What is Under-Nutrition?

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  • Written By: Debra Durkee
  • Edited By: Daniel Lindley
  • Last Modified Date: 13 September 2019
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Under-nutrition is the condition that develops in an individual as a result of continuously failing to get enough of the nutrients the body needs to stay healthy and functioning. Most commonly thought of as impacting children in underdeveloped countries, under-nutrition can cause permanent damage to the body and result in stunted growth and a compromised immune system, along with problems throughout the rest of the body's systems. It is also one of the conditions that falls under the category of malnutrition.

Along with not getting enough food, an individual who is under-nourished does not get enough of the vitamins and nutrients required to keep the body functioning. The condition has been shown to go hand in hand with poverty and consequently occurs in developed and underdeveloped countries to different degrees. The condition can begin to develop in infancy in children fed solely on breast milk. Lacking in vitamins such as D and K, a diet solely consisting of breast milk can severely impact a child's bone strength and skeletal structure.

Under-nutrition has visible effects, such as a low weight and an unhealthy appearance. It also has unseen effects on the various systems of the body. Muscles, the heart, and lungs can begin to deteriorate. This can develop into fatigue, difficulty breathing, and when the body stops being able to produce enough healthy blood cells, it can result in the development of anemia.


An incomplete diet has an impact on the brain as well as the body. An individual suffering from under-nutrition can have trouble concentrating, suffer from a lack of interest in surroundings, and have trouble retaining new information as well as remembering old. Iodine is one of the key nutrients in brain function and development; without it, an individual can develop a compromised thyroid, a growth imbalance, and difficulties performing tasks at school or work.

The immune system is often highly compromised by under-nutrition. The individual may be more susceptible to viral infections and colds, and less likely to be able to fight off a bacterial infection. He or she may be more likely to develop severe diarrhea, dehydration, or pneumonia, leading to death.

In adult women who suffer from under-nutrition, the condition can severely impact the life of an unborn baby. If it does not prove deadly, a baby born to an undernourished mother has a higher chance of birth defects, low birth weight, and suffering from developmental disabilities. Before birth, the child relies on the mother's diet to supply vitamins and nutrients; if good diet is lacking, mother and child can suffer irreversible damage.


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Post 5

It's not just the poor and infants that are at risk for under-nutrition. The elderly are under risk too for several reasons.

I visited a nursing home recently and talked to the manager there who said that many of the new residents of the home had arrived with malnutrition and under-nutrition.

I asked him why and he said that because they were living alone and were over the age of 70, they couldn't cook for themselves. Many elderly are dealing with health problems and some disabilities. It's not easy for them to get around the house, go shopping for groceries and make themselves a meal all on their own.

So even though they have regular income, they still don't get enough nutrition. Services that deliver food home helps but not every elderly can afford that either.

Post 4

@ElizaBennett-- If the mother has a nutritious diet, breast milk should technically be enough for the baby for the first six months. But then it becomes necessary to add formula or baby food to the diet because breast milk is not enough.

Of course, if the mother doesn't have a good diet or has deficiencies herself, it will cause malnutrition in the baby and additional nutrition will be needed from the beginning.

As for vitamin D, I've never heard that babies should not be in the sun. When I was a baby, my mom said she used to take me out for 5-10 minutes every day and I never had a vitamin D deficiency. So I think this amount is safe and enough for babies to get vitamin D.

Post 3

@SailorJerry-- I agree with you. Even though the US might be one of the most developed any wealthy nations worldwide, we still have our share of poverty and nutrition problems.

Especially in poverty-stricken areas in large cities, malnutrition and under-nutrition exists. I live in DC and I know that it's an issue in some parts of the city.

The problem is not just lack of money but also lack of access to food. In many of these poor areas, people don't even have access to supermarkets which carry fresh foods. They end up shopping mainly in convenience stores which basically just offers junk food and maybe a few necessities like milk and bread.

But that's not enough for a healthy diet! I bet that at least half the population of the poor areas in DC are dealing with malnutrition and under-nutrition right now.

Post 2

@ElizaBennett - Thank you for that nice explanation of vitamins K and D. My wife is due soon with our first baby and we would both like for her to breastfeed, but we were confused by different things we read. It sounds, though, like most deficiencies in a breastfed baby's diet are best remedied by adjusting the mother's diet.

While hunger and malnutrition are obviously most common in the developing world, I think it's important to realize that some of the diseases of malnutrition can be found right here in the US - and even in people who are overweight or obese. If you subsist on cheap meats and carbs, you just won't be getting the nutrients you need for your own health, much less to nourish an unborn child. I think OB/GYNs and midwives should routinely ask expectant moms about their diets!

Post 1

You often hear that breast milk is lacking in vitamin D, but I feel like that's misleading. The truth is that humans did not evolve to get vitamin D from breast milk, but rather from the sun. Since we now feel that it is best for babies not to get much sun, most pediatricians do recommend that exclusively breastfed babies receive a vitamin D supplement. Some breastfeeding advocates feel that isn't necessary, so I would encourage all breastfeeding moms to research this further on their own and discuss with their pediatrician.

Vitamin K deficiency can be very serious. Babies are born with very low supplies of it whether or not they are exclusively breastfed. Most babies born in the developed world receive a vitamin K shot within minutes of birth to prevent hemorrhagic disease of the newborn, but neither breastfed nor formula-fed babies will need other supplementation if mom is well-nourished.

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