Archive for the ‘Childhood malnutrition’ Category

Using “Cerebral Organoids” to Trace the Elemental Composition of a Developing Brain

Curator: Marzan Khan, B.Sc

A research focused on the detection of micronutrient accumulation in the developing brain has been conducted recently by a team of scientific researchers in Brazil(1). Their study was comprised of a cutting-edge technology human cerebral organoids, which are a close equivalent of the embryonic brain, in in-vitro models to identify some of the minerals essential during brain development using synchroton radiation(1). Since the majority of studies done on this matter have relied on samples from animal models, the adult brain or post-mortem tissue, this technique has been dubbed the “closest and most complete study system to date for understanding human neural development and its pathological manifestations”(2).

Cerebral organoids are three-dimensional miniature structures derived from human pluripotent stem cells that further differentiate into structures closely resembling the developing brain(2). Concentrating on two different time points during the developmental progression, the researchers illustrated the micronutrient content during an interval of high cell division marked on day 30 as well as day 40 when the organoids were starting to become mature neurons that secrete neurotransmitters, arranging into layers and forming synapses(2).

Synchrotron radiation X-ray fluorescence (SR-XRF) spectroscopy was used to discern each type of element present(2). After an incident beam of X-ray was directed at the sample, each atom emitted a distinct photon signature(2). Phosphorus (P), Potassium (P), Sulphur (S), Calcium (Ca), Iron (Fe), and Zinc (Zn) were found to be present in the samples in significant concentrations(2). Manganese (Mn), Nickel (Ni) and Copper (Cu) were also detected, but in negligible amounts, and therefore tagged as “ultratrace” elements(2). The distribution of these minerals, their concentration as well as their occurrence in pairs were examined at each interval(2).

Phosphorus was discovered to be the most abundant element in the cerebral organoid samples(3). Between the two time points at 30 days (cell proliferation) and 45 days (neuronal maturation) there was a marked decrease in P content(2). Since phosphorus is a major component of nucleotides and phospholipids, this reduction was clarified as a shift from a stage of cell division that requires the production of DNA and phospholipids, to a migratory and differentiation phase(2). Potassium levels were maintained during both phases, substantiating its role in mitotic cell division as well as cell migration over long distances(2). Sulfur levels were reportedly high at 30 days and 45 days(2). It was hypothesized that this element was responsible for the patterning of the organoids(2). Calcium, known to control transcription factors involved in neuronal differentiation and survival were detected in the micromolar range, along with zinc and iron(2). Zinc commits the differentiation of pluripotent stem cells into neuronal cells and iron is necessary for neuronal tissue expansion(2).

The cells in an embryo start to differentiate very early on- the neural plate is formed on the 16th day of contraception, which further folds and bulges out to become the nervous system (containing the brain and spinal cord regions)(3). Nutrients obtained from the mother are the primary sources of diet and energy for a developing embryo to fully differentiate and specialize into different organs(2). Lack of proper nutrition in pregnant mothers has been linked to many neurodegenerative diseases occurring in their progeny(2). Spina bifida which is characterized by the incomplete development of the brain and spinal cord, is a classic example of maternal malnutrition(2,4). Paucity of minerals in the diet of pregnant women are known to hamper learning and memory in children(2). Even Schizophrenia, Parkinson’s and Huntington’s disease have been associated to malnourishment(2). By showing the different types of elements present in statistically significant concentrations in cerebral organoids, the results of this study underscore the necessity of a healthy nourishment available to mothers during pregnancy for optimal development of the fetal brain(2).


1.Kenny Walter. 02/10/2017. Study focuses on Microcutrients in Human Minibrains. RandDMagazine.

2.Sartore RC, Cardoso SC, Lages YVM, Paraguassu JM, Stelling MP, Madeiro da Costa RF, Guimaraes MZ, Pérez CA, Rehen SK.(2017)Trace elements during primordial plexiform network formation in human cerebral organoids. PeerJ 5:e2927

3.Fetal Development: Baby’s Nervous System and Brain; What to expect; 20/07/201.

4. Spina Bifida Fact Sheet; National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, MD 20892

Other related articles published in this Open Access Online Scientific Journal include the following:


Zinc-Finger Nucleases (ZFNs) and Transcription Activator–Like Effector Nucleases (TALENs)

Reporter: Larry H Bernstein, MD, FCAP


Calcium Regulation Key Mechanism Discovered: New Potential for Neuro-degenerative Diseases Drug Development

Reporter: Aviva Lev-Ari, PhD., RN


How Methionine Imbalance with Sulfur-Insufficiency Leads to Hyperhomocysteinemia

Curator: Larry H Bernstein, MD, FACP


Erythropoietin (EPO) and Intravenous Iron (Fe) as Therapeutics for Anemia in Severe and Resistant CHF: The Elevated N-terminal proBNP Biomarker

Co-Author of the FIRST Article: Larry H. Bernstein, MD, FCAP

Reviewer and Curator of the SECOND and of the THIRD Articles: Larry H. Bernstein, MD, FCAP

Article Architecture Curator: Aviva Lev-Ari, PhD., RN


The relationship of S amino acids to marasmic and kwashiorkor PEM

Larry H. Bernstein, MD, FCAP, Curator


Mutations in a Sodium-gated Potassium Channel Subunit Gene related to a subset of severe Nocturnal Frontal Lobe Epilepsy

Reporter: Aviva Lev-Ari, PhD., RN


Copper and its role on “progressive neurodegeneration” and death

Reported by: Dr. Venkat S. Karra, Ph.D.


Metabolomics, Metabonomics and Functional Nutrition: the next step in nutritional metabolism and biotherapeutics

Reviewer and Curator: Larry H. Bernstein, MD, FCAP


Nutrition and Aging

Curator: Larry H Bernstein, MD, FCAP


The Three Parent Technique to Avoid Mitochondrial Disease in Embryo

Reporter and Curator: Dr. Sudipta Saha, Ph.D.



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The Significant Burden of Childhood Malnutrition and Stunting

Curator: Larry H. Bernstein, MD, FCAP


Quite a few  trace elements or micronutrients—vitamins and minerals—are important for health. Three very important micronutrient deficiencies in terms of health consequences for poor people in developing countries are:


  • In developing countries every second pregnant woman and about 40% of preschool children are estimated to be anemic.
  • In many developing countries, iron deficiency anemia is aggravated by worm infections, malaria and other infectious diseases such as HIV and tuberculosis.
  • The major health consequences include poor pregnancy outcome, impaired physical and cognitive development, increased risk of morbidity in children and reduced work productivity in adults. Anemia contributes to 20% of all maternal deaths. (WHO Iron Deficiency Anemia)

Vitamin A

  • Vitamin A deficiency  can cause night blindness and reduces the body’s resistance to disease. In children Vitamin A deficiency can also cause growth retardation.
  • An estimated 250 million preschool children are vitamin A deficient. An estimated 250,000 to 500 000 vitamin A-deficient children become blind every year, half of them dying within 12 months of losing their sight. (WHO Vitamin A Deficiencies)


  • Iodine deficiency is one of the main cause of impaired cognitive development in children.
  • Serious iodine deficiency during pregnancy can result in stillbirth, spontaneous abortion, and congenital abnormalities such as cretinism, a grave, irreversible form of mental retardation that affects people living in iodine-deficient areas of Africa and Asia.
  • Iodine deficiency has a simple solution: iodized salt. Thanks to this intervention, the number of countries where iodine deficiency is a public health problem has halved over the past decade.  However 54 countries still have a serious iodine deficiency problem. (WHO Iodine Deficiencies)

Children and hunger

Children are the most visible victims of undernutrition.  Black et al (2013) estimate that undernutrition in the aggregate—including fetal growth restriction, stunting, wasting, and deficiencies of vitamin A and zinc along with suboptimum breastfeeding—is a cause of 3·1 million child deaths annually or 45% of all child deaths in 2011 (Black et al. 2013).  Undernutrition magnifies the effect of every disease, including measles and malaria. The estimated proportions of deaths in which undernutrition is an underlying cause are roughly similar for diarrhea (61%), malaria (57%), pneumonia (52%), and measles (45%) (Black 2003, Bryce 2005). Malnutrition can also be caused by diseases, such as the diseases that cause diarrhea, by reducing the body’s ability to convert food into usable nutrients.


