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Alternative Names
protein-energy malnutrition (PEM), protein-kilojoule malnutrition (PCM)

Malnutrition is an imbalance or deficiency of nutrients. This can come from not eating enough healthy foods or by using up too many nutrients through activities. Malnutrition can be identified by using body weight, body fat, protein stores and laboratory values.

Poor nutrition leads to poor health. The three leading causes of malnutrition are:
  • poverty and lack of food
  • ignorance or indifference
  • disease or substance abuse, such as alcoholism
There are different types of malnutrition. Malnutrition is not only found in poor countries. People in rich countries, like Australia, can have malnutrition, too.

The most common type of malnutrition occurs when the body does not get enough protein. This condition is called kwashiorkor. Not getting enough protein affects how children grow and develop. In some countries, just-weaned children are fed watery cereal. This diet provides enough energy but not enough protein. This type of malnutrition can be life threatening because protein helps to build and maintain muscle. Without protein in the diet, muscles such as the heart and respiratory system weaken.

Another type of malnutrition is the deprivation of food. This leads to marasmus. This diet does not have enough protein, fat, carbohydrates, kilojoules and other important nutrients. Children on this diet form the classic picture of malnutrition. They are skin and bones. This is a serious condition. The body begins to break down muscle to get protein and it draws on all its stored fat and carbohydrates. Once the body goes through all of its stored energy, death is the result. The body can survive for a month or two, as long as it has water. The ability to fight infection is low. The metabolism slows down to save kilojoules (energy). This type of malnutrition is common among children aged 6 to 18 months in overpopulated city slums worldwide.

Malnutrition from not enough kilojoules and nutrients is common among lower-income groups in all countries.

There are many organisations to help people get healthy foods. These include:
  • Food bank which co-ordinates food parcels
  • Church funded and charitable meal services
  • Church and charitable food assistance vouchers
In other countries, organisations such as the Red Cross can be contacted in regard to populations facing malnutrition.

Author: Clare Armstrong, MS, RD
Reviewer: HealthAnswers Australia Medical Review Panel
Editor: Dr David Taylor, Chief Medical Officer HealthAnswers Australia
Last Updated: 1/10/2001
Potential conflict of interest information for reviewers available on request

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