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Malnutrition means “badly nourished” but it is more than a measure of what we eat, or fail to eat. Clinically, malnutrition is characterized by inadequate intake of protein, energy, and micronutrients and by frequent infections or disease. Nutritional status is the result of the complex interaction between the food we eat, our overall state of health, and the environment in which we live – in short, food, health and caring, the three “pillars of well-being”.

Malnutrition: casting long shadows
Although often an invisible phenomenon, malnutrition casts long shadows, affecting close to 800 million people – 20% of all people in the developing world. As a result:
- Malnutrition kills, maims, cripples and blinds on a massive scale worldwide.
- Malnutrition affects one in every three people worldwide, afflicting all age groups and populations, especially the poor and vulnerable.
- Malnutrition plays a major role in half of the 10.4 million annual child deaths in the developing world; it continues to be a cause and consequence of disease and disability in the children who survive.
- Malnutrition is not only medical; it is also a social disorder rooted in poverty and discrimination.
- Malnutrition has economic ripple effects that can jeopardize development

Protein-energy malnutrition
Protein-energy malnutrition (PEM) is by far the most lethal form of malnutrition. Children are its most visible victims. Malnutrition, “the silent emergency,” is an accomplice in at least half of the 10.4 million child deaths each year. These young lives are prematurely – and needlessly – lost.

Micronutrient deficiencies
Called “micronutrients” because they are needed in only miniscule amounts, these substances are the “magic wands” that enable the body to produce enzymes, hormones and other substances essential for proper growth and development. As tiny as the amounts are, the consequences of their absence are severe. Iodine, vitamin A and iron are most important in global public health terms; their lack represents a major threat to the health and development of populations the world over, particularly to preschool children and pregnant women in low-income countries.

Infant and young child feeding practices
Nutrition and nurturing during the first three years are both crucial for lifelong health and well-being. In infancy, no gift is more precious than breastfeeding; yet barely one in three infants is exclusively breastfed during the first four months of life.

Nutrition in emergencies
Malnutrition is rampant among refugees and displaced populations, representing 21.5 million people in 1999. Many are at risk of malnutrition and mortality. The risk depends on factors such as the state of civil insecurity, food unavailability and inaccessibility, and inadequate delivery of assistance.

Food aid for development
Hunger afflicts one in every seven people on Earth. For many households, the need to provide for the next meal is so pressing that the smallest investment of time or energy in tomorrow is practically impossible. For hungry people, survival is a struggle and development an impossible dream.

Food and nutrition policies and programmes
Eliminating hunger and malnutrition is technically feasible. The means are there. The challenge lies in generating the requisite political will, developing realistic policies and taking concerted actions nationally and internationally.

Source: World Health Organisation

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