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Written by: Jenna Chou, PMP
Date: May 13, 2021
Malnutrition, is a dietary deficiency that results in poor health conditions. We typically think of malnutrition as it relates to children not eating enough of the right foods. It can also occur when children eat too much of the wrong foods. Sadly, these combined contribute to more than 170 million children failing to reach their full potential due to poor nutrition.
Malnutrition occurs in people who are either undernourished or overnourished. In the United States, more children suffer from malnutrition due to dietary imbalances than due to nutritional deficiencies.
Undernutrition occurs when not enough essential nutrients are consumed or when they are excreted more rapidly than they can be replaced. Overnutrition occurs in people who eat too much, eat the wrong things, don’t exercise enough or take too many vitamins or other dietary replacements. Risk of overnutrition is increased by being more than 20 percent overweight or consuming a diet high in fat and salt. About 1 percent of children in the United States suffer from chronic malnutrition.
Here, we breakdown four major factors that contribute to malnutrition in children (Save the Children, 2021):
Malnutrition can occur in children of all ages, but young children are the most vulnerable. The World Health Organization has stated that malnutrition is the single most dangerous threat to global public health[i]. They estimate that malnutrition is the underlying cause of 3.1 million child deaths each year and leads to lasting damage for millions of other children.
Malnutrition makes children more vulnerable to severe diseases. Chronic malnutrition or stunting—when children are too short for their age because they have not been adequately nourished, received inadequate care and/or live in unhygienic environments—can leave a devastating and permeant impact on a child’s physical and cognitive capabilities.
The largest window of opportunity for a child’s health occurs in the first 1,000 days–from the start of a woman’s pregnancy to her child’s second birthday. Mothers who are malnourished during their pregnancy can experience complications giving birth. Many children are born small because their mothers are undernourished. Severely malnourished mothers can also have trouble breastfeeding their infants.
We know that breastfeeding for the first six months of a child’s life has health benefits that extend into adulthood. However, if a mother is too malnourished to breastfeed, these health benefits may not be passed on and a child can be at risk for malnutrition. This is especially true in developing countries.
Poverty is the number one cause of malnutrition in developing countries. Often times, families living in poverty lack access to fresh fruits and vegetables. Many communities do not have full-service grocery stores that regularly stock fresh produce.
Even if they do, fresh fruits and vegetables can be expensive. When fresh fruits and vegetables are out of reach for children, they can fill up on less expensive, less healthy foods.
Chronic malnutrition is becoming concentrated in countries with the fewest resources, where 1 in 3 children have stunted growth. Today, 9 in 10 stunted children, roughly 139 million children, live in low- and lower-middle-income countries.
Chronic malnutrition has also become increasingly concentrated in conflict-affected countries.
At least 240 million children live in countries affected by conflict and fragility. These children are at heightened risk of death before age 5, stunted growth due to malnutrition and so much more.
In South Sudan, for example, conflict and drought have led to devastating conditions for children. Nearly seven million people, or 61% of the population, face acute food insecurity. Unlike its regional counterparts Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia, which are facing severe food insecurity due to worsening drought, South Sudan’s food crisis is directly linked to the ongoing conflict.
Patients who cannot or will not eat or who are unable to absorb nutrients taken by mouth may be fed intravenously (parenteral nutrition) or through a tube inserted into the gastrointestinal tract (enteral nutrition). Tube feeding is often used to provide nutrients to patients who have suffered burns or who have inflammatory bowel disease. This procedure involves inserting a thin tube through the nose and carefully guiding it along the throat until it reaches the stomach or small intestine. If long-term tube feeding is necessary, the tube may be placed directly into the stomach or small intestine through an incision in the abdomen.
John Hopkins Medicine (2021). Health. Retrieved from https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/conditions-and-diseases/malnutrition
Save the Children (2021). 4 Causes of Malnutrition. Retrieved from https://www.savethechildren.org/us/charity-stories/what-is-malnutrition-in-children