What are Symptoms of Malnutrition?

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  • Written By: Sara Schmidt
  • Edited By: Andrew Jones
  • Last Modified Date: 28 November 2018
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Malnutrition is a condition in which a person's body doesn't get enough calories or nutrients to keep it functioning properly. Symptoms of malnutrition can vary widely, but include weakness, poor immune system functionality, and the inability to heal. A person may suffer from malnutrition for a long period of time before the signs become visible, and it's slow growing condition that develops over a lengthy time period. In the early stages, symptoms can include irritability, fatigue, slow or poor growth, and weight loss.

Some symptoms occur less often than others. Rarer conditions that people who suffer from malnutrition may experience include bone pain, muscle weakness, joint pain, and nail breakage. Body swelling, abdominal bloating, hair loss or color changes, dry or scaly skin, and loss of appetite in general can also develop.

Severe malnutrition can also result in a sunken appearance around the temple area of the head. Symptoms in adults can include a propensity to become infected with diseases, or to heal very slowly from infections. Breathing problems, anemia, decreased muscle mass, confusion, and chronic diarrhea may also occur.

Symptoms of malnutrition in children can be different from the experiences that adults may face. Malnourished children may cease to grow. They may also experience temporary or permanent developmental delays due to lack of essential nutrients and fats for brain growth. If left untreated, the lack of nutrients can lead to death.


Infants, children, and older adults are generally most at-risk for becoming malnourished. Other people considered in danger may include people on medication with suppressed appetites, victims of eating disorders, drug and alcohol abusers, pregnant women, and low income families.

The causes of malnutrition itself can vary. People can become malnourished by not eating the proper amounts or kinds of foods, and thereby not receiving enough vitamins and minerals. Certain health conditions, such as cystic fibrosis and cancer, can also cause this condition to develop, as can digestive disorders or diseases that prevent the body from being able to absorb nutrients. Poor health conditions, bleeding, diarrhea, and other factors may also contribute.

A diagnosis of malnutrition is usually completed with a blood test. A patient's weight and height will be analyzed by a medical professional, as will any medications being taken. The patient may be asked about his or her eating habits and diet. Treatment depends on the patient's individual case, although a medical professional may prescribe an increase in calories, more meals per day, or a nutritional supplement.


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Post 11

@Oceana – There are also helpless animals out there who can't get the nutrition they need. People often abandon unwanted dogs by the side of the road and leave them to fend for themselves, and I happened to find one of these poor animals in a severely malnourished state.

The puppy was only about nine or ten weeks old, according to the vet. I could see his ribs, cheekbones, and hip bones, and his toes had absolutely no muscle tone.

He had to be on vitamins and calcium supplements for weeks. He was anemic and in need of iron, and his joints were starting to grow crooked because of his lack of calcium.

Today, he is a healthy dog who looks normal. You wouldn't guess that he had ever been through anything like this.

Post 10
My aunt suffered from symptoms of malabsorption. Her intestines could not absorb the nutrients from the food she ate, and this caused her to have weakness and strange stools.

The stools were gray and smelled terrible. She felt fatigued all the time, and sometimes, she had explosive diarrhea.

Her doctor told her that she had too much bad bacteria in her guts, and he put her on an antibiotic. This cured her, and she was relieved to learn that she wouldn't have to live this way forever.

Post 9

I have a friend with really poor eating habits, and she seems to stay sick all the time. It's weird that I never catch any of her colds or stomach ailments, but after reading this article, I think she may just have a weakened immune system due to malnutrition.

She eats mostly fries, burgers, and fried chicken. She snacks on chocolate bars and drinks several sodas a day.

I don't think I've ever seen her eat a piece of fruit or a salad. I'm sure she would feel so much better if she changed her diet, but she is so attached to the high calorie lifestyle that she can't seem to get away from it.

Post 8

Malnutrition treatment definitely varies. I knew an anorexic girl who was so severely malnourished that she had to have a feeding tube. She could have died if she hadn't gotten help when she did, since she wasn't capable of getting the nutrients she needed.

I know that many people only have to change the foods they eat to improve their nutrition. There are a few who actually have to be force-fed, though, because they refuse to feed themselves properly.

Post 7

Probably the first symptoms that comes to our mind when we hear malnutrition is the appearance of starving children in Africa that is often portrayed by aid organizations.

When I think of malnutrition, I think of their stick thin legs and arms, bulging eyes and swollen stomachs. I think this type of malnutrition is called acutely severe malnutrition. Their stomach looks so large because malnutrition causes fluid build-up in the body.

Post 6

@ddljohn-- Yes, fad diets can lead to malnutrition. Some even say that obesity is a disease of malnutrition. Eating a lot doesn't mean that the person is getting all the nutrients he or she needs.

Many of us in the West eat very unhealthy foods high in sugar and carbohydrates and low in nutrients and vitamins. And then we do fad diets to lose excess weight quickly.

Vitamin deficiencies and loss of muscle tissue are symptoms of malnutrition and unfortunately it's common in people who go from one fad diet to another to lose weight.

Post 5

I've noticed in people who do fad diets that they lose a lot of weight suddenly. Their face takes on a sunken, bony look described in the article. After some time, they also suffer from vitamin deficiencies. Does this mean that they're suffering from malnutrition?

Post 4

@Bakersdozen - I fully understand your feelings, though it's likely the parents involved just don't know enough about nutrition to make good choices.

That's not something which is unique to vegans of course. Unless you have read about it I expect a lot of people don't really understand what the human body needs to stay healthy.

I notice many supermarkets are now clearly marking food as being good for you or having certain vitamins in it. I'm sure that will help a lot of people who are not sure what to buy for their family.

Post 3

@Acracadabra - I would say that any eating problem makes you more likely to suffer from malnutrition. It's easier to imagine when someone doesn't eat very much, but people who eat and throw up, or eat too much of one type of food are not going to be getting the vitamins and minerals they need to be healthy, right?

I had a friend in high school who spent six months controlling the food she ate. She had it organized by color, which really cut down on food choices. Eventually the school nurse gave her a leaflet with malnutrition information in it. Luckily she was in the early stages and she did recover.

Post 2

What upsets me is reading about babies who have died from acute malnutrition as a result of a vegan diet! People need to know that infants can't thrive without the proper nutrition, and how to make sure that their baby is getting the nutrition it needs.

Post 1

I agree that the signs of malnutrition can creep up on someone slowly, especially if you are sick. I'm sure many adults have at least some of these symptoms at various times in their life, so it would be easy to not figure out what was wrong.

It makes sense that people with anorexia could develop malnutition. What about those with other eating disorders, like bulimia. Could that put you at risk too?

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