Childhood Malnutrition in the UK: What it is and what can be done to prevent it

Malnutrition is a term which is often associated with less developed countries and not with rich countries like the UK. In reality, this is far from the truth. Malnutrition still affects children and over 65 year old’s greatly in our society, and the situation is being worsened by the current pandemic. Almost 2,500 children were admitted to hospitals in England due to malnutrition in the first six months of 2020, which is double that of numbers from the same period last year. 

Childhood malnutrition is also on the rise due to children living with parents who are suffering from food insecurity. Freedom of information responses from almost 50 trusts in England, representing 150 hospitals, show that more than 11,500 children have been admitted to hospital with malnutrition since 2015. The National Child Measurement Programme determined that 11,317 children in the United Kingdom were underweight in 2010.

Symptoms of malnutrition

The key signs that should be looked at to showcase whether malnutrition might be an issue are factors such as:

  • Unintended weight loss
  • Tiredness
  • Low mood
  • An increase in infections

In children, this can be identified more specifically as a failure to grow and unexplained behaviour changes such as being irritable, anxious or sluggish.

The long-term effects of malnutrition

The lasting effects of malnutrition on children include long term issues such as increased incidence of illness and gastrointestinal infections, which compound and make it harder to fully absorb nutrients. As such, malnutrition combined with infection can undermine a child’s growth, and in the long term can also undermine brain development, causing delays in motor and cognitive functions.

Furthermore, diseases which were eradicated from the UK and we are now only familiar with in books are actually making a new appearance in hospital admissions. These include diseases such as scurvy and rickets. Scurvy is caused by a deficiency of vitamin C and rickets by a lack of calcium and vitamin D. These illnesses are therefore a result of children not consuming foods rich in nutrients. 

Causes of malnutrition

Money is a huge issue. Food poverty has increased dramatically during this pandemic and is a major source of concern. Children have been missing school and nursery which has also meant that they have been missing out on free lunches. The Trussell Trust has had an 81%  increase in food parcels due to household isolation and job losses, demonstrating that many families are struggling to put food on the table. 

Data from the Food Foundation revealed in May that almost a fifth of households with children had been unable to access enough food in the preceding weeks, with children not getting enough to eat as already vulnerable families battled isolation and loss of income.

Another crucial factor in child malnutrition is inaccessibility to the right kinds of foods containing important nutrients. Cheap food is often energy-dense but does not provide the nutrients that are needed for growth and repair. Money has a big influence on food choices and the equipment needed to make nutritious healthy meals. 

What can be done?

It is incredible that malnutrition is such a huge issue in today’s society. 

Eligible families will now receive food vouchers for the summer holidays, however, more needs to be done to protect children in low-income households during this time of economic hardship. 

It is important that money is invested in free educational programmes so that families can understand the dangers of food poverty and malnutrition and which foods should be consumed for the best nutrients. 

Wise About Food CIC intends to overcome this challenge to low-income families by offering free advice on cooking affordable, healthy meals and explaining the importance of nutrition on a child’s growth. 

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