Malnutrition Definition

In simple terms – Malnutrition happens when one does not get enough nutrients in their diet and becomes unhealthy.

What is Malnutrition?

Malnutrition is a serious problem that is the result of diets that lack food with energy yielding nutrients. Malnutrition can cause severe health concerns and leave populations vulnerable to disease, starvation and other health concerns which have adverse social and economic consequences.  The problems can be traced to the food system, food security, and lifestyle. Many communities do not have access to nutritious food due to issues with food scarcity, poverty, and poor food delivery systems.  Climate change also has had an effect on food security as more drought, storms, fires, and infestations disrupt agriculture crop yields.  Even people in wealthy communities may suffer from malnutrition because of societal pressures, self starvation, heavily marketed food that lacks nutrition, and food disorders.  Malnutrition is a leading cause of death and disease and must be addressed.

Malnutrition Symptoms

Malnutrition has physical, mental, and behavioral symptoms such as the following:


  • Weight Loss (or extreme weight gain)
  • Dry, clammy skin
  • Muscle atrophy
  • Local or general fluid accumulation
  • Paleness
  • Bloated stomach
  • Bloodshot eyes
  • Weakened immune system
  • Constant illness
  • Slow recovery from wounds and/ or Infection
  • Stunted growth and/or other physical development


  • Assorted feelings
    • Weak
    • Dizzy
    • Exhausted
    • Irritable
    • Unfocused
    • Cold and uncomfortable at all temperatures
    • Loss of appetite

Signs of Malnutrition
Some behavioral signs of malnutrition can be

  • Not eating or drinking
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Constant fatigue
  • Difficulty getting out of bed
  • Lack of interest in physical activity
  • Difficulty concentrating on any one subject
  • Trouble gripping and holding items
  • Anger and impatience
  • Social isolation
  • Self destructive behaviors
  • Difficulty communicating

Malnutrition ICD-10

The World Health Organization (WHO) authorized the publication of the International Classification of Diseases which provides specific codes for healthcare professionals so they can document the specific causes of illness or death in a standardized system that  is understood worldwide.  These codes have been revised multiple times.  ICD-10 refers to the 10th revision of the codes which are required by the Department of Health and Human Services to be adopted by all entities covered by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) for electronic health transactions.

There are specific measures to diagnose malnutrition and to locate specific deficiencies in nutrients that have been developed by the American Society for Parenteral and Enteral Nutrition (ASPEN) such as measuring hand grip strength, energy intake, subcutaneous fat, weight loss, muscle mass and fluid accumulation.  Penn State University’s department of nutritional sciences also has developed useful tools to provide a systematic approach to assessing nutrition deficiencies.

Healthcare professionals use Malnutrition ICD-10  codes E40-E46 to document malnutrition

Protein Calorie Malnutrition & Protein Energy Malnutrition 

Protein-calorie malnutrition (PCM) also known as Protein Energy Malnutrition (PEM), refers to a specific type of malnutrition that occurs from not eating enough protein or calories to provide the body’s energy and nutritional needs.  The result is severe weight loss, edema, and other symptoms of malnutrition (see above).  Protein calorie malnutrition is known to cause severe liver problems as well as lower the immune response to other illnesses.

Food Security matters to everyone!

Finding ways to produce healthy food and make it available and affordable is extremely important for health equity. What we eat also has an effect on biodiversity and the environment.

Do you know what is in your food and where it comes from?