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Hunger and Malnutrition

If you're raising a picky eater, you might worry that your child isn't getting the nutrients necessary for proper growth and development.

But you probably don't need to worry unless your doctor tells you that your child isn't growing at the normal rate for that age range. Over time, most finicky eaters do get enough calories and nutrients to meet their needs.

What Are Hunger and Malnutrition?

Everyone feels hungry at times. Hunger is the body's signal that it needs food. Once we've eaten enough food to satisfy our bodies' needs, hunger goes away until our stomachs are empty again.

Malnutrition is not the same thing as hunger, although they often go together. People who are chronically malnourished lack the nutrients needed for proper health and development. Someone can be malnourished for a long or short period of time, and the condition may be mild or severe. People who are malnourished are more likely to get sick and, in severe cases, might even die.

According to the UN World Food Programme, 925 million people in the world do not have enough to eat. That's more than the entire population of the United States, Canada, and the European Union.

Chronic hunger and malnutrition can cause significant health problems. People who go hungry all the time are likely to be underweight, weighing significantly less than an average person of their size. If malnourished as a child, their growth may also be stunted, making them much shorter than average. In developing countries, 1 out of 4 children younger than age 5 are underweight.

Causes of Hunger and Malnutrition

People who don't get enough food often experience hunger, and over the long term this can lead to malnutrition. But someone can become malnourished for reasons that have nothing to do with hunger. Even people who have plenty to eat may be malnourished if they don't eat foods that provide the right nutrients, vitamins, and minerals.

Some diseases and conditions prevent people from digesting or absorbing their food properly. For example:

  • Someone with celiac disease has intestinal problems that are triggered by a protein called gluten, which is found in wheat, rye, and barley.
  • Kids with cystic fibrosis have trouble absorbing nutrients because the disease affects the pancreas, an organ that normally produces enzymes necessary for digestion.

Someone who doesn't get enough of one specific nutrient has a nutritional deficiency, a form of malnutrition (although it doesn't necessarily mean the person will become seriously ill). The most common nutritional deficiency in the world is iron deficiency, which can lead to anemia. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that as many 2 billion people worldwide don't get enough nutrients like iron, vitamin A, and zinc in their diets.

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