What is malnutrition?

Malnutrition is the condition that develops when the body is deprived of vitamins, minerals and other nutrients it needs to maintain healthy tissues and organ function.

Malnutrition occurs in people who are either undernourished or overnourished. In the United States, more children suffer from malnutrition due to dietary imbalances than due to nutritional deficiencies.

Undernutrition occurs when not enough essential nutrients are consumed or when they are excreted more rapidly than they can be replaced. Overnutrition occurs in people who eat too much, eat the wrong things, don't exercise enough or take too many vitamins or other dietary replacements. Risk of overnutrition is increased by being more than 20 percent overweight or consuming a diet high in fat and salt.

About 1 percent of children in the United States suffer from chronic malnutrition.


Malnourished children may be short for their age, thin or bloated, listless and have weakened immune systems. Nutritional disorders can affect any system in the body and the senses of sight, taste and smell. They may also produce anxiety, changes in mood and other psychiatric symptoms.

Other symptoms include:

  • Pale, thick and dry skin

  • Bruising easily

  • Rashes

  • Changes in skin pigmentation

  • Thin hair that is tightly curled and pulls out easily

  • Achy joints 

  • Bones that are soft and tender

  • Gums that bleed easily

  • Tongue that may be swollen or shriveled and cracked

  • Night blindness

  • Increased sensitivity to light and glare


Overall appearance, behavior, body fat distribution and organ function can alert a physician to the presence of malnutrition. Patients may be asked to record what they eat during a specific period. X-rays can determine bone density and reveal gastrointestinal disturbances, as well as heart and lung damage.

Blood and urine tests are used to measure the patient's levels of vitamins, minerals and waste products.


Patients who cannot or will not eat or who are unable to absorb nutrients taken by mouth may be fed intravenously (parenteral nutrition) or through a tube inserted into the gastrointestinal tract (enteral nutrition). Tube feeding is often used to provide nutrients to patients who have suffered burns or who have inflammatory bowel disease. This procedure involves inserting a thin tube through the nose and carefully guiding it along the throat until it reaches the stomach or small intestine. If long-term tube feeding is necessary, the tube may be placed directly into the stomach or small intestine through an incision in the abdomen.

7 School Lunch Tips for Picky Eaters

Getting your child to eat healthfully is a struggle for many parents, especially if you have a picky eater in your family. Picky eaters often bring back unopened lunch boxes or ignore the healthy foods you’ve packed and go straight for the dessert. Learn helpful tips and tricks for outsmarting your picky eater from a Johns Hopkins pediatric dietitian.

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