  • Globally 161 million under-five year olds were estimated to be stunted in 2013.
  • The global trend in stunting prevalence and numbers affected is decreasing. Between 2000 and 2013 stunting prevalence declined from 33% to 25% and numbers declined from 199 million to 161 million.
  • In 2013, about half of all stunted children lived in Asia and over one third in Africa. (UNICEF et al. 2014b)

Wasting and severe wasting ·

  • Globally, 51 million under-five year olds were wasted and 17 million were severely wasted in 2013.
  • Globally, wasting prevalence in 2013 was estimated at almost 8% and nearly a third of that was for severe wasting, totaling 3%. In 2013, approximately two thirds of all wasted children lived in Asia and almost one third in Africa, with similar proportions for severely wasted children. (UNICEF et al. 2014b)
  •  In 2013, approximately two thirds of all wasted children lived in Asia and almost one third in Africa, with similar proportions for severely wasted children. (UNICEF et al. 2014b)

Under-five Protein Energy Malnutrition Admitted at the University of In Nigeria Teaching Hospital, Enugu: a 10 year retrospective review

Agozie C Ubesie12*, Ngozi S Ibeziako12, Chika I Ndiokwelu3, Chinyeaka M Uzoka3 andChinelo A Nwafor3

Nutrition Journal 2012, 11:43  doi:10.1186/1475-2891-11-43

To determine the prevalence, risk factors, co-morbidities and case fatality rates of Protein Energy Malnutrition (PEM) admissions at the paediatric ward of the University of Nigeria Teaching Hospital Enugu, South-east Nigeria over a 10 year period.


A retrospective study using case Notes, admission and mortality registers retrieved from the Hospital’s Medical Records Department.


All children aged 0 to 59 months admitted into the hospital on account of PEM between 1996 and 2005.


A total of 212 children with PEM were admitted during the period under review comprising of 127 (59.9%) males and 85(40.1%) females. The most common age groups with PEM were 6 to 12 months (55.7%) and 13 to 24 months (36.8%). Marasmus (34.9%) was the most common form of PEM noted in this review. Diarrhea and malaria were the most common associated co-morbidities. Majority (64.9%) of the patients were from the lower socio-economic class. The overall case fatality rate was 40.1% which was slightly higher among males (50.9%). Mortality in those with marasmic-kwashiokor and in the unclassified group was 53.3% and 54.5% respectively.


Most of the admissions and case fatality were noted in those aged 6 to 24 months which coincides with the weaning period. Marasmic-kwashiokor is associated with higher case fatality rate than other forms of PEM. We suggest strengthening of the infant feeding practices by promoting exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of life, followed by appropriate weaning with continued breast feeding. Under-five children should be screened for PEM at the community level for early diagnosis and prompt management as a way of reducing the high mortality associated with admitted severe cases.

Globally, PEM continues to be a major health burden in developing countries and the most important risk factor for illnesses and death especially among young children [1]. The World Health Organization estimates that about 60% of all deaths, occurring among children aged less than five years in developing countries, could be attributed to malnutrition [2]. The improvement of nutrition therefore, is the main prerequisite for the reduction of high infant and under five mortality rates, the assurance of physical growth, social and mental development of children as well as academic achievement [3]. Sub-saharan Africa bears the brunt of PEM in the world. On the average, the PEM associated mortality in sub-Saharan Africa is between 25 and 35% [4,5]. In Nigeria, 22 to 40% of under-five mortality has been attributed to PEM [6]. PEM is also associated with a number of co-morbidities such as lower respiratory tract infections including tuberculosis, diarrhea diseases, malaria and anaemia [7,8]. These co-morbidities may prolong the duration of hospital stay and death among affected children.

There is a knowledge gap on the incidence and outcome of PEM seen in the Nigerian tertiary health facilities. In this study, the type of PEM among admitted under-five children, the associated morbidities, and duration of hospitalization and outcome at the University of Nigeria Teaching Hospital Enugu over a 10 year period is reviewed.

Relevant information was extracted from each retrieved case file and/or hospital registers and transferred into the proforma. Diagnosis of PEM was based on the Modified Wellcome Classification because it was the method used for clinical diagnosis by the clinicians. This classified PEM into kwashiorkor, underweight kwashiorkor, underweight, marasmus, marasmic kwashiorkor and there was also provision for unclassified PEM. Marasmus and the various forms of kwashiorkor are part of the recently defined Severe Acute Malnutrition (SAM) by the World Health Organization (WHO). The WHO defined SAM by a very low weight for height (below -3z scores of the median WHO growth standards), visible severe wasting or the presence of nutritional oedema [11,12]. Modified Wellcome classification uses weight for age and the presence or absence of oedema to classify PEM. The weights were measured using infant weighing scales (Waymaster) and stadiometers (Health Scale) depending on the age of the child. A total of 212 proforma were completed covering the entire period of the study.

Diagnosis of HIV was made using Enzyme Linked Immunosorbent Assay [ELISA] and Westerblot. In children aged less than 18 months, positive antibody test was combined with clinical features to make presumptive diagnosis of HIV infection. Diagnosis of malaria was confirmed using blood film and bronchopneumonia using chest X-ray. Diarrhea was defined as passage of watery or loose stools or an increase in frequency above normal for a child. Severe anaemia was defined using a packed cell volume of less than 15%. Sepsis was defined as clinical features of systemic inflammatory response (fever, tachycardia, tachypnea, leukocytosis or leukopenia) associated with infection. Diagnosis of tuberculosis was made in the presence of chronic cough that have lasted for more three weeks supported by varied combination of the following: positive family history of tuberculosis, positive mantoux, suggestive chest X-ray and elevated erythrocyte sedimentation rate. Diagnosis of scabies was clinical based on the typical itching papular rash located at the intertrigous areas. Chronic suppurative otitis media and rickets were suspected clinically and confirmed by culture of ear swab and X-ray of the limbs respectively.


A total of 7703 children were admitted into the paediatric wards and 212 of them were cases of PEM during the period under review. This represented about 2.8% of the total paediatric admissions. One hundred and twenty seven (59.9%) were males while 85 (40.1) were females giving a male: female ratio of 1: 0.7. The age group studied was 6 to 59 months (under-5). The mean age of the participants was 15.4 ± 9.3 months.

PEM and demography

PEM was most common among the age groups 6 to 12 and 13 to 24 months, and these accounted for 55.7% and 36.8% of the study population respectively. There was however, no statistically significant difference between the age groups and various forms of PEM as shown in Table 1(χ² = 19.38, df =16, p = 0. 249). The most common form of PEM noted in this review was marasmus (34.9%). Except for marasmic-kwashiokor, more males than females had more of all the various types although this was not statistically significant (χ² = 8.382, df =4, p = 0. 079) as shown in Table2. Admissions for PEM were recorded more in 1996, 1999 and 2004 (15.1, 13.7 and 12.3% respectively), but there were no consistent pattern in the yearly admissions of children with PEM during the period under review (Figure 1).

PEM admissions according to the age groups (months)
PEM type 0-12 m (%) 13-24 m (%) 25-36 m (%) 37-60 m (%) 49-60 m (%)
Kwashiokor 16 (13.6) 19 (24.4) 3 (33.3) 1 (33.3) 1 (25)
Underweight 11 (9.3) 6 (7.7) 0 (0) 0 (0) 0 (0)
Marasmic-kwash 6 (5.1) 8 (10.3) 0 (0) 1 (33.3) 0 (0)
Marasmus 48 (40.7) 24 (30.8) 2 (22.2) 0 (0) 0 (0)
Unclassified 37 (31.4) 21 (26.9) 4 (44.4) 1 (33.3) 3 (75)
Total 118 (100) 78 (100) 9 (100) 3(100) 4 (100)

χ² = 19.38, df =16, P = 0. 249.

Table 3
The associated co-morbidities seen among patients
Co-morbidity Frequency
Diarrhea 48 (72.2)
Malaria 29 (43.9)
Sepsis 25 (37.9)
Severe anaemia 16 (24.2)
Bronchopneumonia. 11 (16.7)
HIV 9 (13.6)
Tuberculosis 8 (12.1)
other 5 (7.5)

The table shows the associated co-morbidities noted in the patients.

