What is Malnutrition

Malnutrition is the largest barrier to development in any society. If children fail to receive adequate nutrition during the first 1,000 days of their life, they have decreased capacity to grow physically and mentally in the long-term. 45% of under 5 child deaths globally are hunger-related.

There are 5 types of malnutrition, of which 4 are related to undernutrition. These conditions can be classified as: 1) acute malnutrition (or “wasting”), 2) chronic malnutrition (or “stunting”), 3) underweight and 4) micronutrient deficiencies (or “hidden hunfer”).

Wasting / Acute Malnutrition (Moderate and Severe)

It occurs as a result of recent shocks to a child’s nutritional status, which can be due to food shortages, a recent bout of illness, inappropriate child-caring or a combination of various such factors. Children suffering from acute malnutrition are very vulnerable to infections and death.

There are two forms of acute malnutrition:

  • Severe acute malnutrition (severe starvation) is the most extreme form which, if not treated, leads to death. This affects 16 million children globally (UNICEF/WHO/World Bank 2016). Nevertheless, less than 25% of children suffering from SAM are treated annually.
  • Moderate acute malnutrition (moderate starvation) is less severe but leads to severe acute malnutrition if it goes untreated. It affects approximately 34 million children globally (UNICEF/WHO/World Bank 2016).

Stunting / Chronic Malnutrition

This is a condition that develops when children do not eat the correct balance of nutrients in the first 1,000 days of life, resulting in the irreversible stunting of their mental and physical development. Furthermore, increased ill health, sub-optimal learning and therefore earning capacity, and greatly reduced life expectancy, all result in huge economic costs to developing countries. It damages the health and prosperity of over one third of all people in developing countries; affects approximately 156 million children worldwide at any one time (UNICEF/WHO/World Bank 2016) and is the largest cause of child death and poverty in the world (World Bank, 2006).

Hidden hunger / Micronutrient Deficiencies

This is a consequence of inadequate intake of essential micronutrients (vitamins and minerals), such as vitamin A, iron and zinc. Such deficiencies manifest when the body does not have sufficient amounts of micronutrients due to insufficient dietary intake and/or insufficient absorption and/or suboptimal utilisation of the vitamin or mineral.

Major health consequences of micronutrient deficiencies include poor pregnancy outcome, impaired physical and cognitive development, increased risk of morbidity in children and reduced work productivity in adults.


This form of undernutrition includes elements of stunting and wasting. Underweight is often used as an indicator in programmes aimed at preventing and treating malnutrition in children.

Acute and chronic malnutrition are not mutually exclusive – acute malnutrition often develops in a child who is chronically malnourished. Deficiency in micronutrients is also common among the various types of undernutrition.

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