How Do I Recognize the Symptoms of Malnutrition?

Renee Booker
Renee Booker
Grogginess is a possible symptom of malnutrition.
Grogginess is a possible symptom of malnutrition.

Although most people think of malnourishment as being the product of a lack of food alone, malnutrition actually covers a very broad spectrum of disorders that arise from being deficient, or in excess, of the recommended daily allowance of any number of vitamins and minerals. Symptoms of malnutrition range from grogginess and irritability to death, depending on the type and degree of deficiency or excess. The statistics for malnourishment worldwide are staggering. In a 1997 study, the United Nations estimated that one in 12 people worldwide is malnourished, with 160 million children under the age of five included in that estimate.

In 1997, there were approximately 160 million children under the age of five who were malnourished worldwide.
In 1997, there were approximately 160 million children under the age of five who were malnourished worldwide.

The human body requires a certain amount of calories, vitamins, and minerals to be consumed every day in order to function properly. When one or more of these substances are not consumed in enough quantity, malnutrition will occur. The signs of malnutrition are many and varied, with the majority of adults and children being mildly deficient in at least one required substance. Being deficient, however, does not always lead to being malnourished. Equally as dangerous as diet deficiencies, excess intake can also lead to serious health risks including death.

Weight loss is a common symptom of malnutrition.
Weight loss is a common symptom of malnutrition.

Specific symptoms of malnutrition range from mild to life-threatening, with the most common being tiredness and weight loss. Malnutrition does not happen instantly, instead taking weeks, months, or even years to fully set in since your body stores vital nutrients in fatty tissue for use when intake is low. One of the major symptoms of malnutrition is decreased mental function, which usually sets in rapidly as the body diverts necessary resources to other vital organs and muscle tissue. The decreased mental function is often manifested as confusion, irritability, or memory loss.

Malnutrition is a common cause of chronic liver failure.
Malnutrition is a common cause of chronic liver failure.

Other, often times more noticeable, symptoms of malnutrition include weight loss, dry skin, damaged hair and nails, and slow wound healing. All of these conditions are brought on by vitamin deficiencies that cause the body to pull resources away from peripheral bodily functions, such as hair growth and healing since the nutrients are needed to keep the heart and lungs functioning. Weight loss is usually brought about by a low-calorie diet, such as one that includes almost exclusively meat, which is high in protein and very low in caloric content. Symptoms brought about from nutritional excess include weight gain often leading to obesity, high blood sugar levels often leading to diabetes, and heart conditions such as high blood pressure and heart attack.

You might also Like

Readers Also Love

Discussion Comments


I am a 12 year old girl who is really skinny and people call me a twig. I normally don't eat lunch. I get really shaky now and tired. Do I need to go to the doctor?


@andee - Alcoholism does a number of really bad things to your body. I hope your brother in law is able to get the help he needs and get on the road to recovery.

I was in paramedic school, and we had a unit on alcoholism and its effects. There was a picture of a man in the textbook, showing all of the defects and deformities that can happen to the body of an alcoholic over the years, and it looked exactly like my old neighbor Bob, who died of complications from years of drinking.

He was a smart guy, family man, earned a good living, but in the end the drinking just tore him up. There was nothing anyone could do. He lived in a nursing home for 10 years and died in his early 50s. It's a shame.


@indemnifyme - Eating disorders can be a terrible thing, especially in a young person with a growing body. By the time someone figures out what is going on, a lot of damage can be done. And trying to treat it can often make it worse if the person is not on board with what you are trying to do.

I'm glad your friend was able to get help. I also had a friend who was anorexic, and she has lingering medical problems now too, even 15 years later. I would bet that a large number of the malnutrition cases in America today stem from eating disorders or addiction, or both.


@manykitties2 - I think when most people hear the word malnutrition, they associate it with being underfed, which will kill you a lot quicker than being undernourished.

That is not to say that undernourishment is not a serious thing. Especially in this country, where everyone has (or should have) enough to eat, it doesn't make any sense to still deprive your body when you could just make an adjustment to your diet, or take vitamins.


It doesn't make much sense, from an evolutionary standpoint, for malnutrition to impair mental function. If someone is mentally impaired how are they supposed to find themselves some food?

Speaking of mental impairment, I read somewhere that iodine deficiency often causes this symptom. This is a bigger problem in undeveloped countries though. Most of the table salt sold in the places like the United States has iodine added to it. So iodine deficiency doesn't happen as much. Most people in this country love table salt!