Table 4
Prevalence of PEM by breastfeeding pattern
Breastfeeding pattern Prevalence 95% Confidence Intervals
Exclusive breast feeding for 0–3 months 18.9 11.2 – 26.6
Predominant breastfeeding 0–3 months 48.6 38.8 – 58.4
Predominant breastfeeding 4–6 months 24.3 15.9 – 32.7
Breast milk substitutes 8.1 2.7 – 13.5

The table shows the prevalence of the various pattern of feeding for the children during their early infancy. The 95% confidence interval is also reported.

Ubesie et al.

Ubesie et al. Nutrition Journal 2012 11:43   doi:10.1186/1475-2891-11-43

Prognostic indicators

The duration of hospitalization was available in only 84 subjects and ranged from 0 to 62 days. The mean duration of hospitalization was 16 ± 15 days. Kwashiokor patients had the highest mean hospitalization days of 19.15 days while marasmic and underweight patients had the least days of 14.52 and 14.55 days respectively. There was no statistically significant difference in the mean hospitalization days for the various types of PEM (F = 0.317, df =4, P = 0. 866). A total of 85 (40.1%) children died while on admission, 124 (58.5%) recovered and were discharged home while 3 (1.4%) were discharged against medical advice. Mortality was higher among the males (50.9%) than females (34.1%) although this was not statistically significant (χ² = 0.723, df =2, P = 0. 697). Most of the deaths were recorded in the age groups 0–12 (55.3%) and 13–24 (36.5%) months although this difference was not statistically significant (χ² = 10.98, df =8, p = 0. 203). The marasmic-kwashiokor and unclassified groups had higher mortality rates (53.3% and 54.5% respectively) than the marasmus (37.8%) or kwashiorkor groups (30%). There was a statistically significant difference in the mortality rates of the various types of PEM as shown in Table 5 (χ² = 17.26, df =4, p = 0. 002) The number of complications ranged from none to four. Kwashiokor has the highest mean number of complications (2.06) while unclassified had the least number of 1.26. There was a statistically significant difference in the number of complications and the various PEM (F = 8.92, df =4, P <0.05)

High PEM associated mortality

The overall mortality in our study was 40.1% which although lower than the WHO estimated 60%[2] is still very high. Studies conducted in various parts of Africa have documented unacceptable high mortality rates among children admitted for PEM. In Oshogbo, South West Nigeria, Ibekwe and Ashworth [6] documented an average mortality rate of 22% over a five year period among 803 children admitted for PEM in a Nutritional Rehabilitation Center. Similarly, in a hospital based study in north-eastern Zambia, involving children below the age of five years, Gernaat et al.[4] documented an overall mortality rate of 25.8% among 288 children admitted for various types of severe/complicated malnutrition . Higher mortality rate for marasmic kwashiorkor than marasmus or kwashiorkor was noted in this review. Gernaat et al.[4] noted similar finding in their review among Zambian children admitted and managed for PEM. This reason for this is unclear. However, Ibekwe and Ashworth [6] did note that PEM associated mortality among oedematous patients was significantly higher compared to those with marasmus. It can be argued therefore, that presence of oedema in a malnourished child connotes poor prognosis. The mean duration of hospitalization was 16 days which is similar to 13.1 and 14.3 days reported by Cartmell et al. [13] but differs from the 35 days reported by Ibekwe and Ashworth [6]. Both this review and the study by Cartmell et al. were hospital based while that of Ibekwe and Ashworth was conducted in a Nutrition Rehabilitation Center. The pressure on bed spaces in a hospital setting could have contributed to earlier discharges in hospital settings.

Associated risk factors for PEM

Our review noted that PEM was more common among children from the lower social class (69.4%) and those predominantly breast fed for three months or less (48.6%) compared to exclusively breast fed children (18.9%). The reason for this may not be unconnected to the fact that poor families have low purchasing power for adequate nutritious foods for their families. Illiteracy on the other hand, may influence feeding practices. The low rate of exclusive breast feeding noted in this review despite the Baby Friendly Initiatives is also very worrisome. Poverty and illiteracy as risk factors for PEM have been documented in the literature. . In a case control study conducted in Dhaka, Bangladesh which involved children aged six to 24 months, Nahar et al.[15] compared 507 children with weight-for-age z-score (WAZ) < −3 matched for age, sex and place of residence with 500 children whose weight-for-age z-score (WAZ) were > −2.5 . They documented that severely-underweight children were more likely to have: undernourished poorly educated teenage mothers, history of shorter duration of predominant breastfeeding, and fathers who were poorly educated and unskilled day-labourers [15].

Diarrhea, malaria, sepsis and severe anaemia were the most prevalent associated co-morbidities from our review in that order. In Maputo, the most prevalent co-morbidities associated with PEM by Cartmell et al. were anaemia, bronchopneumonia, malaria and diarrhea. The prevalence of human immune deficiency virus (HIV) from our review was 13.6% and this compares to a prevalence of 12% in the Maputo study. This finding underscored the high rate of HIV infection among children with severe forms of PEM and the need to routinely screen such children for HIV when they present at a health facility.


Younger children aged less than two years accounted for most of the admissions in this review. Marasmic-kwashiokor was associated with higher case fatality rate than other types of PEM. There is need therefore to strengthen the infant feeding practices by promoting exclusive breastfeeding for the first 6 months of life, followed by appropriate weaning with continued breast feeding till second year of life. PEM was associated with high rate of mortality in this hospital setting and preventive strategies need to be emphasized instead.

Below are 10 interesting facts about poverty and malnutrition.

  1. Malnutrition takes two general forms. Protein-energy malnutrition, which is basically a lack of calories and protein. This form of malnutrition is the most lethal and is the type of malnutrition that is referred to when world hunger is discussed. The second type of malnutrition is micronutrient or vitamin and mineral deficiency.
  2. According to The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, it is estimated that nearly 870 million people of the 7.1 billion people in the world – or one in eight – were suffering from chronic undernourishment in 2010-2012.
  3. Poverty and malnutrition have a direct link – poverty is the main and principal cause of malnutrition. The World Bank estimated that in 2008 that there were about 1.35 million poor people in developing countries who live on $1.25 a day or less.
  4. In addition to poverty, the other main causes of malnutrition are harmful economic systems, war and conflict and climate change.
  5. The countries with the highest rates of malnutrition also have the lowest economic indicators.
  6. Children are the most vulnerable victims of malnutrition.  Poor nutrition plays a role in at least half of the 10.9 million child deaths each year.
  7. Mothers who lack access to proper nutrients bear malnourished children. These children face greater challenges in their ability to learn and thrive. They are more susceptible to illness and disease. Their compromised opportunities for healthy development and mental and physical agility usually means the cycle of poverty continues.
  8. In another link between poverty and malnutrition, the WHO reports that one out of three people in developing countries are affected by vitamin and mineral deficiencies.
  9. The world produces enough food to feed everyone. The real problem is that many people in the world do not have sufficient land to grow or income to purchase enough food. Poverty and malnutrition can create a self-sustaining cycle where there is never enough security or stability for recovery of health or economic development.
  10. Some countries address the problem of poverty and malnutrition by administering programs that provide assistance to those who suffer from a lack of nutrients in their diet by offering dietary supplements and fortified foods. This is seen as a cost-effective strategy in combating poverty and malnutrition.

– Nina Verfaillie

Chapter 12. Protein-energy malnutrition

Protein-energy malnutrition (PEM) in young children is currently the most important nutritional problem in most countries in Asia, Latin America, the Near East and Africa. Energy deficiency is the major cause. No accurate figures exist on the world prevalence of PEM, but World Health Organization (WHO) estimates suggest that the prevalence of PEM in children under five years of age in developing countries has fallen progressively, from 42.6 percent in 1975 to 34.6 percent in 1995. However, in some regions this fall in percentage has not been as rapid as the rise in population; thus in some regions, such as Africa and South Asia, the number of malnourished children has in fact risen. In fact the number of underweight children worldwide has risen from 195 million in 1975 to an estimated 200 million at the end of 1994, which means that more than one-third of the world’s under-five population is still malnourished.

Failure to grow adequately is the first and most important manifestation of PEM. It often results from consuming too little food, especially energy, and is frequently aggravated by infections. A child who manifests growth failure may be shorter in length or height or lighter in weight than expected for a child of his or her age, or may be thinner than expected for height.

