 1 percent of U.S. children have this sort of malnutrition.


What Are the Causes of Malnutrition?

Poverty is one of the leading causes of malnutrition in the United States and around the world. Other causes of malnutrition include:


Who Is at Risk for Malnutrition?

What Are the Signs of Malnutrition?

A cardinal sign of malnutrition in infants and children is failure to thrive, that is, to gain weight, to grow and develop normally, to learn, and to meet developmental milestones.

In children and adults, other major signs of malnutrition include:

  • Swelling of the abdomen *
  • Dry and fragile skin
  • Diarrhea *
  • Dehydration *
  • Dry and brittle hair that may fall out, turn gray, or take on a reddish color
  • Susceptibility to infection
  • How Is Malnutrition Diagnosed and Treated?


    The healthcare provider obtains a complete health history, identifying any chronic health problems, socioeconomic problems, or learning problems that may contribute to or be caused by nutritional deficiencies. Examination includes getting the person's height, weight, and body mass index. Laboratory examination of blood samples determines specific nutrient deficiencies. Additional diagnostic studies may be done to determine if the malnutrition is caused by or the cause of another disease. For example, if the person is experiencing diarrhea and dehydration and laboratory studies indicate that the person is deficient in certain nutrients, additional diagnostic studies will be done to determine the cause of the diarrhea and dehydration.


    Treatment for malnutrition depends on the underlying cause of the problem.

    School Lunch Program Approaches to Helping Solve Malnourishment

    School Lunch Program Approaches to Helping Solve Malnourishment
    SOURCE: Food and Nutrition Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture. “National School Lunch Program (NSLP).” Available at: (accessed March 29, 2016). Table by Cenveo Publisher Services. © 2016 Cengage Learning®.

    Can Malnutrition Be Prevented?

    Ensuring that the nutritional needs of people are met is a challenge. For some, nutritional deficiencies can be prevented by education about proper diet and how to obtain and prepare healthy meals. Educational programs available for consumers to plan healthy diets include the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion MyPlate Resources. Providing information about resources for people living in poverty to apply for nutritional assistance can prevent malnutrition in those who meet income limitations.

    Worldwide strategies to prevent malnutrition include teaching people how to get nutritional food in their geographic region. For example, teaching people how to grow their own food (e.g., vegetables, fruits), fish for seafood, or raise meat sources such as chickens and beef can help to make food more available.

    See also Dietary Deficiencies • Eating Disorders: Overview • Food Insecurity • Global Health Issues: Overview • Homelessness • Kwashiorkor • Obesity • Rickets • Scurvy


    Books and Articles

    Knudsen, Johanna B. Malnutrition: Risk Factors, Health Effects and Prevention. Haupauge, NY: Nova Science Publishers, Inc., 2012.

    Sahn, David, E. (ed.) The Fight Against Hunger and Malnutrition: The Role of Food, Agriculture, and Targeted Policies. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015.

    Sanders, Sean. (ed.) “Addressing Malnutrition to Improve Global Health.” Science/The American Association for the Advancement of Science. (December 5, 2014). (accessed March 30, 2016).

    Vafaei, Zamane, Habibollah Mokhtari, Zahra Sadooghi, Rokhsareh Meamar, Ahmad Chitsaz, and Mina Moeini. “Malnutrition Is Associated with Depression in Rural Elderly Population.” Journal of Research in Medical Sciences. March 2013. (accessed March 30, 2016).


    MedlinePlus. “Malnutrition.” U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health. (accessed March 30, 2016).

    Merck Manual: Consumer Version. “Undernutrition.” ( accessed March 30, 2016).

    NHS Choices. “Malnutrition.” National Health Services. (accessed March 30, 2016).

    U.S. Food and Nutrition Information Center (U.S. Department of Agriculture). (accessed March 30, 2016).


    Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 1600 Clifton Rd., Atlanta, GA 30329. Toll-free: 800-232-4636. Website: (accessed March 30, 2016).

    Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition. 1776 Massachusetts Ave., NW Suite 700, Washington, DC 20036. Telephone: 202-559-8520. Website: (accessed March 30, 2016).

    United States Fund for UNICEF. 125 Maiden Lane, New York, NY 10038. Toll-free: 800-367-5437. Website: (accessed March 30, 2016).

    World Food Programme. Via Cesare Giulio Viola 68, Parco dei Medici, 00148, Rome, Italy. Telephone: 39-06-65131. Website: (accessed March 30, 2016).

    World Health Organization. Avenue Appia 20, 1211 Geneva 27, Switzerland. Telephone: 41-22-791-21-11. Website: (accessed March 30, 2016).

    * macronutrients (MAK-ro-noo-tree-ents) are any of the nutritional components of the diet that are required in relatively large amounts including protein, carbohydrates, fats, and some minerals.

    * micronutrients (MY-kro-noo-tree-ents) are chemical elements or substances, such as vitamins or minerals, that are required in small amounts for normal growth and development.

    * poverty (PAH-ver-tee) is the condition of being poor.

    * cystic fibrosis (SIS-tik fy-BRO-sis) is a disease that causes the body to produce thick mucus that clogs passages in many of the body's organs, including the lungs.

    * Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a progressive disease that makes it hard to breath.

    * inflammatory bowel disease describes conditions with chronic or recurring inflammation of the gastrointestinal tract.

    * epidemics (eh-pih-DEH-miks) are outbreaks of diseases, especially infectious diseases, in which the number of cases suddenly becomes far greater than usual. Usually epidemics are outbreaks of diseases in specific regions, whereas widespread epidemics are called pandemics.

    * bulimia (bu-LEE-me-a) is an eating disorder in which a person has episodes of out-of-control overeating, or binges, and then trys to make up for them by vomiting voluntarily, by taking laxatives, or by exercising to excess to avoid gaining weight.

    * anorexia nervosa (an-o-REKse-a ner-VO-sa) is an emotional disorder characterized by dread of gaining weight, leading to selfstarvation and dangerous loss of weight and malnutrition.

    * obesity (o-BEE-sih-tee) is an excess of body fat. People are considered obese if they weigh more than 30 percent above what is healthy for their height.

    * rickets (RICK-ets) is a condition of bones that causes them to soften and bend, creating deformity. In the early twentieth century, rickets was caused by lack of sunlight, and the lack of vitamin D, calcium, and phosphorus. As enriched foods and improved diets became more widespread, rickets practically disappeared in industrialized countries.

    * scurvy is a disease caused by a severe lack of vitamin C.

    * beriberi is a disease caused by a deficiency in the vitamin thiamine (B1).

    * Kwashiorkor (kwash-ee-OR-kor) is a type of malnutrition caused by lack of protein in the diet.

    * pellagra is a disease caused by the lack of the vitamin niacin (B3) or tryptophan (an amino acid)

    * dementia (dih-MEN-sha) is a loss of mental abilities, including memory, understanding, and judgment.

    * abdomen (AB-do-men), commonly called the belly, is the portion of the body between the thorax (THOR-aks) and the pelvis.

    * diarrhea (di-ah-RE-a) refers to frequent, watery stools (bowel movements).

    * dehydration (dee-hi-DRAY-shun) is a condition in which the body is depleted of water, usually caused by excessive and unre-placed loss of body fluids, such as through sweating, vomiting, or diarrhea.

    Disclaimer:   This information is not a tool for self-diagnosis or a substitute for professional care.

    (MLA 8th Edition)