Kennedy Clark, Purdue University
To many people, malnutrition presents itself as an image of emaciated children with protruding bellies. However, malnutrition has many realities besides this one. It also includes the growing population of children suffering from obesity in western regions, and children in the Andes, who seem otherwise healthy, but are a bit short in nature. Malnutrition, to put it simply, is a deficiency of nutrients. This can be a deficiency of macronutrients such as carbohydrates, protein, or fats; or a deficiency of micronutrients which are vitamins and minerals such as vitamin A, iron, zinc, and iodine. In either situation, this deficiency can have devastating and sometimes lasting consequences for those affected.
Malnutrition mainly stems from issues falling under one of the two categories or primary and secondary malnutrition. Insufficient intake, for example, is considered primary malnutrition, in which adequate nutrients are not actually provided in the diet. On the other hand, diseases, such as diarrheal conditions, are an example of secondary malnutrition in which, though adequate nutrients may be provided in the diet, the body cannot correctly absorb them.
Malnutrition is extremely threatening to the body’s ability to maintain life. This is because nutrients provide the necessary fuel to drive metabolism, the collection of processes that keep us alive. Metabolism is divided in to two types of processes: catabolism and anabolism. In catabolism, the body breaks down matter in order to obtain energy. In anabolism, energy is consumed in order to synthesize material needed by the cells such as proteins and nucleic acids. Both of these aspects of metabolism involve complex systems of interaction between proteins already present in the body, and external nutrients introduced into the body through the diet. Thus, without adequate nutrients, the body cannot carry out these necessary processes.
Upon consumption, macronutrients are broken down from their more complex states of carbohydrates, lipids, and proteins, to create the small molecules of simple sugar, fatty acids, and amino acids, which serve as fuel or building blocks for various structures in the body. For example, the simple sugar, glucose is the brains sole source of energy. The phospholipid formed from fatty acids, makes up the outermost layer of most human cells, protecting it from being too permeable to outside pathogens. Furthermore, the amino acids come together to make proteins such as cortisol receptors that allow our bodies to react when faced with danger.
Micronutrients play a different, yet equally vital role in the process. They are often key players necessary for carrying out cellular processes. For example, iron serves as an important component in maintaining the structure of heme groups which are part of proteins found in the red blood cells that help with oxygen transport throughout the body. Iodine, another micronutrient, is similarly important in metabolic processes. It plays a role in the processes in the thyroid. Without the presence of iodine, the thyroid cannot produce its hormones, a number of which are responsible for growth and development throughout the body.
Be it insufficient intake of macronutrients, or of micronutrients, malnutrition can prove to be incredibly, and sometimes irreversibly harmful for those suffering from it. Adequate nutrition is essential for our existence, as without it, we do not have the ability to carry out the number of metabolic processes that take place in our bodies as efficiently as possible; and therefore, cannot function to our fullest potential. This is especially important when it comes to discussing developing regions, such as Andean communities like Cuncani. For them, the gravity of the effects of malnutrition is more complicated than it seems. With poor health outcomes in physical and mental development, the community can be set back in their ability to sustain themselves in their development process.