The conceptual framework described in Chapter 1 suggests that there are three necessary conditions to prevent malnutrition or growth failure:

  • adequate food availability and consumption;
  • good health and access to medical care; and
  • adequate care and feeding practices.

If any one of these is absent, PEM is a likely outcome.

The term protein-energy malnutrition entered the medical literature fairly recently, but the condition has been known for many years. In earlier literature it was called by other names, including protein-calorie malnutrition (PCM) and protein-energy deficiency.

The term PEM is used to describe a broad array of clinical conditions ranging from the mild to the serious. At one end of the spectrum, mild PEM manifests itself mainly as poor physical growth in children; at the other end of the spectrum, kwashiorkor (characterized by the presence of oedema) and nutritional marasmus (characterized by severe wasting) have high case fatality rates.

It has been known for centuries that grossly inadequate food intake during famine and food shortages leads to weight loss and wasting and eventually to death from starvation. However, it was not until the 1930s that Cicely Williams, working in Ghana, described in detail the condition she termed “kwashiorkor” (using the local Ga word meaning “the disease of the displaced child”). In the 1950s kwashiorkor began to get a great deal of attention. It was often described as the most important form of malnutrition, and it was believed to be caused mainly by protein deficiency. The solution seemed to be to make more protein-rich foods available to children at risk. This stress on kwashiorkor and on protein led to a relative neglect of nutritional marasmus and adequate food and energy intakes for children.

The current view is that most PEM is the result of inadequate intake or poor utilization of food and energy, not a deficiency of one nutrient and not usually simply a lack of dietary protein. It has also been increasingly realized that infections contribute importantly to PEM. Nutritional marasmus is now recognized to be often more prevalent than kwashiorkor. It is unknown why a given child may develop one syndrome as opposed to the other, and it is now seen that these two serious clinical forms of PEM constitute only the small tip of the iceberg. In most populations studied in poor countries, the point prevalence rate for kwashiorkor and nutritional marasmus combined is 1 to 5 percent, whereas 30 to 70 percent of children up to five years of age manifest what is now termed mild or moderate PEM, diagnosed mainly on the basis of anthropometric measurements.

Causes and epidemiology

PEM, unlike the other important nutritional deficiency diseases, is a macronutrient deficiency, not a micronutrient deficiency. Although termed PEM, it is now generally accepted to stem in most cases from energy deficiency, often caused by insufficient food intake. Energy deficiency is more important and more common than protein deficiency. It is very often associated with infections and with micronutrient deficiencies. Inadequate care, for example infrequent feeding, may play a part.

The cause of PEM (and of some other deficiency diseases prevalent in developing countries) should not, however, be viewed simply in terms of inadequate intake of nutrients. For satisfactory nutrition, foods and the nutrients they contain must be available to the family in adequate quantity; the correct balance of foods and nutrients must be fed at the right intervals; the individual must have an appetite to consume the food; there must be proper digestion and absorption of the nutrients in the food; the metabolism of the person must be reasonably normal; and there should be no conditions that prevent body cells from utilizing the nutrients or that result in abnormal losses of nutrients. Factors that adversely influence any of these requisites can be causes of malnutrition, particularly PEM. The aetiology, therefore, can be complex. Certain factors that contribute to PEM, particularly in the young child, are related to the host, the agent (the diet) and the environment. The underlying causes could also be categorized as those related to the child’s food security, health (including protection from infections and appropriate treatment of illness) and care, including maternal and family practices such as those related to frequency of feeding, breastfeeding and weaning.
Protein-Energy Malnutrition

  • Author: Noah S Scheinfeld, JD, MD, FAAD; Chief Editor: Romesh Khardori, MD, PhD, FACP

The World Health Organization (WHO)[1] defines malnutrition as “the cellular imbalance between the supply of nutrients and energy and the body’s demand for them to ensure growth, maintenance, and specific functions.” The term protein-energy malnutrition (PEM) applies to a group of related disorders that include marasmus, kwashiorkor (see the images below), and intermediate states of marasmus-kwashiorkor. The term marasmus is derived from the Greek word marasmos, which means withering or wasting. Marasmus involves inadequate intake of protein and calories and is characterized by emaciation. The term kwashiorkor is taken from the Ga language of Ghana and means “the sickness of the weaning.” Williams first used the term in 1933, and it refers to an inadequate protein intake with reasonable caloric (energy) intake. Edema is characteristic of kwashiorkor but is absent in marasmus.

This photograph shows children and a nurse attendant at a Nigerian orphanage in the late 1960s. Notice four of the children with gray-blond hair, a symptom of the protein-deficiency disease kwashiorkor. Image courtesy of Dr. Lyle Conrad and the CDC Public Health Image Library.

This late 1960s photograph shows a seated, listless child who was among many kwashiorkor cases found in Nigerian relief camps during the Nigerian-Biafran war. Kwashiorkor is a disease brought on due to a severe dietary protein deficiency, and this child, whose diet fit such a deficiency profile, presented with symptoms including edema of legs and feet, light-colored, thinning hair, anemia, a pot-belly, and shiny skin. Image courtesy of Dr. Lyle Conrad and the CDC Public Health Image Library.

Studies suggest that marasmus represents an adaptive response to starvation, whereas kwashiorkor represents a maladaptive response to starvation. Children may present with a mixed picture of marasmus and kwashiorkor, and children may present with milder forms of malnutrition. For this reason, Jelliffe suggested the term protein-calorie (energy) malnutrition to include both entities.

Although protein-energy malnutrition affects virtually every organ system, this article primarily focuses on its cutaneous manifestations. Patients with protein-energy malnutrition may also have deficiencies of vitamins, essential fatty acids, and trace elements, all of which may contribute to their dermatosis.

In general, marasmus is an insufficient energy intake to match the body’s requirements. As a result, the body draws on its own stores, resulting in emaciation. In kwashiorkor, adequate carbohydrate consumption and decreased protein intake lead to decreased synthesis of visceral proteins. The resulting hypoalbuminemia contributes to extravascular fluid accumulation. Impaired synthesis of B-lipoprotein produces a fatty liver.

Protein-energy malnutrition also involves an inadequate intake of many essential nutrients. Low serum levels of zinc have been implicated as the cause of skin ulceration in many patients. In a 1979 study of 42 children with marasmus, investigators found that only those children with low serum levels of zinc developed skin ulceration. Serum levels of zinc correlated closely with the presence of edema, stunting of growth, and severe wasting. The classic “mosaic skin” and “flaky paint” dermatosis of kwashiorkor bears considerable resemblance to the skin changes of acrodermatitis enteropathica, the dermatosis of zinc deficiency.

In 2007, Lin et al[2] stated that “a prospective assessment of food and nutrient intake in a population of Malawian children at risk for kwashiorkor” found “no association between the development of kwashiorkor and the consumption of any food or nutrient.”

Marasmus and kwashiorkor can both be associated with impaired glucose clearance that relates to dysfunction of pancreatic beta-cells.[3] In utero, plastic mechanisms appear to operate, adjusting metabolic physiology and adapting postnatal undernutrition and malnutrition to define whether marasmus and kwashiorkor will develop.[4]

United States

Protein-energy malnutrition is the most common form of nutritional deficiency among patients who are hospitalized in the United States. As many as half of all patients admitted to the hospital have malnutrition to some degree. In a recent survey in a large children’s hospital, the prevalence of acute and chronic protein-energy malnutrition was more than one half. This is very much a disease that occurs in 21st century America, and a case in an 8-month-old child in suburban Detroit, Mich, was reported in 2010.[9] Additional cases of kwashiorkor have been noted to occur in the United States. An interesting report of a baby with a clinical picture imitating Stevens-Johnson syndrome but who in fact had kwashiorkor has been noted.[10] Babies solely fed on rice milk can develop kwashiorkor even in the United States.

In a survey focusing on low-income areas of the United States, 22-35% of children aged 2-6 years were below the 15th percentile for weight. Another survey showed that 11% of children in low-income areas had height-for-age measurements below the 5th percentile. Poor growth is seen in 10% of children in rural populations.

In hospitalized elderly persons, up to 55% are undernourished. Up to 85% of institutionalized elderly persons are undernourished. Studies have shown that up to 50% have vitamin and mineral intake that is less than the recommended dietary allowance and up to 30% of elderly persons have below-normal levels of vitamins and minerals.


