Malnutrition in Kids

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Overview 

Malnutrition robs children of their future, leaving their young lives hanging in the balance. 

Malnutrition is a condition that arises when the body lacks the necessary vitamins, minerals, and nutrients required to sustain the proper functioning of tissues and organs. 

Malnutrition can affect individuals who are either undernourished or overnourished. A more significant number of children suffer from malnutrition due to dietary imbalances rather than nutritional deficiencies. 

Malnutrition in kids  

Malnutrition encompasses two main categories of conditions: undernutrition and overnutrition. Undernutrition refers to stunting (insufficient height for age), wasting (insufficient weight for height), underweight (insufficient weight for age), as well as deficiencies or insufficiencies of essential micronutrients (vitamins and minerals). 

On the other hand, overnutrition includes overweight, obesity, and non-communicable diseases related to diet, such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and cancer. 

Stunting is a condition in which a child’s height is below the expected range for their age. These children may experience significant and irreversible physical and cognitive harm that accompanies hindered growth. The long-lasting consequences of stunting can persist throughout their lifetime and even impact future generations. 

Wasting, conversely, refers to a child who is excessively thin about their height. It occurs due to recent rapid weight loss or the inability to gain weight. Children who are moderately or severely wasted face a higher risk of mortality, but there are treatment options available. 

Overweight, however, pertains to a child who carries excessive weight about their height. This type of malnutrition arises from consuming more energy through food and beverages than what is required for their age. 

Identifying malnutrition in kids 

Pediatric wellness checkups are an essential defence against over- and undernutrition in children. During these checkups, healthcare providers typically measure a child’s height and weight and plot their growth on a chart. This allows for a comparison with other children of the same age and the child’s growth history. This approach will enable providers to detect unexpected changes in a child’s growth pattern. Additionally, it is essential to evaluate a child’s eating habits and address any nutritional concerns during these visits. 

Simple screening methods can effectively identify the risk of malnutrition in children. One method involves measuring a child’s mid-upper arm circumference (MUAC) to assess muscle and fat mass. A low MUAC measurement may indicate muscle wasting, a sign of malnutrition. Conversely, a high MUAC measurement may indicate overnutrition. 

Causes of malnutrition in children  

Various factors can contribute to malnutrition in children. Among these factors, food insecurity, which refers to the inability to access nutritious food, is a significant concern. Additionally, a lack of knowledge about nutrition within families or a child’s food preferences can also play a role in overnutrition and undernutrition. Some children may be so selective about their food choices that they restrict their intake of essential nutrients, resulting in inadequate nutrition. 

Malnutrition in children occurs when they do not receive sufficient nutrients, leading to damage to vital organs and bodily functions. One of the primary causes of malnutrition in poorer and developing countries is the lack of food and poverty. Additionally, several other factors contribute to malnutrition: 

  • Insufficient breastfeeding. 
  • Difficulties in eating due to painful teeth or lesions in the mouth. 
  • Limited nutrition knowledge, resulting in unhealthy dietary choices. 
  • Dysphagia, which is difficulty in swallowing. 
  • Loss of appetite, often caused by depressive illness, mental illness, chronic infections, tumours, liver or kidney diseases, and other similar conditions. 
  • Persistent nausea or vomiting. 
  • Taking medications that interfere with the body’s ability to absorb and break down nutrients. 
  • Childhood cancers, heart defects, cystic fibrosis and other chronic diseases.  
  • Eating disorders like anorexia nervosa
  • Digestive illnesses such as ulcerative colitis or malabsorption syndrome. 

These various causes highlight the complex nature of malnutrition and the need for comprehensive approaches to address and prevent it. 

