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Discover the shocking impact of malnutrition on individuals' health, society, and the world, and learn how to combat this global crisis with effective strategies.

USMLE Guide: Malnutrition


Malnutrition refers to a state of inadequate nutrition, either due to insufficient intake of essential nutrients or impaired absorption, digestion, or utilization of nutrients by the body. It is a significant global health problem affecting millions of people, particularly in low-income countries. This USMLE guide aims to provide a comprehensive overview of malnutrition, including its causes, clinical features, diagnosis, and management.

Causes of Malnutrition

  1. Inadequate dietary intake: Lack of access to a balanced diet, poverty, food insecurity, and limited availability of nutritious food contribute to malnutrition.
  2. Impaired absorption: Conditions affecting the gastrointestinal tract, such as celiac disease, inflammatory bowel disease, and chronic pancreatitis, can impair nutrient absorption.
  3. Increased nutrient requirements: Certain medical conditions, such as pregnancy, lactation, hyperthyroidism, and cancer, increase the body's nutrient demands.
  4. Nutrient losses: Conditions causing increased nutrient losses, including chronic diarrhea, vomiting, excessive sweating, and kidney disease, can lead to malnutrition.

Clinical Features of Malnutrition

  1. General signs: Weight loss, muscle wasting, and fatigue.
  2. Specific manifestations:
    • Protein deficiency: Edema, thinning hair, skin changes, and impaired wound healing.
    • Vitamin deficiencies: Night blindness (vitamin A), dry skin (vitamin C), peripheral neuropathy (vitamin B12), and bleeding tendencies (vitamin K).
    • Mineral deficiencies: Weakness, muscle cramps, and cardiac arrhythmias (potassium), bone pain and fractures (calcium), and anemia (iron).

Diagnosis of Malnutrition

  1. History and physical examination: Assessing weight loss, muscle wasting, and signs of nutrient deficiencies.
  2. Laboratory investigations:
    • Complete blood count (CBC): Anemia, leukopenia, and thrombocytopenia may indicate malnutrition-related deficiencies.
    • Serum albumin and prealbumin: Low levels suggest protein deficiency.
    • Serum electrolytes: Abnormalities may indicate mineral imbalances.
    • Micronutrient levels: Measuring levels of specific vitamins and minerals may help identify deficiencies.

Management of Malnutrition

  1. Nutritional support: Providing a well-balanced diet with sufficient calories, proteins, vitamins, and minerals.
  2. Enteral nutrition: If oral intake is inadequate, enteral feeding through a nasogastric or gastrostomy tube can be utilized.
  3. Parenteral nutrition: In severe cases where the gastrointestinal tract is non-functional or cannot be accessed, intravenous administration of nutrients is necessary.
  4. Addressing underlying causes: Treating underlying conditions, such as gastrointestinal disorders or infections, contributing to malnutrition.
  5. Multidisciplinary approach: Involving healthcare professionals, including dietitians, physicians, and nurses, to optimize nutritional therapy.


Malnutrition is a complex condition resulting from inadequate nutrient intake or absorption. It can lead to severe complications if left untreated. Understanding the causes, clinical features, diagnosis, and management of malnutrition is crucial for healthcare professionals. By providing appropriate nutritional support and addressing underlying causes, the prognosis of malnourished individuals can be improved.

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