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What is the Difference Between Starvation and Malnutrition?

By Erin J. Hill
Updated Feb 17, 2024
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Starvation and malnutrition are similar in that with both conditions the body is not getting the nutrition it needs to thrive and grow. There are major differences between the two as well. Starvation is a term used to describe a condition where the body is not getting enough food, usually for an extended period of time. Eventually, if the body remains in this state, it will begin to shut down. Malnutrition is a term which means the body is not getting enough vitamins and minerals in order to maintain good health, even if enough calories are being consumed. It is possible for even the obese to be malnourished if the foods being eaten are not high in nutritional value.

Many individuals do not fully understand the differences between starvation and malnutrition, since they both involve a lack of proper diet and nutrition. Technically, those who are starving are also malnourished, but one does not necessarily have to go without food in order to suffer from malnutrition. Western society, especially the United States, is full of people who are severely overweight but who are also suffering from extreme malnourishment. They are not starving, and are usually consuming a substantially higher number of calories than necessary.

The health complications are also different when comparing starvation and malnutrition. When someone is truly starving, meaning that he or she is not eating or is not eating enough, the body begins to tap into its internal fat and vitamin stores to survive. Metabolism slows down dramatically in an attempt to conserve energy and burn fewer calories. Eventually, only the most vital systems are kept running, like respiration and heart rate. If the situation doesn’t change, the organ systems eventually all shut down and death is the end result.

Malnutrition can also kill people, but in a much different way. Starvation denies the body of calories, fats, and carbohydrates in general so that it cannot function for very long. This means that a lack of vitamins and minerals is not as important because death occurs before the body feels the effects of not having them. With malnourishment, this is not so.

Those who are suffering from malnutrition are not necessarily hungry. Many are eating thousands of calories per day, but are not consuming enough vitamins and minerals and are eating too many refined carbohydrates and processed foods. This can lead to weight gain, fatigue, and digestive upset in the short-term. Long-term results can include cancer, heart disease, fatty organs, and diabetes. Any of these conditions can cause serious complications and even death.

Although starvation and malnutrition are both potentially life-threatening, malnourishment kills much more slowly. It can take many years or even decades for disease to develop in those who are malnourished. By comparison, the body can only go roughly eight weeks or less without food before death occurs.

Another difference between starvation and malnutrition is that the two conditions generally occur in very different areas of the world. Starvation is epidemic in some nations found in the developing world, while people in industrialized nations have an overabundance of food but do not consume the right kinds. In many cases, starvation in poor countries is not always preventable, although there are organizations who offer assistance. This is not so in richer nations, as many individuals choose to eat foods high in calories but low in nutrition. In these instances, malnourishment is entirely preventable.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.

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Discussion Comments
By Reminiscence — On Mar 01, 2014

It seems to me that the effects of starvation can be seen much faster than the effects of malnutrition. Starving prisoners start to get a very gaunt and vacant look in their eyes after only a few days. They lose a lot of body mass and resemble flesh-covered skeletons after several weeks. What happened in the Nazi prison camps during World War 2 was systematic starvation.

Malnutrition, on the other hand, can be difficult for outsiders to see. Malnourished children in third world countries may still have the energy to walk and play, but their bodies are slowly dying. It sometimes bothers me when I see relief trucks filled with ground corn or flour. Those food supplies can be used to make filling meals, but they are not going to provide enough vitamins and minerals to stave off malnutrition in children. I've heard of some relief organizations shipping a special blend of fortified grains and proteins that recipients can use to make a more nutritious "cake".

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