In 2000, the WHO[11] estimated that malnourished children numbered 181.9 million (32%) in developing countries. In addition, an estimated 149.6 million children younger than 5 years are malnourished when measured in terms of weight for age. In south central Asia and eastern Africa, about half the children have growth retardation due to protein-energy malnutrition. This figure is 5 times the prevalence in the western world.

A cross-sectional study of Palestinian adolescents found that 55.66% of boys and 64.81% of girls had inadequate energy intake, with inadequate protein intake in 15.07% of boys and 43.08% of girls. The recommended daily allowance for micronutrients was met by less than 80% of the study subjects.[12]


Approximately 50% of the 10 million deaths each year in developing countries occur because of malnutrition in children younger than 5 years. In kwashiorkor, mortality tends to decrease as the age of onset increases.


Dermatologic findings appear more significant and occur more frequently among darker-skinned peoples. This finding is likely explained by the greater prevalence and the increased severity of protein-energy malnutrition in developing countries and not to a difference in racial susceptibility.

The hungry and forgotten


chinese child

chinese child

Pilot projects in cooperation with the Ministry of Health have demonstrated the effectiveness of Ying Yang Bao, a simple easy-to-use complementary food supplement, in preventing and controlling childhood malnutrition.UNICEF has been supporting intensive efforts on finding solutions.

Even where children get the calories they need—as most do in rural China—they are not being fed the right things. In one study of 1,800 infants in rural Shaanxi province in China’s north-west, 49% were anaemic and 40% were significantly hampered in developing either cognitive or motor skills. Fewer than one in ten were stunted or wasting, meaning that in most cases the problem was not lack of calories, but lack of nutrients.

China shares this affliction with much of the developing world. But it has the resources to respond. Parents have the means to feed their babies properly. And with a relatively modest investment, the government could do a better job of improving childhood nutrition. The difficulties lie in educating parents—and officials.

“Babies are probably 50% malnourished” in poor rural areas, says Scott Rozelle, co-director of the Rural Education Action Programme (REAP), a research outfit at Stanford University which has done extensive tests on anaemia in rural China. “But almost no mums are malnourished.” Mr Rozelle says that in one of his surveys rural mothers showed a better understanding of how to feed pigs than babies: 71% said pigs need micronutrients, whereas only 20% said babies need them.

Mr Lu’s charity and REAP argue that a nutritional supplement called ying yang bao should be available to rural mothers. A powdery concoction of soyabeans, iron, zinc, calcium and vitamins, it is supposed to be sprinkled on food once a day. Each packet costs less than one yuan (16 cents) to produce and one yuan to distribute, paid by the government.

Trials conducted since 2006 have consistently shown that ying yang bao reduces anaemia and improves growth and development in infants and toddlers. But persuading parents of this (or grandparents, if the parents are off working in cities) has not been easy. About half give up feeding it to their children. “Poor people feel very suspicious”, Mr Lu says. They wonder if free supplements are unsafe, or fake. “Then they worry will we charge later?”

This may be the legacy in rural China of years of seeing government invest little—and often charge a lot—for basic services. Moreover, at the local level the workers who are meant to help mothers may well be family-planning officials responsible for controlling population, a role that hardly inspires trust.

At higher levels of government, too, officials need a lot of persuading that nutrition programmes are not a waste of public money. In 2011 China began instituting a programme similar to America’s federal school-lunch programme for the poor, at a cost of 16 billion yuan ($2.6 billion) a year. But one assessment suggests that perhaps half the schools are providing substandard, uncooked meals, partly because some local governments refuse to foot the bill for kitchens and cooks.

In 2012 the health ministry made a modest investment of 100m yuan to provide supplements to 270,000 babies in 100 counties. This year 400,000 babies in 300 counties are meant to get them. Later this year Mr Lu’s charity will begin a tiny pilot of an early-parenting programme, akin to America’s Head Start, in 50 villages, with 50 more villages being used for controlled comparison. James Heckman, an economist and Nobel laureate who has researched early-childhood development, is helping design the study. Such programmes look promising. But they are tiny.

Part of the problem in getting local or provincial governments to spend money on childhood nutrition is that the payoffs are years in the making. And the returns might not go to the village or province, but to cities miles away, in the form of more skilled workers who move there. Central ministries are keen to invest, Mr Lu says, but they want to spend their cash on things that officials crave more than children do—like buildings in villages for each ministry.

For Mr Lu one kind of building does promise a big payoff—village early-education centres, or preschools. His charity has set them up in 677 villages, often using redundant elementary schools. In Songjia village Tian Lin, 22, and her older sister, Tian Hongjiao, teach 26 children aged three to six, including the younger sister’s own three-year-old son. They cook lunch with whatever the children bring from home. Those with migrant-worker parents, who are a bit better off, may have a chunk of pork; others bring a meagre potato or vegetable. Either way all the children get a ying yang bao with their lunch.

In 2012 a study found the anaemia rate among the three- to five-year-olds in this county was close to 18%, more than twice the average for poor rural areas nationwide, according to Mr Lu’s CDRF. He reckons that, on coming to the centres, the children show only 20% of the memory retention of their urban counterparts and 40-60% of their language abilities and cognition. But nutritional supplements help. A study of nine- and ten-year olds, co-written by Mr Rozelle, found that taking a daily chewable vitamin with iron for six months not only cut anaemia levels. It also improved their maths.

pre-school centre in Songjia

pre-school centre in Songjia

Malnutrition Plagues Children of Rural China
China became an economic superpower in only a matter of decades. Forbes Magazine’s annual rich list reported that China has had 152 billionaires this past year. The once struggling nation has shown promising improvement. According to the World Bank, the number of impoverished people living in China dropped from 683 million in 1990 to 157 million in 2009. This improvement is a result of the rapid urbanization in China in recent years. Greater economic opportunity and government assistance is now available in cities. However, children in rural villages are stuck in a seemingly unbreakable cycle of poverty.

The children of rural China face a variety of challenges that are virtually nonexistent in the cities. Among one of the most glaring is the struggle against malnutrition. UNICEF estimates that there are 12.7 million stunted children in China; this life-long condition that results from severe malnutrition plagues children most during early childhood.

stunted due to malnutrition during his first two years of life.

Lttle Han’s elder brother (right) is 9-years-old and stands barely 1.2 meter tall. It is likely that he is stunted due to malnutrition during his first two years of life.

Back home, noodles without beef and porridge are the staple foods. For an average rural family in Hualong, potato is almost their sole source of vegetable.  Beef and mutton are only consumed during rare festive occasions.

Many families cannot afford to keep any sheep or cattle, therefore both milk and meat can be rarely found on the dining table.

“Babies eat the same food as their mothers after breastfeeding stops – we all know there is not enough nutrition for them, but we didn’t know what to do,” said Dr. Wang Chunhua, from the  township hospital,. She has delivered over 500 babies during her 10 years’ service in Hualong.

In addition to malnutrition, anemia takes a tremendous toll on rural Chinese children. Stanford University conducted a test on 1824 babies in China’s Shaanxi Province. Forty nine percent of the babies tested were anemic and 28 percent were near anemic. Furthermore, of all the babies tested, 40 percent displayed cognitive or motor problems.

Why are rates of anemia so high? Stanford reports that while the parents were generally willing to spend additional money on food for their children, they were uninformed on what type of nutritional value the food should have. Many micronutrients, such as iron, were missing, indicating that fresh fruits and vegetables were consumed infrequently. Additionally, further investigation revealed that mothers stopped breastfeeding after six months. From that point on, the child would typically eat rice porridge or soups.

Misinformed parents are often responsible for their children’s poor health. Parents often do not introduce solid food into children’s diets until they are 12 to 18 months old, though it is recommended that solid food make up half of a one-year-old’s diet. Many parents believe myths that babies cannot digest hard foods or that particular foods, like rice, are better for cognitive development.

Treating anemia and replenishing nutrients is actually quite easy. Stanford researchers state that simply taking iron supplements can counter anemia. To address the rampant malnutrition in China’s poor, rural provinces, UNICEF has begun to distribute a nutrition supplement called Ying Yang Bao. Ying Yang Bao is a small packet of powdered vitamins, minerals and proteins that can be mixed into solid foods like porridge.

