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You are here : 3-RX.com > Medical Encyclopedia > Diet and Nutrition > Malnutrition
      Category : Health Centers > Food, Nutrition, and Metabolism


Alternate Names : Protein-Energy Malnutrition (PEM), Protein-Calorie Malnutrition (PCM)

Malnutrition is an imbalance or deficiency of nutrients. This can come from not eating enough healthy foods or by using up too many nutrients through activities. Malnutrition can be identified by using body weight, body fat, protein stores and laboratory values.


Poor nutrition leads to poor health. The three leading causes of malnutrition are:

  • poverty and lack of food
  • ignorance or indifference
  • disease or substance abuse, such as alcoholism
  • There are different types of malnutrition. Malnutrition is not only found in poor countries. People in rich countries, like the United States, can have malnutrition, too.

    The most common type of malnutrition occurs when the body does not get enough protein. This condition is called kwashiorkor. Not getting enough protein affects how children grow and develop. In some countries, just-weaned children are fed watery cereal. This diet provides enough calories but not enough protein. This type of malnutrition can be life threatening because protein helps to build and maintain muscle. Without protein in the diet, muscles such as the heart and respiratory system weaken.

    Another type of malnutrition is the deprivation of food. This leads to marasmus. This diet does not have enough protein, fat, carbohydrates, calories and other important nutrients. Children on this diet form the classic picture of malnutrition. They are skin and bones. This is a serious condition. The body begins to break down muscle to get protein and it draws on all its stored fat and carbohydrates. Once the body goes through all of its stored energy, death is the result. The body can survive for a month or two, as long as it has water. The ability to fight infection is low. The metabolism slows down to save calories. This type of malnutrition is common among children aged 6 to 18 months in overpopulated city slums worldwide.

    Malnutrition from not enough calories and nutrients is common among lower-income groups in all countries.

    There are many programs in the United States to help people get healthy foods. These include:

  • The Food Stamp Program
  • The National School Lunch Program
  • The WIC-Special Supplemental Food Program for Women, Infants, and Children
  • The Child Care Food Program
  • The Federal Nutrition Program for Older Americans (Title III)
  • More information on these programs is available. Most programs or agencies are listed in the 'government' section of the phone book.

    In other countries, organizations such as the Red Cross can be contacted in regard to populations facing malnutrition.

    Author: Clare Armstrong, MS, RD
    Reviewer: Kimberly A. Tessmer, RD, LD
    Date Reviewed: 04/02/01

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