Nutritional Deficiency

Nutritional Deficiency: Overview

Alternative names: Inadequate nutrition, Malnourishment, Malnutrition

Malnutrition is a state in which the body is not getting enough of the required nutrients.  Starvation is a severe form of malnutrition.

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Causes and Development

The cause of malnutrition can be quite obvious – an inadequate, poor, unbalanced diet – or, not so obvious.  Other causes include digestive problems, nutrient absorption problems, or certain disease conditions.

Malnutrition can occur because of the lack of just one specific vitamin (for example vitamin C deficiency, also known as scurvy), or because of simply not getting enough food.

Signs and Symptoms

Symptoms include:

  • weight loss / being very underweight
  • stunted growth
  • water retention (edema), which often hides muscle loss
  • tight skin caused by edema
  • unhealthy skin
  • unhealthy hair that looks wiry, stiff, unkempt, can come out easily, and looks lighter than normal due to depigmentation
  • hair loss
  • liver enlargement
  • abdominal swelling
  • unusually bright or dull eyes
  • fatigue
  • dizziness
  • weak immune system
  • inflamed or swollen eyelids
  • eye color, softness, thickness changes
  • wrinkles radiating out from the mouth which may lead to scarring
  • protruding soft inner mucous membrane of the mouth that becomes visible with the lips
  • reddened lips with sores
  • cracks at the sides of the mouth
  • a scaly, yellow coating between the top lip and the nose
  • a swollen thyroid gland at the front of the neck beneath the Adams apple (goiter)
  • enlarged saliva glands in the mouth
  • disappearing taste buds on the tongue
  • redder sides and top of inside mouth, often with sores, making eating painful
  • white fungal growth on the tongue
  • losing muscle tone and muscle wasting, making the muscles feel jelly-like
  • in severe cases, a 'skeletal' look to the body
  • becoming unresponsive, disinterested in what is happening
  • listlessness, tiredness, apathy, dull spirit
  • irritability
  • poor memory
  • dull yellow skin
  • skin color loss
  • pale fingernails
  • follicular hyperkeratosis – 'goose bumps' that don't disappear when you warm up
  • tooth decay (including brown stains and pitting)
  • white areas on the teeth – from spots to the whole tooth
  • red and swollen gums
  • pus oozing from the gums
  • tooth loss due to the jawbone breaking down and thinning

Diagnosis and Tests

If malnutrition is suspected, analysis of a blood sample can identify various protein, vitamin and mineral deficiencies.


Specific deficiencies create specific signs, symptoms and disease conditions.

Micronutrient malnutrition is due to a lack of vitamins or minerals.  One of the most common forms is anemia, due to iron deficiency.  Severe anemia can cause extreme lethargy, headaches, dizziness, and shortness of breath.  An anemic person may also display symptoms of pica (craving substances that are not food, such as soil.)

Scurvy is caused by a lack of vitamin C.  Symptoms include fatigue, skin spots, and bleeding from the mucous membranes.  It used to occur mainly among sailors and in areas of famine, but can occur nowadays when people eat too many processed foods that lack nutrients.

Rickets usually occurs due to vitamin D deficiency but may also be caused by insufficient calcium intake.  It usually affects children and causes softening of the bones, which leads to fractures and deformities such as bowed legs.

Kwashiorkor usually affects children under 5 years old living in famine-stricken regions.  It is a disorder that occurs when the body has an adequate calorie intake but doesn't receive enough protein and required nutrients.  Symptoms include edema, anemia, stunted growth, diarrhea, and skin spots.

Marasmus usually affects the elderly and involves protein and calorie deficiency.  Symptoms include diarrhea, severe loss of fat and muscle, slowed metabolism, slowed pulse, and low blood pressure.

Signs, symptoms & indicators of Nutritional Deficiency:

Symptoms - Abdomen

Significant/slight abdominal distension

Low protein intake can manifest as edema of the hands and feet, swollen abdomen, irritability, anorexia, a peeling rash, hair discoloration, and a large fatty liver.  The abdominal swelling is due to (1) ascites caused by hypoalbuminemia and (2) an enlarged fatty liver.

Symptoms - Food - Preferences

Craving specific foods

Specific food cravings can be manifestations the body's attempt to obtain certain nutrients that it is missing.  If a person attempts to satisfy their cravings with junk foods (foods with no nutritional value), the cravings will continue.

Symptoms - Metabolic

Symptoms - Mind - Emotional

Conditions that suggest Nutritional Deficiency:



Osteoporosis - Osteopenia

Trace minerals are necessary for the transport and absorption of calcium.


A Good Supplementation Level

Risk factors for Nutritional Deficiency:


Healthy Diet Choices


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Nutritional Deficiency suggests the following may be present:



Nutritional Deficiency can lead to:


Organ Health

Fatty Liver

Malnutrition can result in an enlarged fatty liver, which can result in ascites.


Malnutrition can cause hypoalbuminemia, which causes ascites.

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