It may involve calories, protein, carbohydrates, vitamins or minerals. Not enough nutrients is called undernutrition or undernourishment while too much is called overnutrition. Malnutrition is often used to specifically refer to undernutrition where an individual is not getting enough calories, protein, or micronutrients. If undernutrition occurs during pregnancy, or before two years of age, it may result in permanent problems with physical and mental development. Extreme undernourishment, known as starvation, may have symptoms that include: a short height, thin body, very poor energy levels, and swollen legs and abdomen.
Efforts to improve nutrition are some of the most effective forms of development aid. Breastfeeding can reduce rates of malnutrition and death in children, and efforts to promote the practice increase the rates of breastfeeding. In young children, providing food (in addition to breastmilk) between six months and two years of age improves outcomes.
Stunting – a key indicator for malnutrition – has increased in Africa since 2000 despite declining by a quarter worldwide, according to a UNICEF report.
Brian Keeley, the editor-in-chief of the UNICEF report says that malnutrition risks lowering children’s economic prospects, and a better child nutrition would sustainably improve the region’s socio-economic development. For example, every dollar spent on nutrition in the first 1,000 days of a child’s life results in an average benefit of US$45.
According to the report, major causes of malnutrition in Sub-Saharan Africa include poverty, rising cost of living, and globalisation, which have led to overdependence on staples such as grains and tubers at the expense of nutrient-rich foods including fruits, vegetables, meat, fish, eggs and dairy.
The report released in October, this year shows that from 2000 to 2018 the number of children under five with stunting increased by 1.4 million in Eastern and Southern Africa and by 6.5 million in West and Central Africa.
To arrive at the report’s findings, a team of international experts used data sources such as workshops with mothers in 18 countries including Ethiopia, Ghana and Nigeria, and nationally representative demographic and health surveys.
“While the number of stunted children have fallen worldwide since 2000, it has risen in every region of Africa,” explains Keele. “Other forms of malnutrition, such as iron and vitamin A deficiencies affect children’s growth and development, and these are widespread in Africa”.
The report says that malnourished children have poor cognitive development, leading to low educational outcomes and half of annual deaths of children aged under five.
“Investing in nutrition for children and young people is a cornerstone investment if the world is to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030,” explains the report, adding that malnutrition-related diseases will increase healthcare costs, cause socioeconomic losses and lower the region’s gross domestic product.
Patricia Joy Mpaata, a consultant paediatrician at The Nairobi Hospital in Kenya, tells SciDev.Net that inadequate diet and underlying diseases contribute to increasing number of malnourished children in Sub-Saharan Africa.
“Management of some cases becomes difficult because some parents opt out of well-baby check-ups when their babies turn nine months although they should continue till the children are five years old,” she explains.