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Malnutrition and the Social Determinants of Health

December 2022

Karen Ensle EdD, RDN, FAND, CFCS
Rutgers Cooperative Extension of Union County

Undernutrition including low body weight compared to height along with low height for age and underweight for age would help indicate malnutrition along with a lack or excess of important vitamins and minerals. In contrast, overnutrition is the excessive consumption of nutrients and calories that can harm health.

Malnutrition is also characterized by the imbalance of a person's energy intake or nutrients along with either the lack, excess or poor balance of calories. There are many issues concerning malnutrition including accessing healthy foods, having a working and clean kitchen, grocery stores and farmers markets in close proximity with fresh produce available and accessible. Having corner stores and bodegas stocked with healthy food and beverages is generally not available in low-income areas which impacts health. Frequently few grocery stores are located in these communities, and healthy, nutritious foods are not a priority as long as there is food in the home.

Low-income households often spend most of their income on housing, medical needs and then food. Even the least expensive health care services and transportation costs to get to work use up most of household income and leave little left over. Education quality and access can be affected as well. Low finances don't allow funding for the best schools or better housing and environments. Poor education in the areas of health and nutrition can lead to poor food and beverage choices at the corner store and lead to disease development and malnutrition. Education can also affect job access and the cycle of poverty and poor health continues.

The Social Determinants of Health are factors that impact our health status, functioning and quality of life. They are grouped into five domains: Economic stability, Education, Healthcare, Environment and Social/Community. Malnutrition can result from a variety of sources and factors that extend beyond food. They include places where we live and work, the people we interact with, the education we receive and businesses and services around us, as well as the community and physical environment where we live. All these factors influence our access and consumption of healthy food. The social determinants create the road for our lifestyle and health.