Many rural Chinese families cannot afford to buy fresh fruits, vegetables and proteins like beef. Dairy products are also expensive and difficult to access. Often, noodles, porridge, rice and starches like potatoes constitute meals. Fortunately, the micronutrients in Ying Yang Bao are easily dissolved in porridges and soups.

UNICEF reports that, between 2008 and 2011, more than 30,000 rural children received Ying Yang Bao. After consumption, anemia levels were cut in half. A long-term solution to malnutrition is still in the works. While aid from UNICEF and other organizations is improving the health of rural children, education is a key issue to be addressed. Parents are misguided by myths and superstitions, which has led to the silent suffering on many children. A public education program has not been officially instituted, but would be another component of China’s long-term solution for malnutrition.

– Bridget Tobin

Child: Care, Health and Development

Volume 31Issue 4pages 417–423July 2005

  • feeding practices;
  • nutrition;
  • rural China


Background  China has the largest population in the world with more than 70% of the people living in rural areas. Over 34% of children under the age of 5 years are responded to show moderate or severe growth stunting, so United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund and Chinese Ministry of Health conducted this large-scale survey in China. This study aimed to learn the feeding practice, to find the problems in child-feeding practice and to provide evidence for the government to develop an approach to child malnutrition in rural China.

Methods  A structured  questionnaire  was  used  to  survey  21 036  mothers  of  children  with  age  of 0–24 months.

Results  Of the 20 915 children, 98.22% were breastfeeding and 24.36% were exclusively breastfeeding. The proportion of children with weekly protein intake was 78.47%. Among the infants under 4 months, the risk of pneumonia in the group of exclusive breastfeeding was 1.69%, while in the group of non-exclusive breastfeeding was 3.63%, showing a statistically significant difference between the two groups. The risk of diarrhoea in the group of exclusive breastfeeding and in the group of non-exclusive breastfeeding among the infants under 4 months was 24.37% and 40.86%, respectively, also showing a statistically significant difference between the two groups. For children with age 4–6 months, the complementary feeding contributed to a higher prevalence of diarrhoea, but not pneumonia.

Conclusions  The breastfeeding was very common, but the exclusive breastfeeding was quite low and the exclusive breastfeeding for children under the age of 4 months decreased the risks of pneumonia and diarrhoea. For children with age 4–6 months, the exclusive breastfeeding could decrease the risk of diarrhoea, too. Protein intake was insufficient for children in rural China. The rural people lacked health knowledge and were greatly influenced by traditional feeding practices.

Physical growth of children and adolescents in China over the past 35 years

Xin-Nan Zong a & Hui Li a

  1. Department of Growth and Development, Capital Institute of Pediatrics, No. 2 Yabao Road, Chaoyang District, Beijing 100020, China.

Correspondence to Hui Li (email:

(Submitted: 18 June 2013 – Revised version received: 10 December 2013 – Accepted: 14 January 2014 – Published online: 05 June 2014.)

Bulletin of the World Health Organization 2014; 92:555-564. doi:


In 1978, the Government of China introduced economic reforms to convert the country’s planned economy into a free-market system. Since then, sustained economic productivity has greatly increased the food supply, average household income and personal expenditure on food.1,2 With increasing urbanization, the average Chinese diet has become higher in fat and calories, and lower in dietary fibre.3 Also, the level of physical activity during work and leisure time has declined.4In short, dietary changes after these economic reforms have been accompanied by a rise in diseases related to affluence.5,6

Child-growth assessments are useful not only for monitoring a population’s nutritional status, but also for gauging inequalities in human development among different populations.7 Although many growth and nutrition surveys among children and adolescents have been carried out in China,8,9 few have tried to link trends in child growth and nutrition to changes in economic development. One study that evaluated the effects of China’s economic reforms on the growth of children showed an increase in the average height of children in both rural and urban areas. However, the increase in urban areas was five times that of rural areas.10

Since the economic reforms, income inequalities have increased between western rural areas and coastal areas, as well as between and within rural and urban areas.11These inequalities have probably influenced the regional distribution of malnutrition and how this distribution has changed over time.12

The objective of this paper is to give an overall picture of long-term trends in the growth and nutritional status of Chinese children and adolescents by examining the results of seven large surveys conducted over the past 35 years. We focused on regional disparities in child and adolescent growth and nutritional status, as well as on changes in the pattern and rates of malnutrition after the transition to a more high-fat, high-energy-density and low-fibre diet in an attempt to determine if these changes were associated with the country’s economic development.


Data procurement

Growth and nutrition data

Data on the growth and nutritional status of children and adolescents between 0 and 18 years of age were extracted from published data and raw datasets of seven large surveys undertaken in one or more areas with different economic characteristics in China between 1975 and 2010. The following surveys were included: National Growth Survey of Children under 7 years in the Nine Cities of China; National Growth Survey for Rural Children under 7 years in the Ten Provinces of China; National Epidemiological Survey on Simple Obesity in Childhood; Chinese National Survey on Students’ Constitution and Health; China National Nutrition Survey; Chinese Food and Nutrition Surveillance system and China Health and Nutrition Survey. A summary of these surveys can be found in Table 1.

Classification of economic areas was based on five indices: regional gross domestic product (GDP), total yearly income per capita, average food consumption per capita, natural growth rate of population, and the regional social welfare index.8 The areas were categorized from highest to lowest economic status as large coastal cities, high, medium or low cities, high, medium or low rural areas and poor western rural areas.

Economic data

Development indicators for China were obtained from the World Bank;29 GDP per capita, the Gini index and the percentage of the population living in urban areas between 1970 and 2012.

Mortality data

Mortality rates for infants and for children less than 5 years of age between 1990 and 2013 were obtained from the Global Burden of Disease study.30

Dietary data

Dietary data for children and adolescents – daily intake of calories, fats, and protein – were obtained from the China Health and Nutrition Survey24 and the China National Nutrition Survey.20

Sedentary behaviour and physical activity

To describe trends in the level of physical activity, data on sedentary behaviour (hours per day watching television or videos or using the computer) and on passive commuting to and from school were obtained from replies to the China Health and Nutrition Survey questionnaire.25,26

Data analysis

Since the study designs, location and demographic characteristics of the population vary among the surveys, data from subsequent rounds of the same survey were used to assess trends. We assessed undernutrition using data for underweight and stunting. Underweight was defined as less than minus two standard deviations from the median weight-for-age of the reference population. Stunting was defined as less than minus two standard deviations from median height-for-age of the reference population. We assessed obesity using data for both overweight and obesity as defined by the Working Group on Obesity in China, adjusted for each year of age.31

We examined the statistical associations between physical growth and economic development using ecological comparisons and trends. To explore the relationship between height and GDP and urbanization and infant and child mortality rates, we calculated Pearson’s correlation coefficients (r), adjusting for sex. Trends in the prevalence of underweight, stunting, overweight and obesity were assessed using the χ2 test. SPSS version 13.0 (SPSS Inc., Chicago, United States of America) was used for the statistical analyses.


Secular trends in growth

Between 1975 and 2010, the average height of children and adolescents increased steadily, without any tendency to plateau. The largest increment was noted around puberty, particularly among males, e.g. an increase of 11.9 cm in 13-year-old urban boys. The difference in height between the sexes at 18 years of age increased from 10.3 cm to 12.3 cm during this same period.

Body weight increased in both sexes and all age groups from 1985–2010. After 2005, in all age categories boys were heavier than girls (Fig. 1). To assess whether the increase in adolescents’ average height was associated with economic development – as captured by urbanization, GDP per capita and the Gini index – (Fig. 2), we looked for correlations between two of these indicators and the average height of adolescents 17–18 years of age.

