Difference Between Malnutrition and Malnourishment


We use both malnutrition and malnourishment when describing those who lack proper nutrition. But is there a difference between the two words? Is one word preferred over the other in certain contexts?

Sometimes, one can find the answer just by looking the words up in the dictionary. The task of doing so has been made even simpler these days because most dictionaries have online versions.

Merriam-Webster defines malnutrition as “the unhealthy condition that results from not eating enough food or not eating enough healthy food.” While the online dictionary doesn’t have an entry for malnourishment, dictionary.com gives us an entry from The American Heritage Stedman’s Medical Dictionary for malnourishment and it’s defined there as “malnutrition.”

If we base it on those alone, we can say that they are the same but they differ in how they are used.

Let’s take a look at examples from actual articles:
In Africa’s Silent Starvation Crisis from The Daily Beast, malnutrition was used this manner: Some children are so weakened by malnutrition that they are dying en route to the camps.

Here’s how malnourishment was used in another The Daily Beast article called How Pope Francis Became the World’s BFF: “In a country that once fed the world, children were dying of malnourishment.”

Different Interpretations

Some would define malnutrition as the lack of adequate nutrition caused by insufficient food or unbalanced diet, and malnourishment as not having enough food to develop or function normally. Essentially, the former is not having any food while the other is having food but not the kind that would provide nourishment for the body.

Does it make sense? Not quite. But it makes more sense when malnutrition is compared to the adjective malnourished. It would go like this: malnutrition is the lack of adequate nourishment while malnourished is when someone is suffering from malnutrition.

Which Is Which?

Here’s how the words are used in the NHS website that can maybe put this to rest:

“Malnutrition is a common health problem. There are an estimated 3 million malnourished people in the UK at any time, with many more at risk of becoming malnourished. Around one in three people admitted to hospital or care homes in the UK are found to be malnourished or at risk of malnourishment.”

So it seems that the relationship between the words is cause and effect. Malnutrition is the condition resulting in malnourishment.

Although Wikipedia is edited by the public, its entry for malnutrition opens with “Malnutrition or malnourishment is a condition that results from eating a diet in which nutrients are either not enough or are too much such that the diet causes health problems.” The entry even has this to say under the Society and culture section: “The verb form is ‘malnourish’; ‘malnourishment’ is sometimes used instead of ‘malnutrition.’”

Regardless of how the words are used, the main fact is that malnutrition accounts for 54% of child mortality around the world. Getting these children the nutrition they need has been the goal of organizations like the United Nations.