Signs & Symptoms of Poor Nutrition

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Foods contain nutrients, the nourishing substances that give your body materials and information it needs to function well. Missing out on important nutrients can have a detrimental effect on metabolic processes occurring in your body. In contrast, getting too much food or food that gives your body wrong signals, such as processed foods, can make you overweight and undernourished at the same time. Furthermore, high consumption of unhealthy foods raises your risk of developing diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and arthritis.

Fragile Immune System

Poor nutrition can cause deficiencies in certain micronutrients that help boost your immunity and insufficient intake of macronutrients and energy. Such nutrient deficiencies can turn off immune responses. Because of the impaired immune system, you are more likely to develop infection and illness, which together can aggravate states of malnutrition by decreasing nutrient absorption, encouraging nutrient loss and changing the metabolism of your body.

Wildly Swinging Blood Sugar Levels

Eating a diet that falls short of vital nutrients can upset the mechanisms that manage your sugar levels, leading to hypoglycemia or hyperglycemia. Hypoglycemia means low blood sugar, whereas hyperglycemia signifies high blood sugar. Lack of nutritious foods and skipping meals can result in hypoglycemia. You may experience hypoglycemic symptoms such as headache, excessive sweating, dizziness, depression, fatigue and blurred vision. On the other hand, eating too much food can cause hyperglycemia. Symptoms of hyperglycemia include excessive thirst, high blood glucose, frequent urination and high sugar levels in the urine.

Unwanted Fat

Obesity is not something that happens overnight -- it develops slowly from poor dietary and lifestyle choices. According to the Harvard School of Public Health, studies in teen and adults showed that regular consumption of fast foods leads to weight gain and obesity. Similarly, evidence suggests that foods such as sugar-sweetened beverages and refined grains multiply the risk of weight gain, obesity and diabetes. The Harvard School of Public Health further says that incorporating whole grains, fruits and vegetables into your diet can help maintain a stable weight. This is because their fiber content slows digestion and helps keep hunger at bay.

Deteriorating Mental Health

According to an article in the April-June 2008 issue of “Indian Journal of Psychiatry,” diets of people suffering from mental disorders -- depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder -- lack critical nutrients such as vitamins, minerals and omega-3 fatty acids. The study further states that making poor food choices might contribute to depression, which is characterized by depressed mood, loss of appetite and increased sadness and anxiety. Deficiencies in neurotransmitters -- brain chemicals that transit information from one neuron to another -- such as gamma-aminobutyric acid, noradrenaline, dopamine and serotonin can lead to depression. People with mental illness usually suffer from deficiencies in common nutrients such as B vitamins, minerals, amino acids and omega-3 fatty acids. These nutrients are precursors to neurotransmitters.

Deficiency Symptoms and Signs

Symptom or Sign

Possible Nutritional Deficiency

General Symptoms and Appearance


Protein-energy, iron, magnesium, potassium, vitamins B1, B12 and other B vitamins and vitamin C

Loss of appetite


Pica eating non-nutritive substances

General malnutrition and possibly iron, calcium, zinc, vitamins B1 – thiamine, B3 – niacin, C and D

Loss of taste


Cold intolerance


Pale appearance due to anaemia

Iron, folate and vitamin B12

Carotenoderma – yellow discolouration of the skin noticeable on the face and trunk

Protein-energy and zinc

Diffuse hyperpigmentation


Muscle wasting e.g. clothes appear too big, loss of limb musculature


Loss of height and excessive curvature of the spine

Calcium and vitamin D


Itchy skin – pruritus


Dry skin

Essential Fatty Acids or multiple nutritional deficiencies

Red scaly skin in light-exposed areas

Vitamin B3

Excessive bruising

Vitamin C

Haemorrhage or redness around hair follicles

Vitamin C

Bleeding into a joint or other unusual bleeding

Vitamin C

Plugging of hair follicles with keratin or coiled hairs

Vitamin C

Fine downy hair on torso – lanugo

Protein-energy. Typical of Persistent anorexia nervosa


Sore tongue

Iron, vitamin B12, B2, B3 and possibly other B vitamins

Cracking and peeling of skin on the lips

Vitamin B2 – riboflavin

Cracking at the corners of the mouth

Iron, vitamin B2 – riboflavin possibly other B vitamins

Recurrent mouth ulcers

Iron, vitamin B12, folate and possibly other B vitamins

Enlarged veins under the tongue with micro-haemorrhages

Vitamin C

Smooth, shinny and sore tongue: atrophic glossitis

Iron, vitamin B12 and folate

Head, Face and Neck

Scalp hair loss



Essential fatty acids and biotin

Redness at the sides of the nose

Vitamin B2 –riboflavin, vitamin B6 and zinc

Redness or cracking at the outer angle of the eyes

Vitamins B2 or B6


Iodine deficiency is likely if goitre is present in > 20% of population – endemic goitre

Hands and Nails

Nails - brittle or flaking

Ironand possibly essential fatty acids

Nails - upturned or spoon-shaped nails


Carotenoderma – yellow discolouration of the skin noticeable on the palms

Protein-energy and zinc


Muscle pains and cramps

Magnesium, potassium, sodium, vitamin B1 and vitamin D if there is hypocalcaemia

Calf muscle pain after minimal exercise

Vitamin B1 – thiamine

Excessive calf muscle tenderness

Vitamin B1- thiamine

Walking with a waddling gait

Vitamin D and resultant myopathy

Difficulty getting up from a low chair or climbing the stairs or weakness of shoulder muscles

Vitamin D and resultant myopathy

Bowed legs

Vitamin D - rickets in childhood

Twitching of facial muscles when tapping on the facial nerve in front of the ear: Chvostek’s sign

Calcium and vitamin D if hypocalcaemia or severe magnesium deficiency


Poor night vision

Zinc, vitamin A and possibly vitamin B2 - riboflavin

Conjunctival dryness

Vitamin A



Vitamin B3


Dehydration, fibre, potassium, magnesium and folate


Restless legs

Iron or folate

Burning feet syndrome

Vitamin B2 –riboflavin

Loss of balance when standing upright with feet together and the eyes closed: Romberg’s test

Vitamin B12 and possibly vitamin B3

Loss of vibration sensation in the lower limbs

Vitamin B12 and possibly vitamin B3

Peripheral neuropathy – numbness, tingling, disordered sensation, pain and or weakness in the hands or feet

Vitamins B1, B12 and possibly B3, B6 and folate and very rarely copper (following gastrointestinal surgery or excess zinc ingestion). Relative lack of essential fatty acids.

Unsteady movement or walking (cerebellar ataxia)

Vitamin B1, vitamin E and Coenzyme Q10

Mental State


Vitamins C, B1, B3, B6, B12, folate, biotin and possibly the essential fatty acids



Poor concentration

Iron, vitamins B1, B12, folate and possibly essential fatty acids


Heart failure

Vitamin B1 – thiamin and any deficiency causing anaemia


Potassium and magnesium and any deficiency causing anaemia



The information provided through these articles is for educational purposes and is not intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice.
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