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Understanding Malnutrition

Children can be at risk for malnutrition for many different reasons. Some children can be especially vulnerable to malnutrition, such as infants and children with disabilities who may have different needs or require additional support with feeding and mealtimes.

Malnourishment can result in long-term impacts on growth and development, so early identification is important! Some physical symptoms of malnutrition include the following:    

Stunting When children are too short for their age, this can be an indicator of chronic malnutrition.  

Wasting When children are underweight for their height, this is often considered an indicator of acute malnutrition.   

Underweight This indicates that children are underweight for their age.    

Overweight This indicates that children are heavier than they should be for their age.   

Micronutrient deficiencies Key micronutrient deficiencies such as vitamin A, vitamin D, calcium, iron and others can be due to a number of influences including dietary intake, environmental factors, parasites or even a child’s disability.    

Growth Charts 

Often, growth charts are used to track and monitor children’s growth in addition to regular health screenings. Growth charts allow you to track children’s progress over time in relation to normal growth patterns. If a child falls outside of these growth patterns, it may indicate that some follow-up is needed to support healthy and full development.   

Here are two sets of growth charts from the World Health Organization (WHO):

For the most accurate assessment of your child’s growth and development, consult your pediatrician. 

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Vitamin and Mineral Deficiencies 

Having low levels or a deficiency of certain micronutrients at a young age can negatively impact a child’s developmental potential.   

It is important to recognize that deficiency and low levels of some micronutrients can cause more than just what the eye can see. A lack of certain vitamins or minerals can contribute to behavioral challenges, anxiety and depression. The best ways to avoid such deficiencies are to optimize your child’s diet by including a variety of foods from different food groups and consulting your child’s dietitian or pediatrician at regular checkups.  

Here are just a few examples of some nutrient deficiencies. 

Micronutrient  Deficiency Symptoms  Potential Causes of Deficiency  
Vitamin A  Weakened resistance to infection

Impaired growth

Vision problems, including night blindness

Eye inflammation or dry eyes

Dry skin and hair
Inadequate dietary intake

Infection

Impaired absorption 
Vitamin D and Calcium  Rickets 

Bone pain

Skeletal deformity (bowed legs)

Dental problems

Slow eruption of teeth

Malformed or decay-prone teeth

Poor linear growth (length/height)
Inadequate dietary intake

Impaired absorption

Prolonged lack of exposure to direct sunlight 
Iron  Pale appearance

Irritability

Decreased resistance to infection

Inability to pay attention

Impaired behavior

Fatigue and weakness

Headache

Lack of appetite

Learning disorder  
Low iron stores at birth

Low dietary intake of iron

High intake of foods that impair iron absorption

Blood loss due to parasitic infections and inflammation

Lead exposure 
Iodine  Hypothyroidism (slow activity of the thyroid)

Goiter (enlargement of the thyroid)

Cognitive and physical delays, especially in infants 
Low intake by birth mother during pregnancy

Inadequate dietary intake 
Zinc  Poor appetite

Slow wound healing

Sexual immaturity

Skin rashes

Slow growth

Weak immunity

Diarrhea  
Low intake of animal protein

High intake of fiber and phytates  
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