Signs of malnutrition in children 

It is essential to be aware of the signs of malnutrition as it can stem from various factors such as insufficient food intake, mental health concerns, illness, poverty, and other related issues. Here are some possible signs of malnutrition in kids that everybody needs to be aware of

Sickness 

If a child consistently appears to be catching a cold or a virus, it could indicate a weakened immune system, which could also be a symptom of malnutrition. This indication is commonly observed through frequent infections and slow wound healing. Particularly for children under the age of two, the consequences of chronic malnutrition can have long-lasting effects. Those who manage to survive may experience decreased resilience to diseases and infections later. 

Weight change 

Unintentional weight loss is the most prominent indicator of malnutrition, characterised by the accidental reduction of 5-10% of body weight within three to six months. This could indicate undernutrition; however, it is essential to acknowledge that rapid weight loss may also be associated with various health conditions. Hence, medical professionals often consider additional factors outlined in the following list.  

While weight loss is frequently observed in cases of malnutrition, it is also possible for a weight gain or to be classified as obese despite experiencing malnutrition. Patients who are both obese and malnourished may frequently remain undiagnosed. Individuals who are perceived as overweight may receive less comprehensive medical attention, yet body weight alone does not provide a complete picture.

Dental issues  

Persistent cracks at the corners of a child’s or adult’s mouth may indicate a deficiency in iron or B vitamins, specifically riboflavin. These cracks can also be a sign of other infections, including thrush. Frequent bruising or bleeding gums can also indicate vitamin C deficiency

Growth stunts  

Just like adults, children experience difficulty concentrating when they do not consume enough food or essential nutrients. Like adults, children may exhibit slow intellectual development, learning challenges, cognitive impairment, and an inability to focus when malnourished. 

This issue is particularly critical during a child’s early years when their brains are still developing. 

Insufficient nutrients in infants and children under two can severely affect their cognitive development. 

If a child’s brain does not fully develop to its potential, their educational outcomes will be compromised.

This early onset of malnutrition can have detrimental effects on the body and the brain, often called “stunting.” Stunting refers to the inadequate physical and cognitive development caused by nutritional deficiencies. 

These effects can persist long-term, even if the individual receives proper nutrition later in life. 

They can impact job prospects and limit opportunities for personal growth. 

Potential mood shifts 

A child’s irritability, sadness, and other symptoms may indicate that they are experiencing malnutrition. It is essential to mention that changes in mental health can also contribute to malnutrition as it can lead to a loss of appetite. This connection between the two is cyclical and should be discussed with a healthcare expert. 

Some of the other possible signs and symptoms of malnutrition in children include:

 

  • Pale, thick and dry skin 
  • Increased sensitivity to light and glare 
  • Bruising easily 
  • Tongue that may be swollen or shrivelled and cracked 
  • Night blindness 
  • Thin hair that pulls out quickly and is tightly curled 
  • Rashes 
  • Changes in skin pigmentation 
  • Achy joints

Prevention of malnutrition in children 

All families must receive education regarding nutritious and child-friendly dietary practices to prevent malnutrition in children. Mothers are suggested to breastfeed their infants exclusively for the initial six months, promoting optimal growth and the complete development of the child’s immune system. Providing excellent and healthy nutrition during the first three years of a child’s life establishes a solid foundation for their overall health and cognitive development. 

  • Encourage children to choose healthier foods and have a balanced diet. Eat a variety of foods from different groups to prevent malnutrition in kids. 
  • Eat at least five portions of different fruits and vegetables every day. 
  • Choose unsaturated oil, fats, and nuts and use them in small amounts. 
  • Look for lower-fat options when it comes to milk and milk products. Eat less red and processed meat. 
  • Try to have two portions of sustainably sourced oily fish once a week. 
  • Eat more pulses and choose wholegrain or high-fibre options with less fat, sugar, and salt. 

Treatment of malnutrition in children 

Treatment options may include: 

1. Making changes to the diet by consuming foods rich in energy and nutrients. 

2. Support families in managing factors affecting the child’s nutritional intake. 

3. Treating any underlying medical conditions that may be causing malnutrition. 

4. Administering vitamin and mineral supplements. 

5. Offering high-energy and protein nutritional supplements if the other treatments are insufficient.

Severely malnourished children require careful feeding and rehydration. They cannot immediately resume a regular diet and usually require specialised care in a hospital setting. 

