What is malnutrition?

Children diagnosed with malnutrition are either undernourished or overnourished. Undernutrition is an imbalance between nutrient requirements and intake. Children who are undernourished can lack energy, protein, or micronutrients and the condition may negatively affect growth, development and other outcomes. Overnutrition is caused by excessive nutrient intake. Being overnourished can lead to various health problems and obesity.

Many things can cause malnutrition, including inadequate or excessive food intake, infections, chronic illnesses, psychosocial deprivation, environmental factors, or even genetics. Even mild degrees of malnutrition can contribute to serious illness and even death.


Some of the symptoms of severe malnutrition include short stature, low energy levels, and swollen legs and stomach (edema/ascites). Malnutrition is a problem in developing countries but it also occurs commonly in the United States.


Malnutrition is diagnosed by performing a nutritional assessment; your child’s height (or length, for infants), weight and other markers of body composition like skinfold thickness will be measured and then compared with standard values. Sometimes your doctor will also order blood tests to look for signs of malnutrition.

At The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, children with malnutrition are assessed and treated by doctors in the Division of Gastroenterology (GI), Hepatology and Nutrition.

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