By Eunice Wambui
Malnutrition is a condition that results from eating a diet without enough nutrients or taking a diet that contains too much nutrients hence causing health problems. It may involve carbohydrates, protein,vitamins or minerals.
Its important to note that not enough nutrients is referred to as undernutrition or undernourishment while too much of nutrients is known as overnutrition. Malnutrition is often used specifically to refer to undernutrition where there are not enough carbohydrates, protein or micronutrients.
World Health Organization considers malnutrition the largest contributor to child mortality globally present in 45% of all cases. Underweight births and inter-uterine growth restrictions are responsible for about 2.2 million child deaths annually in the world. Deficiencies in vitamin A or zinc cause 1 million deaths each year.
WHO also adds that malnutrition during childhood usually results in worse health and low educational achievements during adulthood. Malnourished children tend to become adults who have smaller babies.
In countries like Kenya, the burden of poor nutrition manifests itself in form of wasting, stunting, micronutrient deficiencies, obesity and non-communicable diseases such as diabetes and heart conditions.
Stunting i.e low height for age, also referred to as chronic malnutrition is of particular concern for Eastern and Southern Africa countries. 25 million or 40 percent of children under five years of age are suffering from it.
In addition, 18 per cent of under-fives are underweight meaning that they weigh too little for their age while 7 percent are suffering from acute malnutrition also called wasting, which means that they rapidly lose weight because of illness or lack of food.
Signs and symptoms of Malnutrition include:
- Loss of fat i.e. adipose tissue
- Breathing difficulties which poses a higher risk of respiratory failure
- Higher risks of hypothermia i.e abnormally low body temperature
- Weakening of the immune system thereby increasing the risk of infections
- Longer healing times for wounds
- Longer recovery from infections or illnesses
In more severe cases:
- The skin may become thin, dry, inelastic, pale and cold
- Fat in the face is lost, the cheeks look hollow and eyes sunken
- Hair becomes dry and sparse, falls out easily
- Severe malnutrition may lead to unresponsiveness
- If carbohydrate deficiency continues for long there may be heart, liver and respiratory failure
- Total starvation is fatal within 8 to 12 weeks
Children who are severely malnourished typically experience slow behavioral development, mental retardation may even occur. Even after treatment, undernutrition may have long-term effects in children with impairments in mental function and digestive problems persisting in some cases for the rest of their lives.
If malnutrition occurs during pregnancy or before two years of age it may result in permanent problems in physical and mental development.
Extreme starvation may have symptoms that include short height, thin body, very poor energy levels, swollen legs and abdomen. The symptoms of micronutrient deficiencies depend on the micronutrient that is lacking.
There are many factors contributing to malnutrition but one of the most significant is the low rate of exclusive breastfeeding from birth to six months of a child’s life.
Lack of adequate breastfeeding causes malnutrition in infants and children and is associated with the deaths of an estimated one million children annually.
It is also as a result of inadequate eating of high quality food which is associated with high levels of poverty especially in developing countries. A majority of these poor people derive too much of their diet from a single source since that is what they have access to.