Child malnutrition: how to prevent and treat?

The World Health Organization (WHO) indicates child malnutrition as one of the greatest threats to the world health system. This problem is also one of the main causes for the high death rate in children – especially in underdeveloped countries.

In fact, as a sign of tackling this serious disorder, we have the World Day to Combat Child Malnutrition on the 29th of August. A way to symbolize the need to combat this reality, preserving the health and life of thousands of children.

Following, you can better understand what characterizes this disorder, what it can cause to health and how treatment works for a malnourished child:

What is child malnutrition and what are its causes?

Malnutrition is characterized by a lack of nutrients in the body, which can be specific (such as iron or zinc) or nonspecific – when there is a lack of calories, for example. Among its causes is a poor diet in the nutritional sense, which does not meet the needs of the child.

However, other factors can also cause or favor malnutrition, such as:

  • Mental health problems – children can also suffer from conditions such as bulimia or anorexia nervosa, which prevent them from maintaining an adequate eating routine. Thus, there is a lack of nutrients and malnutrition;
  • Disorders of the gastrointestinal system – in some cases malabsorption of nutrients may occur. That is, even if the child is eating properly, the body does not absorb nutrients properly. This may be associated with disorders such as Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis and celiac disease (gluten intolerance);
  • Cancer – Just as problems in the intestinal tract can impair the absorption of nutrients, some diseases can also cause this symptom. This is the case of cancer, which in many cases affects the patient’s nutritional level and can lead to malnutrition;
  • Diabetes – this is a disease that requires, on the part of the patient, constant attention to nutritional care. This, since by itself it already causes changes in the body, in addition to causing symptoms such as loss of appetite.

Another issue that is also involved in child malnutrition is social and economic factors. The highest rates of this problem are reported in underdeveloped and developing countries, so that the scarcity of food and lack of government aid is a reality – which does not make it possible to meet the basic needs of children.

What are the types of child malnutrition?

The types of child malnutrition are the same that can affect adults, since they are linked to the type of nutritional deficiency. Thus, the 3 types are: Marasmus, Kwashiorkor and Marasmo-Kwashiorkor. Better understand what each of them means:

  • Marasmus – is characterized by the lack of glucose due to the absence of lipids and carbohydrates, so that the child has little or no body fat (energy source);
  • Kwashiorkor – is characterized by the absence of proteins and vitamins in the body. One of the main symptoms is the swelling it generates in the child’s abdominal region;
  • Marasmus-Kwashiorkor – in this case, it is a condition that lacks proteins and vitamins, as well as energy sources (carbohydrates and lipids). Being a junction of the two previous conditions (Marasmus and Kwashiorkor).

In addition, malnutrition can be classified as primary : when it is caused exclusively by lack of nutrient intake in the diet. Or, secondary , when an external factor influences this disorder – such as pre-existing diseases, for example.

Is dwarfism a type of child malnutrition?

Stunting is not considered a type of child malnutrition. However, this nomenclature is used by the WHO (World Health Organization) in the anthropometric classification in cases of malnutrition.

The anthropometric classification is that which is characterized by the measurements of body dimensions (weight, height, circumferences and skin folds). It serves as a reference for health professionals to have this growth parameter.

That is, if a child is showing signs of malnutrition, the doctor can compare his / her body measurements with the classification reference values. Thus, it will be possible to analyze whether she is within what would be considered healthy for her age group.

It should be noted that, in this case, the nomenclature “stunting” (severe or moderate) indicates that the child has growth problems due to malnutrition .

What diseases can malnutrition cause in children?

The nutritional basis is a factor that is related, in general, with the functioning of the organism as a whole. Thus, cases of malnutrition can cause several other complications to the child’s health – in addition to the common symptoms of this condition.

Among the diseases that can be caused in children who suffer from this disorder are:

  • Organ failure – when a particular organ loses or ceases to perform its function as it should. Malnutrition usually affects the liver, kidneys and heart;
  • Anemia;
  • Gastroenteritis (irritation and inflammation of the digestive tract);
  • Urinary infection;
  • Pneumonia;
  • Bone changes (such as osteoporosis, for example);
  • Depression;
  • Infections (due to low immunity).

Thus, in addition to the symptoms that malnutrition causes in children, which directly affect their quality of life, other complications may also occur. Which makes it clear why this condition leads to the death of so many children annually in the world.

What does it mean to say that a child is malnourished?

Popularly, people often make the mistake of saying that a child is malnourished simply by being thin. But, as mentioned, malnutrition is a condition that is characterized by a nutritional deficiency (be it vitamins or an energy deficit).

So, it is only possible to say that a child is malnourished when he shows such deficiencies in his nutrition. When this happens, medical monitoring is necessary.

