Family, Health

Think You Know What Malnutrition Is?

Malnutrition refers to deficiencies, excesses or imbalances in a person’s intake of energy and/or nutrients. This is according to the World Health Organization.

The term MALNUTRITION covers 2 broad groups of conditions.

i. The first group is ‘undernutrition’:

This accounts for most cases of MALNUTRITION, and include the following categories:

  • stunting (low height for age)
  • wasting (low weight for height),
  • underweight (low weight for age) and
  • micronutrient deficiencies or insufficiencies (a lack of important vitamins and minerals).

ii. The other group comprises of:

  • overweight, obesity and diet-related noncommunicable diseases (such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes and cancer).

Malnutrition affects people in every country. While malnutrition, in this case undernutrition, affects children predominantly, we must remember that adults too are not immune to it.Women, infants, children and adolescents are at particular risk of malnutrition.


Current global statistics:

  • 1.9 billion adults worldwide are overweight (remember the world population is about 7 billion)
  • 462 million adults are underweight
  • 41 million children under the age of 5 years are overweight or obese
  • 159 million under-5 children are stunted, and
  • 50 million children under age 5 are wasted; 19 million of whom suffer from severe acute malnutrition
  • 45% of deaths among children under 5 years of age are linked to undernutrition, particularly in low- and middle-income countries.
  • 528 million or 29% of women of reproductive age are affected by anaemia, (for which approximately half would be amenable to iron supplementation)

Malnutrition can be acute or chronic, and can be moderate or severe. Acute malnutrition is a devastating epidemic. Often used interchangeably with undernutrition, acute malnutrition  can be seen as wasting and underweight. Chronic undernutrition can be seen as stunting.


In children: the most common type of malnutrition children suffer from is of a moderate and chronic undernutrition. Malnutrition has thus been dubbed the “invisible killer”, because while these children are suffering from ongoing malnutrition, they do not demonstrate usual visible clinical symptoms. However, the repeatedly recurring energy and nutrient deficiencies have dire and disastrous consequences on theirs health – weakening their immune defense systems, delaying their overall development and increasing their risk of severe illnesses and death.

There has also been a rapid rise in the number of children and adults who are overweight and obese, both in poor as well as rich countries. This is partly due to poor diet – foods and drinks high in fat, sugar and salt are cheaper and more readily available, unlike healthy diet which is becoming more expensive and less accessible by the day. Malnutrition, on both spectra, remains a leading causes of illnesses and death globally, both in children and adult. While the severe forms of undernutrition and overnutrition increases the risk of death in multiple folds, the milder forms of malnutrition continue to predispose individuals to both communicable and non-communicable diseases, reduce quality of life and productivity, including cognitive impairment, foster the cycle of poverty, and mount avoidable pressure on the health system.

The World Health Organization aims for a world free of all forms of malnutrition, where all people achieve health and wellbeing. Likewise, the United Nations General Assembly has declared 2016-2025 the UN Decade of Action on Nutrition in a bid to address all forms of malnutrition. The aim is to ensure all people have access to healthier and more sustainable diets to eradicate all forms of malnutrition worldwide.




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