What is the difference between hunger and malnutrition?

Hunger and malnutrition are similar in that with both conditions the body is not getting the nutrition it needs to thrive and grow. There are also big differences between the two. Starvation is a term used to describe a condition in which the body does not get enough food, usually for an extended period of time. Eventually, if the body remains in this state, it will begin to shut down. Malnutrition is a term that means the body is not getting enough vitamins and minerals to maintain good health, even if enough calories are consumed. Even the obese may be malnourished if the food they eat is not high in nutritional value.

Many people do not fully understand the differences between hunger and malnutrition, as both involve a lack of proper diet and nutrition. Technically, those who are starving are also malnourished, but one does not necessarily have to go without food to become malnourished. Western society, especially the United States, is full of people who are severely overweight but also suffer from extreme malnutrition. They do not starve and usually consume substantially more calories than necessary.

Health complications are also different when starvation and malnutrition are compared. When someone is truly starving, meaning he or she isn't eating or isn't eating enough, the body begins to tap into its internal stores of fats and vitamins to survive. The metabolism slows down dramatically in an attempt to conserve energy and burn fewer calories. Eventually, only the most vital systems remain functional, such as breathing and heart rate. If the situation does not change, the organ systems eventually shut down and death is the end result.

Malnutrition can also kill people, but in a very different way. Starvation denies the body of calories, fat, and carbohydrates in general, so it can't function for long. This means that the lack of vitamins and minerals is not as important because death occurs before the body feels the effects of not having them. With malnutrition, this is not so.

Those who suffer from malnutrition are not necessarily hungry. Many eat thousands of calories a day, but don't get enough vitamins and minerals and eat too many refined carbohydrates and processed foods. This can lead to short-term weight gain, fatigue, and digestive upset. Long-term results can include cancer, heart disease, fatty organs, and diabetes. Any of these conditions can cause serious complications and even death.

Although starvation and malnutrition are life-threatening, malnutrition kills much more slowly. It can take many years or even decades for the disease to develop in malnourished people. By comparison, the body can only go about eight weeks or less without food before death occurs.

Another difference between hunger and malnutrition is that the two conditions generally occur in very different areas of the world. Hunger is epidemic in some nations found in the developing world, while people in industrialized nations have excess food but are not consuming the right kinds. In many cases, hunger in poor countries cannot always be prevented, although there are organizations that offer assistance. This is not the case in wealthier nations, as many people choose to eat foods that are high in calories but low in nutrition. In these cases, malnutrition is completely preventable.

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