When people hear of malnutrition, they probably immediately think of starving children in Somalia and other parts of the world. This is a fallacy. Malnutrition is much more widespread. It is everywhere.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) indicates that malnutrition affects nearly a quarter of the world’s population – that is over two billion people – in every part of the globe.
The statistics are grim. But the really sad part is that many people who suffer from malnutrition are oblivious of it. This should not come as a surprise, because malnutrition comes in various shades.
Malnutrition manifests as undernutrition (wasting, stunting, underweight), inadequate vitamins or minerals, overweight, obesity, and accompanying diet-related non-communicable diseases.
According to WHO, across the globe “1.9 billion adults are overweight or obese, while 462 million are underweight. 47 million children under five years of age are wasted, 14.3 million are severely wasted and 144 million are stunted, while 38.3 million are overweight or obese.”
Across the world, about 45 per cent of deaths among children under five years of age is linked to undernutrition. Sadly, these occur mostly in low- and middle-income countries. At the same time, in these same countries, rates of childhood overweight and obesity are rising.
It is a complicated situation. Experts insist that the developmental, economic, social, and medical impacts of the global burden of malnutrition are serious and lasting, for individuals and their families, for communities and for countries.
So, what is malnutrition?
According to WHO, “Malnutrition refers to deficiencies, excesses or imbalances in a person’s intake of energy and/or nutrients.” Malnutrition happens when a person’s diet does not provide enough nutrients or the right balance of nutrients for optimal health.
Wikipedia defines malnutrition as a condition that results from eating a diet in which one or more nutrients are either not enough or are too much, such that the diet causes health problems. It may involve calories, protein, carbohydrates, fat, vitamins or minerals.
Let’s be clear that when a person suffers from malnutrition, it does not mean the person is hungry. The person doesn’t even have to be thin. One can have a full stomach and still be malnourished.
Malnutrition is split into two broad types – undernutrition and overnutrition. Undernutrition happens when a person is not consuming enough protein, calories or micronutrients, while overnutrition occurs when a person indulges in excess consumption of calories, fat or even protein.
Besides these, another type of malnutrition exists, which is called micronutrient-related malnutrition. Micronutrients such as iodine, vitamin A and iron are crucial for growth and development, as they assist the body to manufacture hormones and enzymes. Lacking these micronutrients is not only detrimental to children, but also pregnant women.
Of course, malnutrition doesn’t just happen. There are various causes of malnutrition. It may be because of unaffordability and unavailability of nutrient-rich foods, especially in developing countries, digestive issues such as Crohn’s disease (Inflammatory Bowel Disease) and other stomach conditions which inhibit the absorption of nutrients.
Malnutrition might also result from excess consumption of alcohol which may prevent proper intake of nutrients as well as mental health problems such as dementia, depression and anorexia nervosa (an eating disorder characterized by abnormally low body weight and an intense fear of gaining weight.)
Naturally, the symptoms of malnutrition depend on the type. Those suffering from undernutrition are likely to present with weight loss, loss of muscle mass, fatigue, loss of hair, inability to concentrate, swollen stomach and delayed healing of wounds. For overnutrition, the main symptoms are obesity and overweight.
Undoubtedly, the myth that it is all about starving children should be quickly dispelled. It affects billions across a wide age range in various parts of the world. There are ways to overcome malnutrition. The first step is to make proper nutrition a top priority.
This is one way to increase your chance against this global health problem.