If you're raising a picky eater, you might worry that your child isn't getting the nutrients necessary for proper growth and development.
But you probably don't need to worry unless your doctor tells you that your child isn't growing at the normal rate for that age range. Over time, most finicky eaters do get enough calories and nutrients to meet their needs.
What Are Hunger and Malnutrition?
Everyone feels hungry at times. Hunger is the body's signal that it needs food. Once we've eaten enough food to satisfy our bodies' needs, hunger goes away until our stomachs are empty again.
Malnutrition is not the same thing as hunger, although they often go together. People who are chronically malnourished lack the nutrients needed for proper health and development. Someone can be malnourished for a long or short period of time, and the condition may be mild or severe. People who are malnourished are more likely to get sick and, in severe cases, might even die.
Chronic hunger and malnutrition can cause significant health problems. People who go hungry all the time are likely to be underweight, weighing significantly less than an average person of their size. If malnourished as a child, their growth may also be stunted, making them much shorter than average.
Causes of Hunger and Malnutrition
People who don't get enough food often experience hunger, and over the long term this can lead to malnutrition. But someone can become malnourished for reasons that have nothing to do with hunger. Even people who have plenty to eat may be malnourished if they don't eat foods that provide the right nutrients, vitamins, and minerals.
Some diseases and conditions prevent people from digesting or absorbing their food properly. For example:
- Someone with celiac disease has intestinal problems that are triggered by a protein called gluten, which is found in wheat, rye, and barley.
- Kids with cystic fibrosis have trouble absorbing nutrients because the disease affects the pancreas, an organ that normally produces enzymes necessary for digestion.
Someone who doesn't get enough of one specific nutrient has a nutritional deficiency, a form of malnutrition (although it doesn't necessarily mean the person will become seriously ill). The most common nutritional deficiency in the world is iron deficiency, which can lead to anemia.
Who Is at Risk for Malnutrition?
All over the world, people who are poor or who live in poverty-stricken areas are at the greatest risk for hunger and malnutrition. In poor countries, wars and natural disasters such as droughts and earthquakes also can contribute to hunger and malnutrition by disrupting normal food production and distribution.
In the United States, food manufacturers fortify some common foods with vitamins and minerals to prevent certain nutritional deficiencies. For example, the addition of iodine to salt helps prevent some thyroid gland problems (such as goiter), folic acid added to foods can help prevent certain birth defects, and added iron can help prevent iron-deficiency anemia.
Malnutrition affects people of every age, although infants, children, and teens may suffer the most because many nutrients are critical for normal growth and development. Older people may develop malnutrition because aging, illness, and other factors can lead to a poor appetite, so they may not eat enough.
Alcohol can interfere with nutrient absorption, so alcoholics might not benefit from the vitamins and minerals they consume. People who abuse drugs or alcohol can be malnourished or underweight if they don't eat properly.
Children and teens on special diets — such as vegetarians — need to eat balanced meals and a variety of foods to get the right nutrients. Vegetarians and vegans, for example, should make sure they get enough protein and vitamins like B12.
Symptoms and Effects of Malnutrition
Malnutrition harms both the body and the mind. The more malnourished someone is — in other words, the more nutrients that are missing — the more likely he or she is to have problems.
The signs and symptoms of malnutrition depend on which nutritional deficiencies a person has, although they can include:
- fatigue (tiredness) and low energy
- poor immune function (which can harm the body's ability to fight off infections)
- dry, scaly skin
- swollen and bleeding gums
- decaying teeth
- slowed reaction times and trouble paying attention
- poor growth
- muscle weakness
- bloated stomach
- osteoporosis, or fragile bones that break easily
- problems with organ function
- problems learning
If a pregnant woman is malnourished, her child may weigh less at birth and have a lower chance of survival.
Vitamin A deficiency from malnutrition is the chief cause of preventable blindness in the developing world, and kids with severe vitamin A deficiency have a greater chance of getting sick or dying from infections such as diarrhea or measles.