Therefore, although the difficulty in gaining weight is one of the symptoms of malnutrition, this factor can also be associated with other issues. The fact that a child is thin is not a synonym for disease – this may be related to their biotype, for example.

How to diagnose child malnutrition? What are the symptoms?

The diagnosis of child malnutrition must be made by a doctor, which includes a combination of clinical analysis in the office and results of blood, urine and stool tests.

Still, some symptoms of this condition can favor the family and medical diagnosis:

  • Difficulty gaining weight;
  • Lack of strength and energy;
  • Difficulty concentrating;
  • Abdominal swelling;
  • Changes in skin pigmentation and / or pallor;
  • Growth problems;
  • Low immunity;
  • Very low body temperature;
  • Dry and rough skin;
  • Dry, rough or excessively thinning hair;
  • Dark circles.

Therefore, from the onset of these symptoms, it is essential to seek medical help in order to avoid further complications to the child’s health. Therefore, it is from the diagnosis that it will be possible to prescribe the appropriate treatment.

Then, better understand what these treatments are and their proper indications:

What are the treatments?

Treatment for child malnutrition can vary depending on the severity of the problem and its cause, which can be associated with dietary issues or other illnesses. However, in both cases, it is always essential that a nutritionist participate in the process.

In general, the following treatments may be indicated by the medical team:

  • Food reeducation – in this case, the calorie intake is gradually increased and the nutrients in the child’s body are replenished through food;
  • Hospital treatment – necessary in severe cases, in which the child is unable to feed through the mouth or has problems with absorption. In this case, it is common to use the nasogastric tube (going from the nose to the stomach), which takes the nutrients in liquid form to the body;
  • Supplementation – normally, supplements are indicated only as a complement and not as a single treatment. So, the administration of vitamins or minerals that the child is lacking can be prescribed;
  • Medicines – can be prescribed to increase appetite or, also, hormones for growth (as in cases of dwarfism) and muscle mass gain.

In addition, in some cases, it may be necessary for the child to undergo treatment for their mental health in order to favor their quality of life. This, since the onset of diseases such as depression is common in cases of malnutrition.

It is also worth noting that, when this problem is caused by other diseases, the treatment of such pathologies must be correctly performed.

What should a malnourished child eat?

Who should determine the diet of the malnourished child is a professional specialized in nutrition, since he / she will understand the individual needs of the child. The new dietary routine needs to be rich in vitamins , minerals , lipids and protein .

This guidance is due to the fact that it is the absence of these nutrients that usually causes malnutrition. Therefore, it should be consumed: fruits, vegetables, grains ( beans , flaxseed, rice), sources of good fat (olive oil, butter, avocado), lean meats, etc.

As mentioned, malnutrition is not simply related to thinness. So, the focus is not on weight gain, but on meeting nutritional deficiencies.

Thus, excessive consumption of sugars and fats in the diet is not indicated.

It is appropriate to follow the recommendations of the nutritionist, as they will be made based on the individual needs of the child. Thereafter, the treatment can be successful.

What happens if child malnutrition is not treated?

When malnutrition is at an early stage and is not treated as soon as the first symptoms appear, the tendency is for the problem to get worse.

As it progresses, this disorder can cause serious damage to child development in general – such as, for example, impairing motor, social or cognitive training.

Growth deficiencies can also occur, in addition to the increased risk of other diseases. In this case, conditions such as organ failure and chronic diseases (such as diabetes and hypertension) are included, which impacts the child’s life expectancy.

In addition, the worsening of the disorder can lead to severe cases of malnutrition, in which the intervention of hospital treatment is necessary. However, in certain places, children may not have access to this therapy, or medical care may not be successful.

When this occurs, unfortunately, malnutrition can result in the child’s death . This is linked to factors such as, for example, organ failure (such as the heart).

How to prevent?

Basically, the prevention of malnutrition is related to food care, which must occur even before the child is born, as intrauterine malnutrition can occur. That is, when the fetus is not receiving (from the mother) the necessary nutrients.

At birth, there is a need for breastfeeding, which is essential to nourish babies.

Therefore, small children should have a balanced diet according to their stage of development. When bigger, you should bet on foods and drinks that are a source of vitamins, minerals and energy to the body. The guardians must also ensure that the child has at least 3 meals a day, according to pediatric guidance.

Maintaining hydration is also important, so drinking water should be part of the routine. In addition to care such as low consumption of sodium, fat and sugar.

Finally, it is essential that the child has periodic monitoring with the pediatrician, in order to guarantee the integrity of his health and enable the early diagnosis of diseases.


Child malnutrition is a serious health complication and, unfortunately, is responsible for ⅓ of child deaths every year. This reinforces the need to pay attention to the symptoms, as well as taking care of the eating habits and health of the little ones.

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