Once their condition improves, they can gradually transition to a normal diet and continue this at home. Regular monitoring of the treatment is essential to ensure its effectiveness. Weight and height measurements will be taken, and if there is no improvement, the child may be referred to a specialist services.  

Easy tips to maintain nutrition in kids  

Childhood is an essential period of growth and development. Parents must prioritise inhibiting healthy eating habits in their children and teenagers to support this growth.  

Many children have selective preferences regarding food and often go for convenient options; parents should plan and provide healthy lunch meals and snacks that are both appealing and nutritious. 

The nutritional requirements of a child may vary depending on their age. Generally, parents should encourage their children to choose water over sugary beverages. A balanced diet for kids and teens should consist of whole grains, fruits, vegetables, low-fat dairy products, and lean protein sources. 

Here are five easy and simple ways to include nutrition in your kid’s diet. 

Make a list and change up the menu. Begin developing your school lunch menu by incorporating the foods that your child is willing to consume. Nevertheless, exploring various methods of presenting these items is equally important. For instance, if your selective eater only tolerates cucumbers as a vegetable, consider serving them alongside diverse dips or rolling them up with lunch meats and cheese

Sneak in healthy vegetables. Ensure your selective eater’s midday meal incorporates all five essential food groups: fruits, vegetables, protein, grains, and dairy. If your child has allergies or intolerances to certain foods, it might be beneficial to consult with your paediatrician regarding the possibility of incorporating a multivitamin or supplement. If there are no dietary restrictions, you can experiment with creative ways to include foods your picky eater typically avoids. For instance, you can blend cauliflower with mashed potatoes or add spinach to a fruit smoothie. 

Pack visually appealing nutritious meals and snacks. Children, particularly those who are younger, can be easily swayed by the appearance of food. Attractive shapes and vibrant colours can captivate their attention and motivate them to try a bite. Investing significant time in sculpting cartoon characters from Bologna is unnecessary. Simply dedicating a few minutes to arranging the lunch in an organised manner, including a personal note, or utilising a cookie cutter to create appealing shapes out of sandwiches or cheese slices can enhance the visual appeal of the meal.

Get creative with their meals. Including soups, salads, quesadillas, and even breakfast foods in your lunchbox is entirely acceptable. While sandwiches are not inherently wrong, they can become monotonous over time. Why confine yourself to conventional lunch options? You can introduce themed days, such as “mac ‘n cheese Mondays,” to add excitement and predictability to your child’s lunchtime.

Increasing nutrients through supplements: gradually increasing calories and nutrients in the diet through small meals is essential. Limit intake of solid fats, sugars, and salt. If more than dietary changes are needed, consult a doctor or dietician for a prescription of supplement shakes or other nutrition supplements. 

Parents should lead by example and make healthy food choices while demonstrating healthy eating behaviours. Childhood is an ideal time to instil lifelong healthy eating habits. For practical advice on healthy eating for kids and teens, it is advisable to consult a pediatric healthcare expert. 

Summary  

Malnutrition is a significant public health condition that affects children throughout every stage of their life. Parents must include healthy and nutritious foods in their everyday diet for their well-being. 

FAQs 

1) What is the most effective remedy for malnutrition in kids

Consuming a nutritious and well-balanced diet is the optimal approach to combat malnutrition. It is advisable to avoid skipping meals and strive to have three small meals and two to three snacks per day, especially if your appetite is lacking. Additionally, beverages are recommended after meals rather than before or during, as this can help prevent feeling overly full. 

2) How long does it take to recover from malnutrition?

The duration required for recovery from malnutrition varies depending on the severity of the condition. In the case of severe acute malnutrition, the median recovery time was 15 days. The highest rate of recovery was observed within a timeframe of 15 to 20 days. 


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