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Child undernutrition in affluent societies: what are we talking about?

  • Charlotte M. Wright (a1) and Ada L. Garcia (a2)


In this paper we set out to explore the prevalence of child undernutrition found in community studies in affluent societies, but a preliminary literature review revealed that, in the absence of a gold standard method of diagnosis, the prevalence largely depends on the measure, threshold and the growth reference used, as well as age. We thus go on to explore describe the common clinical ‘syndromes’ of child undernutrition: wasting, stunting and failure to thrive (weight faltering) and how we have used data from two population-based cohort studies, this paper to explore how much these different ‘syndromes’ overlap and the extent to which they reflect true undernutrition. This analysis revealed that when more than one definition is applied to the same children, a majority are below the lower threshold for only one measure. However, those with both weight faltering and low BMI in infancy, go on in later childhood to show growth and body composition patterns suggestive of previous undernutrition. In older children there is even less overlap and most children with either wasting or low fat seem to be simply growing at one extreme of the normal range. We conclude that in affluent societies the diagnosis of undernutrition is only robust when it relies on a combination of both, that is decline in weight or BMI centile and wasting.

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Corresponding author

* Corresponding author: Professor C. M. Wright, fax +44 141 201 6943, email


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