Impact of Malnutrition on Health and Development

Malnourished children experience developmental delays, weight-loss and illness as a result of inadequate intake of protein, calories and other nutrients. Because orphaned and institutionalized children may experience one or several macronutrient and micronutrient deficiencies, they are at risk for a variety of short-term and long-term complications.

Short-Term Implications

Because so much development occurs in the first few years of life, nutrient deficiencies can have major short-term implications in young children.

Immune Implications

Malnourishment can greatly compromise a child’s immune system, making them more susceptible to infectious diseases. Particularly in institutions where there are poor sanitary practices, children are vulnerable to infections from other children or caregivers. In particular, zinc, iron and vitamin A are commonly associated with weakened immune function.

Growth Implications

Nutrient deficiencies and gastrointestinal infections commonly co-occur in orphans. A child may contract an infection due in part to poor nutritional status. In turn, a gastrointestinal infection places the child at even greater risk for nutrient deficiencies because nutrients are unable to be absorbed properly. Consequently, nutrient deficiency combined with infection can cause growth retardation.

Additionally, a deficiency in one nutrient may lead to a deficiency in another nutrient. For example, deficiencies in iron, magnesium and zinc can cause anorexia and thereby result in reduced intake of other important nutrients such as protein. Low lipid intake can also affect the absorption of important fat-soluble vitamins such as vitamins A and D. Zinc and protein deficiencies can retard bone growth and development, putting a child at risk for long-term complications.

Long-Term Implications

The short-term implications of malnutrition eventually give way to long-term complications, such as growth and cognitive delays.

Growth Implications

Malnutrition not only impacts growth in the short term, but can also limit total bone growth. Additionally, children classified as low height-for-age (stunted) may never be able to regain lost growth potential if they continue to live in a nutritionally deprived situation.

Cognitive Implications

Malnutrition negatively effects brain development causing delays in motor and cognitive development, such as:

  • Attention deficit disorder
  • Impaired school performance
  • Decreased IQ scores
  • Memory deficiency
  • Learning disabilities
  • Reduced social skills
  • Reduced language development
  • Reduced problem-solving abilities