Who Is at Risk for Malnutrition?
All over the world, people who are poor or who live in poverty-stricken areas are at the greatest risk for hunger and malnutrition. In poor countries, wars and natural disasters such as droughts and earthquakes also can contribute to hunger and malnutrition by disrupting normal food production and distribution.
In the United States, food manufacturers fortify some common foods with vitamins and minerals to prevent certain nutritional deficiencies. For example, the addition of iodine to salt helps prevent some thyroid gland problems (such as goiter), folic acid added to foods can help prevent certain birth defects, and added iron can help prevent iron-deficiency anemia.
Malnutrition affects people of every age, although infants, children, and adolescents may suffer the most because many nutrients are critical for normal growth and development. Older people may develop malnutrition because aging, illness, and other factors can lead to a poor appetite, so they may not eat enough.
Alcohol can interfere with nutrient absorption, so alcoholics might not benefit from the vitamins and minerals they consume. People who abuse drugs or alcohol can be malnourished or underweight if they don't eat properly.
Children and teens on special diets — such as vegetarians — need to eat balanced meals and a variety of foods to get the right nutrients. Vegetarians and vegans, for example, should make sure they get enough protein and vitamins like B12.
Symptoms and Effects of Malnutrition
Malnutrition harms both the body and the mind. The more malnourished someone is — in other words, the more nutrients that are missing — the more likely he or she is to have problems.
The signs and symptoms of malnutrition depend on which nutritional deficiencies a person has, although they can include:
- fatigue and low energy
- poor immune function (which can hamper the body's ability to fight off infections)
- dry, scaly skin
- swollen and bleeding gums
- decaying teeth
- slowed reaction times and trouble paying attention
- poor growth
- muscle weakness
- bloated stomach
- osteoporosis, or fragile bones that break easily
- problems with organ function
- problems learning
If a pregnant woman is malnourished, her child may weigh less at birth and have a lower chance of survival.
Vitamin A deficiency from malnutrition is the chief cause of preventable blindness in the developing world, and kids with severe vitamin A deficiency have a greater chance of getting sick or dying from infections such as diarrhea or measles.
Iodine deficiency can cause mental retardation and delayed development. Iron deficiency in infancy can delay development and make older kids less active and less able to concentrate. Teens who are malnourished often have trouble keeping up in school.
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