@indemnifyme - That's very sad about your friend. Eating disorders are a huge problem in this country. I think we all know at least one person that has struggled with this issue (I know several.)

However, I think one of the biggest risks for malnutrition in the United States is being poor. It's expensive to eat healthy! Junk food is much, much cheaper than fruits and vegetables.

Plus, there aren't many grocery stores in poorer areas. Some people that don't have cars literally have to do all their grocery shopping at convenience stores. Not exactly a recipe for a healthy diet.


I had a friend when I was younger who suffered from an eating disorder. She ended up becoming extremely malnourished before her parents realized what was going on.

Both of her parents worked outside of the home. And, the weight loss coincided with a growth spurt. They just thought she was growing up and getting taller and more slender. Instead, she was starving herself.

Anyway, she did a lot of damage to her body. Not only did she need counseling, she needed a lot of different medical treatments for the malnutrition as well.


When most people think of malnutrition they think of children and people who do no have access to enough food to get the nutrients they need.

One of the most common signs of malnutrition is someone who is very skinny, but yet they have a big stomach because it is so bloated.

I know this is the case for many people, but sometimes it is a choice for some who do have access to the right food.

This happened with my brother-in-law who was hospitalized because of malnutrition. He had a freezer full of meat and cupboards full of food, but was addicted to alcohol.

He said he couldn't understand why he was dehydrated because he was drinking all the time. The problem was the only thing he was eating or drinking was alcohol.

This was very sad to see as he didn't think he needed help and just wanted to get out of the hospital and go home.

His malnutrition was caused by his choices and not because he had lacked having the right amount of food.


@everetra - I think that one of the worst symptoms of that kind of fasting diet is the wasting away of muscle tissue. Muscles need protein and exercise to build strength.

If you go on a low protein diet, your body will begin to burn away muscle tissue sooner than it will fat and that’s not where you want to be with weight loss. Actually exercise will help you lose weight more as it will increase your metabolism.


While weight loss can be brought on by a high protein diet, it can also be brought on by a low protein, low calorie diet, which I think should be more obvious.

Years ago I went on a semi vegetarian diet where all I did was eat salad for lunch and light meals for dinner, meals which rarely involved meat. I lost weight rapidly, so much so that my friends were encouraging me to eat more. They thought it was unhealthy.

I think in the end, it was unhealthy, because while fruits and vegetables are good, you do need protein. One of the symptoms of malnutrition that I experienced during this time was a constant feeling of dizziness and sometimes vertigo.

A couple of times I almost lost balance while standing up and nearly fell down. That’s not good; I went back to a regular diet, with more protein mixed in to the fruits and vegetables.


Does anyone know the signs and symptoms of malnutrition in children?

My friend's daughter is looking quite ill these days and while her mother says she is just prone to catching colds and whatnot I am concerned. Her mother has told me that her daughter is a really picky eater and will only eat certain foods, most of which are sweet treats and packaged foods. I am wondering now if malnutrition may be the cause of her illnesses.

The last time they were over at our house I was really shocked to see that her mother let the daughter eat a bag of chips, rather than the healthy meal in front of her, just so she could avoid a temper tantrum.


While most people think of malnutrition as a problem mostly in third world countries, you would be surprised at the number of malnutrition cases in America. I read that something like 90% of Americans are deficient in at least one vitamin or mineral, which can cause many problems.

In America malnutrition symptoms tend to be seen more in those that are overweight and have eaten too many processed foods. I really believe that the cause of malnutrition in our modern world, with those that have plenty to eat, is the result of fake food. It tastes great but it has absolutely no nutritional value whatsoever.

Post your comments
Forgot password?
    • Grogginess is a possible symptom of malnutrition.
      Grogginess is a possible symptom of malnutrition.
    • In 1997, there were approximately 160 million children under the age of five who were malnourished worldwide.
      In 1997, there were approximately 160 million children under the age of five who were malnourished worldwide.
    • Weight loss is a common symptom of malnutrition.
      Weight loss is a common symptom of malnutrition.
    • Malnutrition is a common cause of chronic liver failure.
      Malnutrition is a common cause of chronic liver failure.
    • A person struggling with anorexia may be malnourished.
      A person struggling with anorexia may be malnourished.