Malnutrition and its three big forms parents must be wary of
- Gone are the days when malnutrition would mean a sickly thin child. Now it covers a spectrum that refers to deficiencies, excesses, or imbalances in a child’s intake of energy or nutrients.
The new century is a harbinger of new sights and technology. Keeping up with the times is also the changing face of malnutrition in kids. In the 21st Century, malnutrition has taken the form of an ugly three-headed monster – the one that combines undernutrition, poor vitamin and mineral status, and overweight. These three manifestations of malnutrition can be seen in the country as a whole and also in the same house as well.
The three faces of malnutrition explained
Gone are the days when malnutrition would mean a sickly thin child. Now it covers a spectrum that refers to deficiencies, excesses, or imbalances in a child’s intake of energy and/or nutrients. Broadly, the three main sub-categories of malnutrition are:
1. Classic undernutrition
This includes low weight-for-height or wasting, low height-for-age or stunting and underweight which is low weight-for-age. Undernutrition makes children vulnerable to all kinds of diseases and can even be life-threatening. This is usually treatable and preventable too.
Low weight-for-age means the child has recently undergone severe weight loss, either due to diarrhoea or any other health condition. Low height-for-age usually means long standing lack of nutritious food. This can be traced back to poor nutrition when the child was in the mother’s womb, poor nutrition as a child and frequent illness. Stunting can severely limit a child in terms of its intelligence and physical capabilities. Underweight children can be so either due to stunting or wasting or due to both.
2. Micronutrient malnutrition
Vitamins and minerals are collectively called micronutrients and they are required for healthy growth and development. Children who display difficult eating behaviour or those who do not consume a variety of foods might not be meeting their vitamin and mineral requirements. Most of the times, absorption could also be an issue.
Deficiencies of iodine, vitamin A and iron is a global health problem with many children deficient in them.
3. Overweight and obesity
Gone are the days when a cherubic baby was a sign of a healthy baby. Overweight or obesity means a child is much too heavy for their age. This predicament is because there is an imbalance between consumption of calories and expenditure. Sugar and fat laden drinks and snacks are responsible for this. Excess fat can impair health.
The impact of the burden
The big three faces of malnutrition pose many issues at the individual and at the country level. For starters, all forms of malnutrition can lead to diet-related non-communicable diseases such as heart attacks and stroke, and often linked with high blood pressure.
At a country level, lack of productivity from malnourished individuals and increase in healthcare costs pose an economic burden on the country. Since poverty is one of the major factors driving malnutrition, food insecurity and related conflicts can also arise.
Solution to the problem
Nation-wide efforts are needed to tackle this problem of malnutrition. Access to safe, nutritious foods even to the economically disadvantaged societies, providing nutrition education for families to make the correct dietary choice and improving assessment and nutrition monitoring can help weed and rectify malnutrition early.
As a family unit, children can be protected from malnutrition by:
* Providing a variety of foods to ensure they meet their micronutrient demands
* Role playing positive healthy eating behaviour by parents
* Avoiding exposure to all kinds of media especially when eating
* Supplementing with correct choices to meet the nutrition gap that might arise despite a healthy diet
* Encouraging physical activity in children
UNICEF. New Insights: 21st century malnutrition. Accessed on: September 10, 2021
World Health Organization. Malnutrition Accessed on: September 10, 2021.
IFPRI. Overcoming the triple burden of malnutrition in the MENA region. Accessed on: September 10, 2021
World Food Program. Urban Nutrition - Reducing the triple burden of malnutrition. Accessed on: September 10, 2021
American Academy of Paediatricians. Tips for Feeding Picky Eaters. Accessed on: September 10, 2021
(Dr. Pankaj Garg is Consultant, Neonatologist and Pediatrician, Sir Ganga Ram Hospital, Delhi; views expressed in this column are author's own)