What is Chronic Malnutrition?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Kristen Osborne
  • Last Modified Date: 14 October 2019
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Chronic malnutrition is persistent lack of access to necessary vitamins and minerals in early childhood, leading to health problems later in life even if the patient later receives adequate nutrition. Between the ages of eight and 20 months, children are especially vulnerable and can develop chronic malnutrition if their dietary needs are not met. Globally, a number of organizations work on hunger and malnutrition issues in children, developing intervention programs to get nutrition to developing children.

People who are malnourished are not necessarily at risk of starving to death. In the case of individuals with chronic malnutrition, they tend to develop more slowly and may remain physically small, even as adults. In addition, they can exhibit tell-tale signs of poor nutrition, such as losing their hair, having flaky or brittle fingernails, and being physically weak. In addition, chronic malnutrition exposes people to the risk of cognitive disabilities caused by not getting enough to eat while their brains are growing.

Nutrition is not simply about the quantity of food people consume, but also the quality. People with chronic malnutrition are sometimes overweight as a result of their diets, but they are still not receiving the balance of vitamins and nutrients they need to survive. A significant concern with developing children is that as they are weaned from breastmilk, a food with a rich assortment of vitamins and minerals, they may develop malnutrition while eating soft and solid foods.


Combating chronic malnutrition involves a number of approaches including fortifying foods, providing nutritional education in poor communities, and offering grants of food aid and other assistance. Communities with a history of malnutrition problems may be offered additional interventions with the goal of catching and treating malnutrition as early as possible. This can include educating doctors and nurses at community health clinics so they know how to handle malnourished patients.

Adults can also experience extended periods of malnutrition, but it is not as dangerous as it is in developing children. Fully developed adults are not at risk of developmental delays caused by malnutrition, although not having access to a balanced diet can certainly cause quality of life issues including fatigue and cognitive deficits. Malnutrition in pregnant women and breastfeeding mothers is a particular cause for concern, as it can have a negative impact on the developing child. Children who were malnourished in utero or while breastfeeding may never fully recover, even with nutritional intervention.


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Post 6

Another characteristic of chronic malnutrition, as is obvious by the name, is that it's a long-term problem. We're talking about years and years of not getting enough nutrients, vitamins and minerals.

Post 5

My sister volunteers for an organization that has projects to fight against malnutrition in Africa. She told me that they send special treats with lots of nutrients and vitamins to supplement the children in very poor communities.

I think this is a great idea. It's not possible to send fruits or milk to these children. But they can easily be given a nonperishable item that is full of the nutrients and vitamins these children need.

Post 4

Many people have the assumption that chronic malnutrition means not having anything to eat at all. I'm glad that this article clarified what chronic malnutrition means.

Those who suffer from chronic malnutrition often do have limited access to food and may be starving from time to time. But many also have access to a certain amount of food, but the food is usually just one type and does not meet all of the nutritional needs. For example, a child with chronic malnutrition may be only getting a small amount of rice daily or every other day. So not only is the child battling with insufficient food, but also insufficient vitamins and minerals. The child is not getting any protein, fat and the assorted vitamins found in meat, dairy, beans, vegetables and fruits.

Post 3

@Ana1234 - I wonder how this is actually affecting children all over the world and not just in impoverished areas. It seems like even children in richer countries are allowed to eat foods without much value and could conceivably be affecting themselves in the long term.

Post 2

@browncoat - Breast milk is ideal in most cases, but if the mother isn't getting enough of particular nutrients there is no way for her to pass them onto her child. So the effects of malnutrition echo down through the family, although breast-fed babies are often the most protected as long as they are cared for well.

To me the tragedy is when this kind of neglect affects children during the time when they are growing their brains and general capacity for living. Because it means that the entire population has been disadvantaged, whether they are directly effected or not. A few years of hunger creates a generation of people who are physically and mentally less capable and need more care

from others. Which makes it more likely that there will be more hunger in the future and creates a tragic cycle.

This is why I think it makes sense to provide nutritional supplements to children, even if it isn't a long term solution. It prevents a long term problem (aside from being a human rights issue).

Post 1

One of the tragic things that the modern world managed to inflict on poor countries recently was when certain companies decided to convince women that their products were better for babies than breast milk. At least with breast milk the children are almost guaranteed to get a certain amount of needed nutrition, but once mothers are convinced that another product is superior, it becomes much more of an uncertainty.

If you have no idea how malnutrition works and you are told that a particular product is the best thing you can give your child, then you will try to give that to them. And in a lot of cases this meant the children suffered from chronic malnutrition when they didn't have to, because there was a food source available that would have been perfect for their needs.

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