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Signs and symptoms of starvation

Malnutrition is an unfortunate and potentially dangerous condition that impacts the ways the body is able to function. It can lead to a severe deficiency in necessary vitamins, minerals, and nutrients that the body needs for optimal energy expenditure.

While malnutrition is sometimes brought on by specific eating disorders, like anorexia nervosa (AN), it can also be caused by other illnesses or ailments. This article unpacks the signs and symptoms of starvation that may point to malnutrition in a person, regardless of the source.

Last updated on 
January 18, 2024
Symptoms of starvation
In this article

What is malnutrition?

Malnourishment, or malnutrition, can refer to any type of imbalance between the amount and types of nutrients the human body needs and the amount and types of nutrients it gets.

As an umbrella term, malnourishment can also include cases of over nourishment, where someone is consuming more calories or more of a specific type of vitamin or mineral than their body needs to properly function.

In the cases of malnutrition, however, the person is not getting enough calories, vitamins, and minerals for their body to process properly. This typically leads to symptoms of starvation, whether or not the malnutrition is caused by the intentional restriction of food, whether to lose weight, or for other reasons.

Causes of malnutrition or starvation

Malnutrition or starvation can be caused by several different situations.

Food insecurity  

Most frequently, starvation is the byproduct of food insecurity, which is unfortunately on the rise around the world. According to the World Health Organization, nearly 690 million people—or roughly 9% of the global population—were considered undernourished in 2020, with the pandemic predicted to have increased those numbers.1

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Malnutrition due to food insecurity is particularly common in babies, from infants to age 5.3

Eating disorders

Eating disorders can lead to starvation and malnutrition. Both bulimia nervosa (BN), where the body’s intake of nutrients is routinely interrupted, and anorexia nervosa (AN), an eating disorder characterized by someone placing limitations on their food intake, can result in symptoms of starvation.

Substance use and addiction

Substance use and addiction can contribute to malnutrition or starvation by impacting both appetite and the body’s ability to absorb certain nutrients.2 Certain substances, like stimulants, can suppress appetite cues, which may result in severe malnourishment.6

Other disorders

Malnutrition can also come from certain malabsorption disorders, which impact the body’s ability to properly absorb vitamins and minerals. Conditions like depression, cancer, and acquired immunodeficiency virus (AIDS) can lead to undernutrition through loss of appetite. It’s been estimated that 1 in 7 residents of nursing facilities are undernourished, likely due to mental health conditions, and as many as half of older people in hospitals and long-term care facilities do not consume enough calories daily.4

Regardless of the cause of malnutrition, however, the signs and symptoms of starvation look relatively similar.

Woman looking into the mirror

Signs of starvation or malnutrition

Medically, all types of disorders, ailments, and illnesses have both signs and symptoms. Signs of an illness are considered the more objective of the two—or those that can be seen and measured by an outside source.

In this regard, there are typically a few measures doctors use to look for signs of starvation.

Weight loss can be one sign of malnutrition, and it can be triggered by any number of sources, though not all people who are undernourished will show signs of weight loss.

While signs of malnutrition are often connected to body weight, it’s important to remember that people of all body shapes, sizes, and weights can exhibit signs of malnutrition.

Other signs of starvation include:4

  • High or low levels of certain vitamins and nutrients in the body
  • Muscle wasting (loss of muscle mass), or the lack of proper growth or acquisition of body weight, especially in children
  • Loss of body weight and muscle in adults

Symptoms of starvation or malnutrition

On the other end of the spectrum are symptoms of a condition. Symptoms are typically the characteristic manifestations of an illness, disease, or disorder. 

There are many symptoms of starvation. Since the body is receiving inadequate amounts of calories (low caloric energy intake) or certain vitamins and minerals, in either case, it can result in a number of hormonal imbalances that negatively affect the person experiencing the condition.

Some of the most common symptoms of starvation include:4,5

  • Chronic fatigue
  • Mental fogginess or trouble concentrating
  • Always feeling cold or getting the chills easily
  • Slower healing times around sickness and injury 
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Irritability
  • Trouble sleeping or insomnia
  • A loss of interest in food 

Children who are malnourished, especially with prolonged starvation, may display delayed behavioral and intellectual development.3

Getting help for starvation or malnutrition

Undernutrition can be a dangerous condition that can lead to further complications, including heart health problems and, in the most severe cases, death. But there are treatments that have been proven to help, including weight restoration. 

If you or a loved one are exhibiting signs or symptoms of starvation or undernutrition, it is recommended that you seek help from a doctor or treatment facility that can assist you in finding the care you deserve to overcome this condition.

At Within, we offer compassionate care for eating disorders through our virtual treatment program and can even help you or a loved one with weight restoration if it’s needed. Contact our team today for more information.

Disclaimer about "overeating": Within Health hesitatingly uses the word "overeating" because it is the term currently associated with this condition in society, however, we believe it inherently overlooks the various psychological aspects of this condition which are often interconnected with internalized diet culture, and a restrictive mindset about food. For the remainder of this piece, we will therefore be putting "overeating" in quotations to recognize that the diagnosis itself pathologizes behavior that is potentially hardwired and adaptive to a restrictive mindset.

Disclaimer about weight loss drugs: Within does not endorse the use of any weight loss drug or behavior and seeks to provide education on the insidious nature of diet culture. We understand the complex nature of disordered eating and eating disorders and strongly encourage anyone engaging in these behaviors to reach out for help as soon as possible. No statement should be taken as healthcare advice. All healthcare decisions should be made with your individual healthcare provider.

Resources

  1. The state of food security and Nutrition in the world 2020. (n.d.). World Health Organization. Retrieved April 11, 2023.
  2. How alcohol affects you. (n.d.). How Alcohol Affects Nutrition and Endurance. Retrieved April 11, 2023.
  3. Gwela, A., Mupere, E., Berkley, J. A., & Lancioni, C. (2019). Undernutrition, host immunity and vulnerability to infection among young children. Pediatric Infectious Disease Journal, 38(8).
  4. Morley, J. E. (2023, March 15). Undernutrition - disorders of Nutrition. Merck Manuals Consumer Version. Retrieved April 11, 2023.
  5. NHS. (n.d.). Malnutrition Symptoms - NHS. NHS choices. Retrieved April 11, 2023.
  6. U.S. National Library of Medicine. (n.d.). Substance use recovery and Diet: Medlineplus medical encyclopedia. MedlinePlus. Retrieved April 11, 2023.

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