The World Health Organization (WHO) defines malnutrition as “deficiencies, excesses or imbalances in a person’s intake of energy and/or nutrients.”

When an individual does not get essential nutrients in their correct proportion, it becomes harder for the body to carry out routine processes that enable them to grow new cells or fight disease. 

Malnutrition can be broadly classified into two groups – undernutrition (includes stunting, wasting and underweight and micronutrient deficiencies), and obesity and diet-related diseases such as diabetes, heart diseases, and stroke. 

Malnutrition, in any form, affects people globally. Approximately 1.9 billion people around the world are overweight, while around 462 million people are underweight. It has also been estimated that about 528 million or 29% of women of reproductive age worldwide are affected by anemia.

Children are also not left out with an estimate of about 41 million children under the age of 5 years are overweight or obese, while some 159 million are stunted, and 50 million are wasted. One of the most severe forms of malnutrition affecting both children and adults is called marasmus. 

Marasmus is a form of malnutrition that consists of the continuous wasting away of muscle, fat, and other body tissues. It is a form of acute malnutrition called protein-energy malnutrition that occurs as a result of insufficient intake of calories and proteins. 

Marasmus is a serious condition and is prevalent in children in developing regions, such as Latin America, Africa, and South Asia, where the majority of the population are poor with no access to good healthcare, adequate food supplies, and portable water free of parasites that can enter the body and exacerbate the condition. 

Symptoms of marasmus vary depending on the severity and whether other comorbid conditions are present. General symptoms of the disease include dizziness, fatigue, chronic diarrhea, and rapid weight loss. 

Marasmus affects both adults and children, with children being the most predominantly affected population.

Causes and Risk Factors of Marasmus

The leading cause of marasmus nutrient deficiency occurs in children who don’t ingest enough protein, calories, carbohydrates, and other essential nutrients. This is often due to poverty and scarcity of food.

Several factors increase the risk of developing the condition some of which include;

  • Chronic hunger
  • A comorbid health condition that makes it difficult for the body to absorb nutrients properly
  • Contaminated water supplies
  • Inadequate food supplies
  • Bacterial, viral and parasitic infections that cause malabsorption
  • A poor, unbalanced diet lacking in grains, fruits and vegetables, and protein

Signs and Symptoms of Marasmus 

Marasmus symptoms can range from mild to severe, depending on the degree of malnutrition.

Some common symptoms of marasmus include:

  • Chronic or persistent diarrhea
  • Dizziness 
  • Dry, scaly and peeling skin
  • Distended abdomen
  • Emaciated appearance
  • Brittle hair 
  • Stunted growth
  • Intellectual disability
  • Fatigue

In severe cases of marasmus, symptoms include:

  • Fainting or change in the level of consciousness 
  • Full or partial paralysis of the legs
  • Loss of bladder or bowel control
  • Prolonged vomiting or diarrhea



Marasmus is a life-threatening medical emergency that requires immediate medical attention as soon as symptoms begin to appear.

Rapid loss of weight, infections, and sudden changes in appetite or behaviors could indicate an underlying problem, such as an eating disorder (like anorexia) or a chronic health condition.

A doctor or dietician will need to prepare a specific eating plan for anyone diagnosed with the condition. Psychological therapy may be required if the person has anorexia nervosa. 

It is crucial for a person with marasmus to receive a diet treatment that is rich in carbohydrates, nutrients, and calories. They will require more calories than usual for their age. Their body may however find it hard to tolerate or digest food after losing so much fat and body tissue.

To solve this problem, doctors provide food in small amounts and possibly through tubes to the veins and stomach. These tubes allow for food and fluid to be delivered quickly and directly to the body.

It can take months for the patient to make a full recovery, even with the right treatment plan. They may also need treatment for complications, such as infections and dehydration.

Marasmus resulting from an eating disorder would require mental health therapy.


To prevent marasmus, it is necessary to take in a balanced diet with the right proportion of calories, carbohydrates, and other essential nutrients

Consuming foods rich in protein, such as fish, skimmed milk, eggs, and nuts, can be used to prevent marasmus and are ideal for energy and growth.

Fruits and vegetables are essential for providing other nutrients and minerals and for preventing vitamin deficiencies. Supplements can also be used, but they may be less effective than foods in delivering nutrients.

Individuals that have recovered or are recovering from marasmus should take care to avoid complications like diarrhea and dehydration. 

Additionally, good sanitation and hygiene can play a role in the development of marasmus, especially in areas with no regular supply of healthy food and clean water.

Infections can occur as a result of poor sanitation and hygiene. These infections can worsen marasmus symptoms and make a recovery difficult. 

Cooking foods at high temperatures can destroy bacteria, so can freezing food and reheating it before eating.

Boiling water before drinking, cooking, or bathing in areas where clean water is difficult to access is necessary to prevent spreading waterborne infections.


  • What is malnutrition; WHO