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Children and Hunger and Malnutrition 
by Mary M. Alward September 30, 2005

Does your child live to eat hot dogs and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches? Do you worry about him not getting the proper nutrients so he will grow and develop in a healthy manner? Chances are he will not suffer from malnutrition if you provide him with healthy fruits and snacks that will meet his nutritional needs.

Have you ever wondered how much food your child needs to stay healthy? Of course you don’t want him to be hungry, nor do you want him to be overweight. You definitely want to provide a good balance so he will grow at a normal rate of speed. However, if you have a picky eater on your hands, you may worry about the amount of nutrients that he is ingesting and if he is getting all that he needs in order to develop and grow both mentally and physically. Maybe you’re worried that your child could suffer the effects of malnutrition because he eats so little. Is this possible when nutritious food is offered on a daily basis?

Hunger and Malnutrition

We all feel hungry at times. Hunger is the body’s way of letting us know that it needs energy. Once that need is met by the ingestion of food, the hunger subsides until the body once again needs to be re-energized.

Malnutrition is completely different, although it often goes hand in hand with hunger. Children will suffer the effects of malnutrition if they don’t have the proper nutrients for health, growth and development. Children can suffer mild to severe malnutrition over varying lengths of time, either long or short term. This causes them to have a weak immune system and they will often suffer from a variety of illnesses. If malnutrition is very severe, it can cause death.

There are millions of people world wide who don’t have access to sufficient food to ward off malnutrition. According to the World Health Organization, one in every seven people world wide suffers from hunger; 153 million of those people are children.

Chronic Hunger and Malnutrition

Chronic hunger and malnutrition cause a wide range of health problems. Children who are constantly hungry for long periods of time will be underweight and their growth may be stunted. Being underweight has been cited by the World Health Organization as one of the top ten health risks world wide. 27% of children under five years of age are underweight and the majority of those children are between the ages of six month and two years.

Causes of Hunger and Malnutrition

Humans who cannot access food and who experience hunger on an ongoing basis will eventually suffer from malnutrition. Even when food is readily accessible, humans can suffer from malnutrition if they don’t ingest the proper amounts of minerals, nutrients and vitamins. Diseases that prevent humans from digesting food properly can also lead to malnutrition. Some examples are celiac disease, which is an intestinal problem caused by gluten. Children who suffer from cystic fibrosis are also at risk. Cystic fibrosis affects the pancreas, which aids in absorption of proper nutrients.

Lactose intolerance prevents the proper digestion of milk and dairy products. This increases the chance of malnutrition because these products provide 75% of the calcium that is needed by the body.

If a child, or even an adult for that matter, is lacking in necessary nutrients, he will not necessarily become ill. The main nutrient that the body needs to fight off illness and disease is iron and more than 80% of the population in the world suffers from iron deficiency. That is a total of approximately five billion people. Foods that provide the body with iron include bread, cereal, egg yolks, fortified bread and flour and vegetables such as asparagus, beets, carrots and spinach.

Those at Risk

Children, as well as adults anywhere in the world who live in poverty are at risk for malnutrition. Third World countries, countries at war and natural disasters such as drought, earthquakes, floods and hurricanes can contribute to hunger that causes malnutrition because the food chain is disrupted.

Food manufacturers in North America often fortify foods with minerals and vitamins that prevent malnutrition. Iodine is added to salt to help prevent thyroid problems. Folic acid is added to prevent some types of birth defects and iron helps to prevent a wide range of maladies, including anemia.

Malnutrition can, and does, affect people of all ages, but is most common in children, adolescents and teens under the age of sixteen because nutrients are essential for development and growth. Elderly people and substance abusers are also at risk.

Children and adolescents who are vegetarians are also at high risk for malnutrition. It’s imperative that they eat a well-balanced diet and a wide variety of foods to assure their bodies receive the proper nutrients. It is wise for you to give children and adolescents in this category vitamins and supplements to ensure proper nutrition. They should also include a protein supplement in their diet.

Malnutrition: Signs and Symptoms

Malnutrition affects and harms both the physical body and the mental psyche. The more malnourished the body is, the more likely that children will experience physical and mental problems. If the body is only mildly malnourished, there may be no signs or symptoms visible to those around these children. Signs and symptoms that might indicate that a child is suffering from malnutrition include:

  • Dizziness and poor balance.

  • Chronic fatigue or lack of energy.

  • Dry, scaly or flaking skin.

  • A low immune system which cannot fight off infections and illness.

  • Badly decayed teeth.

  • Swollen and/or bleeding gums.

  • Loss of weight or being underweight.

  • Slowed reflexes.

  • Inattentiveness or trouble remembering.

  • Stinted growth.

  • Bloated stomach if malnutrition is severe.

  • Muscle weakness and trembling.

  • Osteoporosis, which causes bones to break easily.

  • Lack of organ function, including kidney shutdown.

  • Swollen and/or painful joints.

Vitamin and Mineral Deficiency

Those who lack Vitamin A can lose much or all of their vision. Vitamin A deficiency is the leading cause of blindness in children that live in Third World countries. These children have a high risk of illness and can easily die from childhood diseases such as measles, mumps and chickenpox. Diarrhea can also be fatal.

Iodine deficiency is a form of malnutrition. It can cause delayed development, autism and mental retardation. Lack of iron causes children to be lethargic and inattentive. Children and teens who suffer from malnutrition will experience decreasing academic grades.


Many of the effects of malnutrition can be reversed if the child has a mild case that is diagnosed early. If your child is a picky eater and you suspect he may be lacking nutrition, make an appointment with his pediatrician. She will examine him and look for signs of malnutrition. She may ask you what foods he likes and how much he eats on a daily basis. She may also ask him to step on the scales and measure his height in order to check his body mass. This will tell her if your child’s body mass is in a healthy range. She may also order a series of blood tests so she can use the results to give a proper diagnosis. CT scans and x-rays can also assist in determining if bones or organs are showing signs of malnutrition.

Treatment of malnutrition depends largely on what is causing it. Your child’s pediatrician may recommend he see a dietician who can recommend changes to his diet and the amount of food that he ingests.

Picky Eaters

If your child lives to exist on hot dogs or peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, you may be worried about his nutritional needs and if he may suffer from mild malnutrition. This is not likely the case unless he isn’t growing at a normal rate for his age. Few children in North America suffer from severe malnutrition like the cases seen in underdeveloped countries. As long as nutritional food is offered and available, your picky eater will ingest enough food to meet his nutritional needs. Be sure to offer a wide variety of healthy fruits and snacks and cut off all sources to junk food.

If your child still fails to grow at a normal rate, or if he displays any signs or symptoms of malnutrition, consult his pediatrician immediately and let her determine why he is not growing and developing normally.


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