Malnutrition in children is caused by both external and internal factors. Children become malnourished when they do not receive the proper amount of nutrients, such as vitamins and minerals, in their diet. In some cases, malnutrition results because the child has a disease that prevents her body from absorbing the necessary nutrients. In other cases, children are malnourished because they do not have access to enough food.
Conditions that can cause malnutrition in children if not treated properly include celiac disease and lactose intolerance. Children with celiac disease cannot tolerate gluten, the protein found in wheat and certain other grains. With celiac disease, the child's immune system attacks gluten, which can lead to damage to the intestines, preventing nutrients from being absorbed.
Signs that a child may be suffering from malnutrition caused by celiac disease include weight loss and anemia. The child may also not get enough calcium, leading to rickets, or softened bones. Symptoms of celiac disease also include bloating and diarrhea.
Lactose intolerance is another condition that can lead to malnutrition in children. Many children need dairy to get adequate amounts of calcium in their diet. Children who are lactose intolerant cannot digest milk and other dairy products properly and may avoid them. One way to avoid malnutrition in children caused by lactose intolerance is for the children to eat other sources of calcium, such as leafy greens and nuts.
Another medical condition that can cause malnutrition is cystic fibrosis. When a child has cystic fibrosis, the mucous cells produce thick mucous that clogs the airways as well as the tubes that connect the intestines and pancreas. The connection between the pancreas is necessary for transporting enzymes that help a child's body absorb protein and vitamins A, C, and K. When the tubes are blocked, malnutrition can result.
Some babies and children may become malnourished if they suffer from a condition that makes eating unpleasant. A baby with acid reflux disease may refuse to eat. If the condition is left untreated, he may develop dysphagia, which makes swallowing painful or in some cases impossible.
Lack of an adequate diet is another cause of malnutrition in children. A very young child can become malnourished if he doesn't get proper nutrition from his mother right after birth. Children in countries where food is scarce or where poverty is rampant are at greater risk for malnutrition than children who live in developed countries, where many foods are fortified with extra vitamins and nutrients.