Malnutrition symptoms and treatment options

It’s no secret that your body needs a well-balanced diet with a variety of nutrients to function properly, including the right amount of protein, carbohydrates, vitamins, and minerals.

Yet malnutrition remains prevalent among millions of Americans for reasons that include food insecurity, poor nutritional education, busy lifestyles, chronic disease, and mental illness.

A lack — or overabundance — of even a single nutrient can have serious consequences for your health. Malnutrition isn’t always caused by diet alone, though — it could be a side effect of a life-threatening disease or infection.

If you’re experiencing symptoms of malnutrition, talk to your health care provider about testing, treatment, and nutritional guidance.

What Is Malnutrition?

Malnutrition can develop when your body isn’t absorbing enough vitamins, minerals, and other vital nutrients to support healthy tissues and functional organs. It also can occur in people who consume a diet high in fat and salt, take too many replacement vitamins, or live a sedentary lifestyle.

Malnutrition includes both undernutrition and overnutrition, and may signal an imbalance in macronutrients, such as proteins, fats, or carbohydrates, or improper absorption of micronutrients, such as vitamins and minerals.

Even people who maintain a healthy diet and exercise regimen may suffer from micronutrient deficiencies. Talk to a provider if you have questions about nutrition, and be sure to ask for guidance before taking dietary supplements.

Types of malnutrition

  • Undernutrition: If your body is having trouble absorbing nutrients from your food, or you’re not eating a proper diet, you may suffer from nutrition deficiency, or undernutrition. A lack of protein and carbohydrates, for example, can impair your energy levels, organ function, and cellular growth. People suffering from undernutrition may experience a breakdown in body muscle and fat, but symptoms can be less apparent.
  • Overnutrition: When nutrients such as fats and carbohydrates are consumed at significantly higher levels than your body needs, it can lead to obesity and other health complications — especially if you don’t exercise regularly. Obesity is linked to a higher risk of diabetes, heart disease, and certain cancers. Relying too heavily on dietary supplements also may pose health risks if not used under the supervision of a health professional.

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Causes of Malnutrition

  • Diet: Malnutrition often is caused by consuming too little or too much of certain nutrients, which may be related to food insecurity, lack of nutritional education, or a poor diet and/or sedentary lifestyle. As many as 13.8 million U.S. households were food insecure at some point during 2020, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, lacking consistent access to enough food for an active, healthy life. Diets high in salt, unsaturated fat, and processed sugar and low in protein and vitamins can lead to malnutrition.
  • Chronic disease: Conditions requiring long-term care, such as liver disease, cancer, HIV/AIDS, and inflammatory bowel disease, all can lead to malnutrition. People with cancer, for example, often lose their appetite in response to treatments, and people with inflammatory bowel diseases like Crohn’s disease may have trouble properly absorbing nutrients. Other causes of malnutrition include eating disorders and hyperthyroidism.
  • Acute disease or injury: People experiencing severe burns, infections, trauma, or injury may experience malnutrition during recovery in response to treatment, lifestyle changes, or related mental health issues.

Risk Factors

Anyone can suffer from malnutrition, but some people are at greater risk. They include people who have:

  • Limited financial resources who lack access to healthy, affordable food and/or dietary counseling.
  • Chronic illness or medical conditions that make eating and digesting difficult, or require long-term intravenous feeding.
  • Eating disorders, such as anorexia, bulimia, or binge eating disorder.
  • Chronic stress, anxiety, depression, or other mental health conditions that discourage eating.
  • Sedentary lifestyles, such as those with desk jobs, little time to exercise, and other social deterrents.
  • A higher calorie requirement than usual, such when pregnant or breastfeeding.

Symptoms of Malnutrition

General signs of undernutrition may include:

  • Low body weight, diminished fat and muscle, or swelling in the belly and face.
  • Fatigue, low energy, irritability, or trouble focusing.
  • Dry skin, brittle hair, and/or hair loss.
  • Osteopenia or osteoporosis.
  • Low body temperature or trouble staying warm.
  • Frequent illness and/or infections.
  • Low heart rate or low blood pressure.
  • Constipation, diarrhea, or abdominal pain.
  • Menstrual cycle changes.

General signs of overnutrition may include:

  • Obesity.
  • High blood pressure or insulin resistance.
  • Heart disease.

You should contact your medical provider if you:

  • Have unintentionally lost or gained weight in a short period of time.
  • Have experienced dramatic changes in your menstrual cycle.
  • Are experiencing signs of anemia, including weakness, faintness, and fatigue.
  • Believe you’re struggling with an eating disorder.
  • Are showing common signs of undernutrition or overnutrition.

What Happens to the Body During Malnutrition?

A body that doesn’t receive enough carbohydrates, fat, or protein to sustain itself will eventually begin breaking down tissues and reducing internal functions to stay alive.

First, it will deplete fat stores and then move to muscle, skin, hair, and nails. The immune system is among the first processes to suffer, leading to a higher risk of infection and illness and longer recovery times. Injuries may take longer to heal, and, as the malnourishment progresses, your heart rate, blood pressure, and body temperature will decline.

People with moderate to severe malnutrition may feel weak and eventually lose their appetite as their digestive system atrophies. Heart palpitations, lightheadedness, and chest pain may indicate that a severely malnourished person has developed cardiac complications and, without immediate treatment, is at risk of death.

People experiencing overnutrition may face obesity, increasing their risk of serious health conditions, including cardiovascular disease, hypertension, cancer, and type-2 diabetes.

How Is Malnutrition Diagnosed and Treated?

A medical specialist will first conduct a physical observation, measure your body mass index (BMI), and ask about your diet, health conditions, and family history. Your doctor may take a blood sample to identify particular nutrient imbalances.

Depending on the severity of your malnutrition, undernutrition may be treated with nutritional supplements and a customized diet to replenish and restore the nutrients your body is missing. For those with severe undernutrition, your doctor may closely monitor you while working toward a refeeding plan. Any underlying medical or mental health conditions will be addressed during this process.

Generally, overnutrition is treated with weight loss, diet, and lifestyle changes. This may include a customized diet plan, exercise regimen, medication, or medical procedures.

Specialists at UPMC Nutrition Services offer assistance with diet and nutrition counseling, medical nutrition therapy, and recommendations for people coping with disease-related malnutrition. For more information, visit our website.

About UPMC Nutrition Services

Nutrition is vital for maintaining your overall health. UPMC Nutrition Services offers comprehensive diet and nutrition counseling on a variety of topics, including eating disorders, weight management, and heart disease. Our team provides medical nutrition therapy for chronic conditions such as celiac disease, cancer, and diabetes. UPMC’s network of registered dietitians is available to help guide all patients toward a healthier life.