Causes and treatment of malnutrition

Causes and treatment of malnutrition

Malnutrition is a condition that affects billions of people worldwide, particularly in the poorest countries where it is inextricably linked to extreme hunger and extreme poverty. It is responsible for more ill-health than any other cause, particularly in children and women. In this article, we look at the causes and treatment of malnutrition.

What is malnutrition?

Malnutrition is broadly defined by a person not having enough to eat, or lacking proper nutrition to sustain them physically or cognitively.

What causes malnutrition?

The direct causes of malnutrition are:

  • Lack of access to adequate quantity and quality of diverse food
  • Infections and disease


The common underlying causes of malnutrition are:

  • Conflict
  • Climate change
  • Lack of access to safe drinking water
  • Lack of adequate social safety nets
  • Lack of quality education for girls
  • Inadequate decision-making power amongst women


One of the predominant causes, as well as consequences of malnutrition, is extreme poverty. Poverty alone does not lead to malnutrition, but it seriously affects the access to, availability and consumption of adequate amounts of nutritious food for the most vulnerable populations. Over 90 percent of malnourished people live in low- and middle- income countries.

A weight-for-height comparison table and a MUAC band used by health workers at Concern-supported Yeremon Health Facility to determine if a child under the age of five is acutely malnourished. Photographer: Chris de Bode
A weight-for-height comparison table and a MUAC band used by health workers.

Mid-upper arm circumference, often shortened to MUAC, is a measurement that allows health workers to quickly determine if a patient is malnourished. The band is wrapped around a child's arm and indicates the severity of malnutrition and offers direction towards an appropriate treatment plan.

Treatment and prevention

Malnutrition is 100% preventable. The best way to prevent malnutrition is to eat a healthy and varied diet. However, particularly for those living in some of the world’s poorest countries who cannot grow, afford, access, or consume the right foods, or those who, because of disease cannot absorb the necessary nutrients, this is very difficult.

Treatment of various forms of malnutrition depends on the severity and the presence of any underlying conditions or other complications. The healthcare provider will prepare a targeted plan with specific aims for treatment recovery, and rehabilitation. There will typically be a feeding programme with a specially planned diet, and potentially some additional nutritional supplements, and control of any infection.

However, in many settings, particularly among the poorest and most marginalised communities, many factors impede care-seeking in health facilities:

  • the distance from and time spent going to a health centre
  • the cost of treatment and transport
  • the duration of treatment (this can be up to five weeks) which prevent parents and caregivers from looking after other children or going to work.


However, the discovery of ready-to-use therapeutic food (RUTF) has changed the future of treating malnourished children forever.

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