Fig. 1. Changes in physical height and body weight of children and adolescents living in Chinese urban areas, 1975–2010

Fig. 1. Changes in physical height and body weight of children and adolescents living in Chinese urban areas, 1975–2010

Fig. 1. Changes in physical height and body weight of children and adolescents living in Chinese urban areas, 1975–2010

Sample size: n = 140 229 aged 0–18 years in 1975; n = 79 194 for children less than 7 years of age in 1985; n = 79 154 for children less than 7 years of age in 1995; n = 69 760 for children less than 7 years of age in 2005; n = 204 973 aged 7–18 years in 1985; n = 105 409 aged 7–18 years in 1995; n = 117 997 aged 7–18 years in 2005 and n = 107 574 aged 7–18 years in 2010.
Data sources: National Growth Survey of Children under 7 years in the Nine Cities of China13 and Chinese National Survey on Students Constitution and Health.32

Fig. 2. Trends in gross domestic product (GDP) per capita, Gini index, urban population and child mortality rate in China, 1975–2010

Height showed a close correlation with GDP

Height showed a close correlation with GDP

US$, United States dollars.
Data sources: GDP, Gini index and urban population from the World Bank;29 infant mortality and under-5 years mortality rates from the World population prospects: the 2010 revision.30

Height showed a close correlation with GDP per capita (r = 0.90, P < 0.0001) and with urbanization (r = 0.92, P < 0.0001). We also looked for a correlation between the decline in infant and under-5 mortality rates (Fig. 2) and average height and observed that they were both negatively correlated (r = −0.95; P < 0.0001), even after sex adjustment (r = −0.94; P < 0.0001).

Geographical disparities

Differences in height were observed in areas having different economic characteristics. Data from the National Growth Survey of Children under 7 years in Nine Cities of China and the National Growth Survey for Rural Children under 7 years in Ten Provinces of China showed that, on average, children of both sexes in rural areas were 2.1 cm (standard deviation, SD: 1.2) shorter than those in suburban areas and 3.6 cm (SD: 2.0) shorter than those in urban areas.

According to the Chinese National Survey on Students’ Constitution and Health, children and adolescents between 7 and 18 years of age who lived in a coastal city were taller, on average, than those living in other provincial capitals. They were also markedly taller, on average, than those living in medium-sized or small cities. Similar differences were observed among rural areas showing high, moderate and poor economic development (Fig. 3).

Fig. 3. Physical heighta in children and adolescents of different economic status groups, China, 2005

National Growth Survey of Children under 7 years in the Nine Cities of China

National Growth Survey of Children under 7 years in the Nine Cities of China

a Height was measured as length for children less than 3 years of age.
Sample size: n = 69 760 urban children less than 7 years of age; n = 69 015 suburban children less than 7 years of age; n = 95 925 rural children less than 7 years of age;n = 81 438 urban children and adolescents aged 7–18 years; n = 111 584 rural children and adolescents aged 7–18 years.
Data sources: National Growth Survey of Children under 7 years in the Nine Cities of China,13 National Growth Survey for Rural Children under 7 years in the Ten Provinces of China9 and Chinese National Survey on Students Constitution and Health.17,18

Trends in malnutrition

The prevalence of undernutrition in children less than 5 years of age was highest in poor rural areas. Compared with the 1990s, the overall prevalence of undernutrition has declined sharply – by 74% for underweight and 70% for stunting. Significant downward trends in the prevalence of both underweight and stunting were observed for all areas (P < 0.001). However, in poor rural areas in 2010, the prevalence of underweight and stunting was still high, at 8.0% and 20.3%, respectively (Fig. 4).

Fig. 4. Trends in underweighta and stuntingb in children less than 5 years of age, China, 1990–2010

below minus two standard deviations from median weight-for-age of the reference population

below minus two standard deviations from median weight-for-age of the reference population

a Underweight was defined as below minus two standard deviations from median weight-for-age of the reference population.
b Stunting was defined as below minus two standard deviations from median height-for-age of the reference population.
Sample size: n = 3200 rural children and n = 1130 urban children in 1990; n = 2139 rural children and n = 765 urban children in 1995; n = 10 729 rural children and n = 5770 urban children in 2000; n = 10 501 rural children and n = 5535 urban children in 2005; n = 10 596 rural children and n = 4803 urban children in 2010.
Data source: Chinese Food and Nutrition Surveillance System.21–23

In 2010, the combined prevalence of overweight and obesity was found to be highest among urban boys (23.2%), followed by rural boys (13.8%), urban girls (12.7%) and rural girls (8.6%). Significant increases were noted in the combined prevalence of overweight and obesity in all groups (P < 0.001) (Fig. 5). Between 1985 and 2010, the proportion of obese males increased faster than that of obese females. In urban areas, male obesity increased 0.34 percentage points per year, compared with 0.15 for female obesity. In rural areas, the increase was 0.18 percentage points per year for male obesity, compared with 0.10 for female obesity. The increase in obesity in urban areas between 1985 and 2000 was twice that of the increase in rural areas during the same time period. However, between 2005 and 2010, the annual increase in obesity in rural areas has outpaced that of urban areas (0.34 versus 0.30 percentage points in males and 0.17 versus 0.10 percentage points in females).

Fig. 6 (not shown) illustrates the burden of obesity in areas with different economic characteristics. Large coastal cities were the first to exhibit a rise in overweight and obesity and had the largest increase in prevalence – 32.6% (males) and 19.1% (females) in 2010. Similar increases followed in other areas: first in large, prosperous cities, followed by medium-sized cities with a large middle class and, finally, by the more affluent rural areas. Although an increase in obesity was noted between 1985 and 2010 in western rural areas with low economic development, these areas still had the lowest prevalence of obesity in 2010.

Trends in nutrition and physical activity

To assess whether factors associated with increased body weight in children and adolescents were affected by China’s economic reforms, we obtained data on fat and protein intake and level of physical activity. Between 1991 and 2009, people’s diets in China changed considerably. For children and adolescents between 7 and 17 years of age, the average daily fat intake increased from 55 to 66 g and the average daily protein intake decreased from 66 to 58 g. There was also an increase in fats as a proportion of total caloric intake and an increase in the proportion of children and adolescents obtaining more than 30% of their energy from fat. In addition, during this period time spent in front of a television, video or computer also increased, as did the proportion of children and adolescents who commuted to school in a motorized vehicle (Fig. 7)(not shown).

The economic transition

In the wake of the 1978 reforms, China underwent many changes in its social structures, living conditions and diet. This has been accompanied by a positive trend in the physical growth of children.33 An empirical division of China’s economic development into stages based on the time cycle of China growth surveys facilitates the analysis of its association with trends in children’s growth. In Stage I (before 1975) – out of scope of this analysis – a previous subtle upward trend in growth ceased and even reversed owing to the detrimental effects of famine. In Stage II (1975–1985), children’s growth began to improve again with the recovery of the national economy, and positive trends emerged in older age groups of children in the major cities. In Stage III (1985–1995), physical growth continued to improve in parallel with sustained economic growth. The increment in height among children in rural areas exceeded that seen in children living in urban areas because of improved living standards, health care and increased food supply in the rural areas in the mid-1980s.9 In Stage IV (1995–2005), even higher growth increments were documented among both urban and rural residents. According to data from 2005 to 2010 (Stage V), the increment has continued and does not seem to be levelling off.34

The growth of children in China has improved in recent decades and this improvement is more pronounced at puberty than at earlier or later ages, consistent with other population-based studies.35 The increase in height at the age of 18 years is already present in younger ages and the eventual increase in adult height is established during the first 2 years of life.

In the Netherlands, the secular increase in growth has come to a halt after 150 years, with males now 13.1 cm taller on average than females.36 Since sex difference in adult height widens gradually as secular increases in growth continue, the difference of 12.3 cm between the sexes in 2010 suggests that the positive trend in Chinese children may continue.

