A magnifying glass hovers over a nutrition label.
A nutrient-rich diet is a leading tool to ward off malnutrition. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

Malnutrition refers to a person’s nutritional status—the deficiencies or imbalances in nutrients or calories needed to support overall health and well-being.

Malnutrition can result from undernourishment—not eating enough to support your body’s needs—or from over-consumption of excessive amounts of foods that lack important vitamins and minerals.

It can affect people of all ages and lead to many poor health outcomes.

It’s also sometimes hard to spot.

Left untreated, malnutrition hampers your body’s ability to fight infection or recover from illness or injury.

By recognizing the signs and symptoms of malnutrition, you’ll know what action to take and when to take it.

Here are some of the signs of malnutrition:

  • Unplanned weight loss, especially greater than 10 pounds
  • Unplanned, significant weight gain
  • Loss of appetite and reduced intake at meals
  • Stunted growth or development in children or adolescents
  • Feeling weak, tired or confused for long periods of time
  • Swelling or fluid accumulation in belly, legs, ankles or feet
  • Persistent stomach troubles including nausea, vomiting and diarrhea
  • Gums that bleed easily
  • Thinning hair that breaks or falls out easily
  • Swollen or cracked tongue
  • Changes in skin pigmentation, like rashes or dark circles under eyes
  • Sudden increased sensitivity to light and glare

With some careful commitment, you can shape your diet for optimal nutrition.

Here are the leading tactics:

Eat a balanced diet

Eating three meals a day may help ensure you’re fulfilling your body’s daily nutritional needs. Try to make the majority of your meals consist of nutrient-rich foods like vegetables, fruits and lean proteins such as poultry, eggs or legumes.

Drink appropriate fluids

Unless your doctor has told you otherwise, try to drink at least 64 ounces (8 cups) of fluids daily to stay hydrated. Avoid nutrient-poor fluids such as soda, lemonade or other sugar-sweetened beverages.

Pay attention to your bowel habits

If you begin to experience nausea, vomiting, diarrhea or abdominal cramping regularly, this could be a sign your body is not absorbing nutrients appropriately. Take note of these symptoms and report them to your doctor.

Weigh yourself regularly and record it

By tracking your weight, you improve the odds of spotting unplanned loss or gain. Weight loss may indicate you aren’t eating enough calories or nutrients. Weight gain may indicate an imbalance in nutrients or calories, or there may be a lack of nutrients.

Daily multivitamin

Consider taking a daily multivitamin with minerals to cover your body’s needs. Discuss this with your doctor or dietitian to determine if this is a good step for you.

Good nutrition is an important part of maintaining your health. There are many potential causes for malnutrition, but the good news is there are also many potential solutions.

If you or someone you know is exhibiting signs of malnutrition, contact your doctor and ask for help. You can also connect with a Spectrum Health registered dietitian to develop a personalized, comprehensive nutrition plan.