Iodine deficiency can cause mental retardation and delayed development. Iron deficiency in infancy can delay development and make older kids less active and less able to concentrate. Teens who are malnourished often have trouble keeping up in school.
Treating Malnourished Children
Fortunately, many of the harmful effects of malnutrition can be reversed, especially if a child is only mildly or briefly malnourished.
If you think your child isn't getting enough of the right nutrients, talk to your doctor, who may perform a physical exam and ask about the types and amounts of food your child eats. The doctor may also:
- measure height, weight, and body mass index (BMI) to see if they're within a healthy range for your child's age
- check for underlying conditions that could cause malnutrition
- order blood tests to check for nutritional deficiencies
- order additional tests based on your child's medical history and physical exam
Treatment for malnutrition depends on its cause. A doctor or dietitian might recommend specific changes in the types and quantities of foods your child eats, and may prescribe dietary supplements, such as vitamins and minerals.
If there's an underlying problem causing the malnutrition, the doctor will help you find ways to ensure your child gets the necessary nutrients.
Can a Picky Eater Become Malnourished?
Parents often worry that kids who seem to live on peanut butter sandwiches or hide at the sight of vegetables might not eat enough to stay healthy. Few kids in the United States and other developed nations experience severe malnutrition like that seen in Third World countries. Even finicky eaters usually get enough calories and nutrients.
The best way for parents to make sure that kids are properly nourished is to serve a variety of healthy foods and limit unhealthy snacks. If you're concerned that your child's energy level is lagging or that he or she isn't growing normally, share your concerns with your doctor.
Five million children die every year from malnutrition. Approximately one in eight people suffered from chronic undernourishment from 2010-2013 (“2013 World Hunger and Poverty Facts and Statistics). In Bangladesh, over half of the children under five years old are malnourished and prone to its devastating side-effects (“NEED TO KNOW- The silent epidemic of malnutrition”). Throughout history and in today’s society, malnutrition is one of the biggest causes of death annually, but Medical Teams International is working hard to reverse that trend.
Malnutrition affects people of all ages, but children suffer the most from this disease. According to the “2013 World Hunger and Poverty Facts and Statistics,” children that are malnourished have up to one-hundred and sixty days of illness every year. Shockingly, children under 2 are nine times more likely to die from a common illness that normally would not be lethal (“NEED TO KNOW- The silent epidemic of malnutrition”). According to Voice of America News, 50,000 children will die this year because of a famine in South Sudan. Additionally, another 250,000 will suffer from severe acute malnutrition. On PBS’s “NEED TO KNOW” documentary on malnutrition, the story of a young girl from Bangladesh who suffers from this severe form of malnutrition was told. When asked about the last time she had eaten, she replied she had not eaten a meal in three days. She told PBS that she often faints in class because she is too weak. Sometimes, she is not able to get out of bed and come to school. She also stated her younger brother died because of malnutrition. The biggest misconception about malnutrition is that its effects are restricted only to physical health. However, as seen through this young girl from Bangladesh, the effects of malnutrition can permeate all areas of life and cause devastating effects. Although malnutrition can affect all types of people equally, children are the most prone to its catastrophic effects.
Malnutrition is a serious problem and requires an immediate solution. The United States has placed itself at the forefront of this battle. However, the PBS documentary exposes the faults of what the United States gives to the malnourished. The United States sends a corn-soy based blend as relief for the malnourished, but this blend does nothing to improve their diets. The blend contains little to no nutrients that are essential for a healthy diet. It merely fills the stomach and gives the person a sense of fullness. A new product marketed for curing malnutrition is called “plumpy nut” and contains 20 essential nutrients. It has been shown to cure malnutrition in about four to six weeks and is considered by experts to be the best cure available. However, plumpy nut costs three times more than the corn-soy blend. The United States only exports foods that are grown within the US- foods that benefit the US economy, but plumpy nut is produced by a French company called Nutriset (Morrison). Dr. Susan...
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