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Malnutrition In Western Society

nutrition | September 8, 2017 | Author: Naturopath


Malnutrition In Western Society

When you hear the term ‘malnutrition’, do you think of starving children in developing countries? Well, you are not wrong. Around 45% of deaths among children under 5 years of age are associated with undernutrition. These mostly occur in developing countries. However, it is not the complete picture. In fact, every country in the world is affected by malnutrition. 

So, what exactly is malnutrition?

The World Health Organization describes it as: “deficiencies, excesses, or imbalances in a person’s intake of energy and/or nutrients”. In other words, our body becomes malnourished when it does not get a sufficient quantity and/or quality of food and nutrients. 

The type of malnutrition in Western society is a new form of malnutrition, one that comes from eating foods that have low nutritional value, rather than from inability to access enough food. Many people in Western society are overfed and undernourished, consuming abundance of “empty calories”, says Dr Hyman, the Director the Cleveland Clinic Center For Functional Medicine.

What’s wrong with the Western diet?

So, what exactly is malnutrition?The Western diet is loaded with sugar, high-fat foods, fried foods, processed meat, refined grains, preservatives, additives, and alcohol - foods that are essentially devoid of vitamins, minerals, and fibre. At the same time, we do not eat enough fruit and vegetables, legumes, whole grains, and fish.

It’s not surprising, then, that so many of us are lacking essential nutrients and are malnourished.

Who is at risk?

Malnutrition in Western society can be found in both normal-weight population and in the obese population, but it’s more common if you are:

  • Elderly. The elderly population is increasing, and is at high risk of inadequate nutrition due to a range of factors, such as poor appetite, deteriorating dental health, loss of taste and smell, poor health, inability to shop or prepare food, medications that affect appetite or absorption of nutrients, social isolation, low income, low mood, and dementia.
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  • Suffering from digestive disorders. Conditions such as Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, and coeliac disease can affect absorption of nutrients.
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  • Suffering from health conditions that affect appetite or swallowing. Cancer, HIV, stroke, depression, gastro-oesophageal reflux – al can affect appetite or the ability to swallow.
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  • On a restricted diet. Restrictive allergy-diets and fad diets that are inappropriately managed may result in deficiencies of nutrients.
  • Suffering from an eating disorder. Patients with anorexia or bulimia often do not consume a healthy amount of vitamins and minerals and their body is malnourished.
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  • Recovering from serious injury or burns. Patients who are recovering from a burn or major surgery are at greater risk of malnutrition because of the stress and the increase in metabolic rate caused by the surgery.
  • An alcoholic. Alcohol inhibits digestion and absorption of vitamins and nutrients, and quite often serves as a substitute for a meal, resulting in reduced intake of food.
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Problems caused by malnutrition

Unhealthy diets and poor nutrition can put you at risk of:

  • ​Heart attacks and stroke
  • Certain cancers
  • Diabetes
  • A weak immune system, which increases the risk of infections
  • Poor wound healing
  • Muscle weakness, which can lead to falls and fractures

What can I do to make sure I’m not malnourished?

Address any underlying cause. Diagnose and treat any health condition that may prevent you from digesting and absorbing nutrients.

Eat a balanced, nutrient-dense diet. A qualified dietitian or nutritionist can conduct a full dietary assessment and help you plan and manage a varied and balanced diet that includes:

Plenty of fruit and vegetables. They are high in vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, fibre, and anti-inflammatory compounds called phytochemicals. Phytonutrients in food come in all different colors—green, yellow-orange, red, blue-purple, and white. Experiment with new varieties and colours. 

High fibre. Fruit, vegetables, nuts and seeds, beans and lentils, and whole grains are all high in fibre.

Fibre helps constipation, lowers the risk of gut cancers, helps you feel fuller for longer, lowers cholesterol levels improves blood sugar control

Whole grains. Like fruit and Vegetables, whole grains are rich in fibre, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and phytochemicals. 
Choose from whole grains such as barley, quinoa, amaranth, brown or wild rice, buckwheat, and millet.

Healthy oils. Eat oily fish, avocados, nuts and seeds, and olive oil.

Sufficient protein. Although many consume more protein than required, protein-energy malnutrition is the most common form of nutritional deficiency among patients who are hospitalised in the United States. This condition can result in fluid and electrolyte abnormalities, skin conditions; poor wound healing and further nutrient deficiencies.

Other suggestions 

Increase water intake. Rehydrating with water is best for replenishing lost fluids and quenching thirst.

Increasing water intakeReduce or eliminate.  Minimise processed foods such as packaged snacks, smoked meats, white flour (white bread, cakes, biscuits etc), and sugar-sweetened foods and drinks.

Weight loss. The composition of gut bacteria has been shown to differ between lean and obese humans; our gut bacteria play a role in the metabolism of essential nutrients. Weight reduction in itself may resolve some deficiencies.
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Supplement. Even with a balanced diet, most people do not get all the nutrients they need from food, and nutritional support may be required. Taking nutritional supplements is a simple way to increase your energy and nutrient content of your diet.​ Australia’s best online discount chemist


Dr. Hyman, 2016. How Malnutrition Causes Obesity. Available at:

Harvard School of Public Health, 2017. Whole Grains. The Nutrition Source. Available at:

Hickson, M., 2006. Malnutrition and ageing. Postgraduate medical journal, 82(963), pp.2–8. Available at:

Krajmalnik-Brown, R. et al., 2012. Effects of gut microbes on nutrient absorption and energy regulation. Nutrition in clinical practice : official publication of the American Society for Parenteral and Enteral Nutrition, 27(2), pp.201–14. Available at:

Mayo Clinic, 2014. Senior health: How to prevent and detect malnutrition. Available at:

NHS Choices, 2017. Malnutrition. Available at:

Ruiz-Núñez, B. et al., 2013. Lifestyle and nutritional imbalances associated with Western diseases: causes and consequences of chronic systemic low-grade inflammation in an evolutionary context. The Journal of Nutritional Biochemistry, 24(7), pp.1183–1201. Available at:

Scheinfeld, N., 2016. Protein-Energy Malnutrition Treatment & Management. Available at:

World health Organization, 2017. Malnutrition. Available at:


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