New Delhi: Malnutrition is made up of two words ‘mal’ and ‘nutrition’. Mal means bad therefore malnutrition denotes bad nutrition. Malnutrition is a medical condition caused due to an unbalanced diet that is deficiencies, excesses or imbalance in a person’s intake of one or more vital nutrients. The word malnutrition is an umbrella term which is broadly classified into two categories – undernutrition and obesity. The term undernutrition is further classified into underweight, child stunting, child wasting and micronutrient related deficiencies. In this swasth (health) guide, going beyond the meaning of the terms, here is a better understanding of these conditions and their causes.
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In simple terms, child stunting or stunted growth means having low height for age. Undernutrition often leads to repeated infections as a result of which an individual’s growth is affected and that is what triggers stunting over a period of time. Because of stunting an individual never reaches his/her full potential and his/her brain is not completely developed, which further affects the productivity and learning of the child going forward. Therefore, it is essential to provide optimal health and nutrition, especially in the initial years of birth.
Stunting is a chronic form of malnutrition which stems from undernutrition. The underlying cause behind the child undernutrition is household food insecurity, child care and feeding practices, unhealthy household environment and inadequate health services, says Dr Suparna Ghosh-Jerath, Additional Professor and Head Community Nutrition at Indian Institute of Public Health (IIPH – Delhi), Public Health Foundation of India (PHFI).
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In layman’s language, wasting can be defined as low weight for height which stems from lack of nutrition and frequent infections like diarrhoea, pneumonia, among others.
Whenever someone is having acute depletion in nutrition, the first thing to get affected is weight. There are both macro and micro factors leading to the lack of nutrition or poor nutrition, ranging from lack of affordability and access to nutritious food, knowledge of right food and nutrients for a new born, and whether a child is having adequate food or not, says Dr Giridhara R Babu, Professor, Head Lifecourse Epidemiology, Public Health Foundation (PHFI), Bengaluru.
To avoid chances of child stunting and wasting, it is recommended to exclusively breastfeed the baby for the first six months. If the baby is fed well, he/she will be nourished as breastmilk has all the vital nutrients required for the child’s growth in the first six months. Only Condition applied, the mother should be well nourished. If the mother is severely malnourished then the child’s growth and development will be adversely impacted.
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The chances of a child being stunted or wasted increase only after six months of the birth as that is when complementary feeding that is regular foods are introduced in a baby’s diet. The quantity and quality of complementary feed directly impact the baby’s health, says Dr Giridhara.
The condition of underweight is determined on the basis of weight for age and is influenced by both height for age and weight for height. A child who is underweight may be stunted, wasted or both. Again, underweight can be attributed to loss of weight due to infections, diseases and lack of balanced diet and nutritious food like fresh and seasonal fruits, green leafy vegetables, dairy products, legumes and meat.
An abnormal or excessive accumulation of fat in the body that poses risk to the individual’s health is known as being overweight or obese. According to Dr. Arun Gupta, Central Coordinator, Breastfeeding Promotion Network of India, childhood obesity is on the rise in India and two major reasons behind this are high sugar intake and consumption of processed baby food. During the early years, junk food which is high in fat also comes into the picture and adds to the problem.
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Apart from unhealthy eating habits, physical inactivity, genetics, and hormonal imbalance also play a role in a person being overweight or obese.
While a person with a BMI (body mass index) equal to or more than 25 is considered overweight, BMI over 30 is classified for obesity.
Micronutrient related deficiencies
Micronutrient related deficiencies relate to inadequacy in the intake of vitamins and minerals. Deficiency of one or other nutrient leads to numerous diseases, for instance, iron deficiency can lead to anaemia which can be acute to fatal; lack of Vitamin D can result in bone loss and increase the risk of fractures.
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