Before the economic reforms, food had been in short supply,3 but after 1978, when a policy of liberal food production was introduced and annual economic growth improved, people began to eat more meat and grains and less vegetables. Child growth and nutrition improved and overweight and obesity were still rare. In 1985 and 1986, the prevalence of obesity in children and adolescents was below 1% in large cities.15,19

In 1986, China started its first specific survey on obesity and found that the Chinese diet had become richer in fats and calories and lower in fibre, a change that was introducing an increased risk of chronic diseases.37,38 Obesity among infants and preschool children increased by a factor of 2.8 between 1986 and 2006.15 And between 1985 and 2010, overweight among school-aged children and adolescents increased from 1.11% to 9.62% and obesity from 0.13% to 4.95%.16 Additionally, between 1993 and 2009 the prevalence of obesity rose from 6.1% to 13.1% among children between the ages of 6 and 17 years.39 The higher prevalence of overweight males contrasts with the situation in some non-Asian countries.40

In 2012, for the first time in history, China’s urban population outnumbered its rural population.41 This urbanization can be seen as a double-edged sword. Although it has brought increased access to health care and improvements in basic health infrastructure for many, it has also brought about changes in diet and lifestyle, such as an increase in the availability of sweets and fast-food restaurants and in the use of television, personal computers and cars, all of which can pose substantial health risks.42,43

We have shown that in recent decades fat intake and physical inactivity have risen among Chinese children, with a resulting increase in childhood obesity and a documented decline in physical fitness. For instance, the capacity for endurance running among Chinese students declined significantly between 1985 and 2010.32,44

Dual burden of malnutrition

Large discrepancies still exist between rural and urban areas both in health conditions and in health care.45 Decades of observation suggest that despite improved growth in children belonging to all economic groups, a large growth disparity persists between the rural and suburban areas and the urban areas,9 and among different economic subgroups within these areas.17,18

Compared with the late 1980s and early 1990s,46 in 2010, malnutrition in childhood declined dramatically, owing to sustained economic development, sound nutrition policies, improved health services for women and children and broad implementation of child nutritional interventions.23 However, in the same year, nutrition in rural areas was still poor, with a high prevalence of underweight and stunting among children less than5 years of age. Another survey in 2009 reported 15.9% prevalence for stunting, 7.8% for underweight and 3.7% for wasting in poor rural ares.47

We have also observed a paradoxical situation: in 2006, prevalence of overweight children was as high as 16.8%, while that of stunting was 57.6% among the children in the same poor areas of China’s midwestern provinces.48 The coexistence of stunting and overweight in the same child is a result of protein and energy malnutrition, which retards height despite increased body weight,49 and Chinese rural children have a lower daily protein intake than urban children.24

Childhood obesity has become a serious public health problem in China.19,50 The current strategies for preventing and controlling malnutrition need to be re-examined. Research on obesity prevention and control needs to be improved and nutrition policies need to be aligned with appropriate obesity prevention strategies. Cross-sectoral collaboration such as between health and agriculture, needs to be promoted.

Our study has shown that regional inequalities in child growth and nutrition in China accompany regional economic disparities. Therefore, to promote equitable growth for all children in China, strategies for optimal nutrition need to focus more closely on disadvantaged groups in the poor and underdeveloped areas.


  1. Chow G. China’s economic transformation. New York (NY): Blackwell Publishing; 2002.
  2. Hu ZL, Khan MS. Economic issues 8: why is China’s growth so fast? Washington (DC): International Monetary Fund; 1997.
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listless child who was among many kwashiorkor cases

listless child who was among many kwashiorkor cases

This late 1960s photograph shows a seated, listless child who was among many kwashiorkor cases found in Nigerian relief camps during the Nigerian-Biafran war. Kwashiorkor is a disease brought on due to a severe dietary protein deficiency, and this child, whose diet fit such a deficiency profile, presented with symptoms including edema of legs and feet, light-colored, thinning hair, anemia, a pot-belly, and shiny skin. Image courtesy of Dr. Lyle Conrad and the CDC Public Health Image Library.



Even where children get the calories they need—as most do in rural China—they are not being fed the right things. In one study of 1,800 infants in rural Shaanxi province in China’s north-west, 49% were anemic and 40% were significantly hampered in developing either cognitive or motor skills. Fewer than one in ten were stunted or wasting, meaning that in most cases the problem was not lack of calories, but lack of micronutrients.

Part of the problem in getting local or provincial governments to spend money on childhood nutrition is that the payoffs are years in the making. And the returns might not go to the village or province, but to cities miles away, in the form of more skilled workers who move there. Central ministries are keen to invest, Mr Lu says, but they want to spend their cash on things that officials crave more than children do—like buildings in villages for each ministry.

For Mr Lu one kind of building does promise a big payoff—village early-education centres, or preschools. His charity has set them up in 677 villages, often using redundant elementary schools. In Songjia village Tian Lin, 22, and her older sister, Tian Hongjiao, teach 26 children aged three to six, including the younger sister’s own three-year-old son. They cook lunch with whatever the children bring from home. Those with migrant-worker parents, who are a bit better off, may have a chunk of pork; others bring a meagre potato or vegetable. Either way all the children get a ying yang bao with their lunch.

In 2012 a study found the anemia rate among the three- to five-year-olds in this county was close to 18%, more than twice the average for poor rural areas nationwide, according to Mr Lu’s CDRF. He reckons that, on coming to the centres, the children show only 20% of the memory retention of their urban counterparts and 40-60% of their language abilities and cognition. But nutritional supplements help. A study of nine- and ten-year olds, co-written by Mr Rozelle, found that taking a daily chewable vitamin with iron for six months not only cut anaemia levels. It also improved their maths.

children under the age of five, wasting and stunting

children under the age of five, wasting and stunting

Despite progress, malnutrition remains a challenge

AKARTA, 30 August 2012 (IRIN) – While Indonesia in relative terms is cutting the number of malnourished children under the age of five, wasting and stunting – especially in certain pockets of the country – remain a major concern, say health experts.



Vitamin A deficiency

A few salient facts

  • An estimated 250 million preschool children are vitamin A deficient and it is likely that in vitamin A deficient areas a substantial proportion of pregnant women is vitamin A deficient.
  • An estimated 250 000 to 500 000 vitamin A-deficient children become blind every year, half of them dying within 12 months of losing their sight.

A collateral challenge

Vitamin A deficiency (VAD) is the leading cause of preventable blindness in children and increases the risk of disease and death from severe infections. In pregnant women VAD causes night blindness and may increase the risk of maternal mortality.

Vitamin A deficiency is a public health problem in more than half of all countries, especially in Africa and South-East Asia, hitting hardest young children and pregnant women in low-income countries.

Crucial for maternal and child survival, supplying adequate vitamin A in high-risk areas can significantly reduce mortality. Conversely, its absence causes a needlessly high risk of disease and death.

  • For children, lack of vitamin A causes severe visual impairment and blindness, and significantly increases the risk of severe illness, and even death, from such common childhood infections as diarrhoeal disease and measles.
  • For pregnant women in high-risk areas, vitamin A deficiency occurs especially during the last trimester when demand by both the unborn child and the mother is highest. The mother’s deficiency is demonstrated by the high prevalence of night blindness during this period. The impact of VAD on mother-to-child HIV transmission needs further investigation.

The most damaging micronutrient deficiencies in the world are the consequence of low dietary intake of iron, vitamin A, iodine and zinc. Vitamin A deficiency (VAD) is prevalent among the poor whose diets are based mainly on rice or other carbohydrate-rich, micronutrient-poor calory sources. Rice does not contain any β-carotene (provitamin A), which their body could then convert into vitamin A. Dependence on rice as the predominant food source, therefore, necessarily leads to VAD, most severely affecting small children and pregnant women. In 2012 the World Health Organization reported that about 250 million preschool children are affected by VAD, and that providing those children with vitamin A could prevent about a third of all under-five deaths, which amounts to up to 2.7 million children that could be saved from dying unnecessarily.

VAD compromises the immune systems of approximately 40 percent of children under five in the developing world, greatly increasing the severeness of common childhood infections, often leading to deadly outcomes. VAD is most severe in Southeast Asia and Africa. For the 400 million rice-consuming poor, the medical consequences are fatal: impaired vision—, in extreme cases irreversible blindness; impaired epithelial integrity, exposing the affected individuals to infections; reduced immune response; impaired haemopoiesis (and hence reduced capacity to transport oxygen in the blood) and skeletal growth; among other debilitating afflictions.

Rice containing provitamin A could substantially reduce the problems described above. This can only be achieved using genetic engineering because there is no provitamin A in the rice seeds, even though it is present in the leaves. Thousands of rice varieties have been screened for this trait without success. Existing coloured rice varieties contain pigments that belong to a different chemical class.

Small children are most susceptible to micronutrient deficiencies. Initially a VAD affects their eyesight, but at the same time it impairs their immune system, and children fall prey to common infectious diseases. Vitamin A and zinc alone could save more thn a third of the 12 million children who die annually because of malnutrition worldwide.

Golden Rice has the potential to complement existing efforts that seek to reduce blindness and other VAD induced diseases. Those efforts include industrial fortification of basic foodstuffs with vitamin A, distribution of vitamin supplements, and increasing consumption of other foods rich in vitamin A.

Distribution of Vitamin A Deficiency (WHO, 2009)

Distribution of Vitamin A Deficiency (WHO, 2009)


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