Malnutrition | Digestive Health | Loyola Medicine


Overview and Facts about Malnutrition

Malnutrition occurs when your body doesn’t receive enough nutrients from the food you eat. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), malnutrition affects the digestive health of over 462 million people across the world and developmentally stunts the growth of 159 million children.

A healthy diet should consist of a variety of nutrients including proteins, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins and minerals. In individuals where even one of these nutrients is missing, it can lead to malnutrition and the various complications the condition can cause.

Symptoms and Signs of Malnutrition

The signs and symptoms of malnutrition can manifest in a variety of ways. Some of the most common include:

  • Always feeling cold
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Depression
  • Fatigue and tiredness
  • Irritability
  • Lack of interest in food and drinks
  • Loss of muscle mass
  • Poor immune system
  • Reduced sex drive​
  • Taking longer to heal

When malnutrition becomes severe, it has an even greater impact on the body and you may notice that breathing becomes more difficult, the skin looks pale and cold, and the face appears hollow and sunken. Malnutrition even impacts the health of your hair, making it dry and brittle, and potentially resulting in hair loss.

Causes and Risk Factors of Malnutrition

The main cause of malnutrition results from a low intake of foods. This is often the case in third world countries, but can also occur with certain illnesses like dysphagia, where swallowing becomes difficult.

There are digestive health disorders and stomach conditions that can impact how the body absorbs nutrients, leading to a lack of necessary vitamins and minerals.

Alcoholics often suffer from malnutrition, as do those with certain eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia, or mental health conditions like dementia and schizophrenia. The elderly and those with mobility problems have an increased risk of malnutrition, partially because they live alone and may find it difficult to prepare meals.

Tests and Diagnosis of Malnutrition

Doctors have several ways to test for and diagnose malnutrition and the most common is the Malnutrition Universal Screening Tool (MUST). This questionnaire identifies adults who are at risk for malnutrition and helps create a treatment plan. MUST involves measuring your height, weight and body mass index (BMI) and factoring in any unexplained weight loss and other risk factors.

Your doctor may also require lab testing to determine the level of certain nutrients in your bloodstream. These tests can help identify any nutritional deficiencies before they become problematic.

Treatment and Care for Malnutrition

Your doctor determines the best course of action based on the severity of your malnutrition and the types of symptoms you’re experiencing. They may recommend a certain number of calories to eat each day or suggest taking nutritional supplements.

If malnutrition starts impacting other bodily functions, your doctor may opt for nutritional supplements given through an IV to help the body absorb them faster and more effectively. In severe cases, a feeding tube may be used to ensure you get the nutrients your body needs to survive.