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By Megan Ng

What is malnutrition?

Malnutrition is the lack, excess, or imbalance in a person’s energy intake and/or nutrients. Malnutrition includes three broad groups of conditions: (Malnutrition, 2021)

    • Undernutrition: wasting (low weight-for-height), stunting (low height-for-age) and underweight (low weight-for-age)
    • Micronutrient-related malnutrition: a lack or excess of important vitamins and minerals
    • Overnutrition: excessive intake of nutrients that can harm health.

What are social determinants?

​​Social determinants of health are factors that can impact our health status, functioning, and quality of life.
These factors are grouped into five domains: (Social Determinants of Health, n.d.)

    1. Economic stability
    2. Education
    3. Health care
    4. Environment
    5. Social and community

Malnutrition is multifaceted

Malnutrition has many layers. The five domains of the social determinants of health illustrate how malnutrition can occur. The interconnectedness of the domains can show us a complete picture of how malnutrition happens.
Many low-income families cannot access necessities like nutritious food, a hygienic environment, appropriate shelter, and adequate health care (Harris & Nisbett, 2021). Low-income areas tend to be food deserts where grocery stores and supermarkets with fresh produce are unavailable or not accessible. Bodegas and corner stores stocked with convenience and snack foods become the primary supplier and only option for food. Frequently, the nutrition quality of food is not a priority as long as there is food on the table.

Low-income households usually spend most total household income on food. Even the cheapest health care service can take away from the income used for food (Siddiqui et al., 2020). Health care and transportation costs to health facilities are high. Taking days off work means lost productivity and lost wages.
This trade-off can happen with education as well. Education quality and access can be hard to get due to finances and the environment. If knowledge on health and nutrition is lacking, this can lead to a pattern of poor food choices. Prolonged poor food choices can lead to disease development and malnutrition. Education can also affect job access. With little to no source of income, the cycle of poverty and malnutrition can continue.


Malnutrition can result from a variety of sources and factors that extend beyond food. These can include the places we live in, the people we interact with, the education we receive, and much more. All these sources and factors are interconnected and can influence our access and consumption of food. Our social determinants pave the way for our health and life as a whole.


    1. Harris, J., Nisbett, N. (2021). The Basic Determinants of Malnutrition: Resources, Structures, Ideas, and Power. International Journal of Health Policy and Management, 10(Special Issue on Political Economy of Food Systems), 817-827. doi: 10.34172/ijhpm.2020.259
    2. Malnutrition. World Health Organization. (2021). Retrieved 22 February 2022, from
      Siddiqui, F., Salam, R., Lassi, Z., & Das, J. (2020). The Intertwined Relationship Between Malnutrition and Poverty. Frontiers In Public Health, 8.
    3. Social Determinants of Health. Healthy People 2030. Retrieved 22 February 2022, from
    4. Tette, E., Sifah, E., Nartey, E., Nuro-Ameyaw, P., Tete-Donkor, P., & Biritwum, R. (2016). Maternal profiles and social determinants of malnutrition and the MDGs: What have we learnt?. BMC Public Health, 16(1).

Megan Ng is an Undergraduate Student of Food Science and Human Nutrition at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign

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