7 Serious Causes Of Malnutrition During Pregnancy

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The body’s nutritional demands escalate during pregnancy and lactation, making it vulnerable to nutritional deficiencies. Malnutrition during pregnancy may result in various maternal complications such as anemia, premature delivery, or postpartum hemorrhageiXHeavy blood discharge from blood vessels after childbirth . In addition, it may adversely affect the developing fetus, increasing the risk of low birth weight and infant mortality (1).

Therefore, a balanced diet is essential to ensure the safety and health of the mother and developing baby. Continue reading this post, where we explain the causes of malnutrition during pregnancy, how it can affect you and your baby, and how to prevent it.

In This Article

What Is Malnutrition In Pregnancy?

Malnutrition is a serious condition that occurs when an individual’s diet contains insufficient nutrients that do not meet the requirements of her body. It can cause damage to the vital organs and can adversely affect the functioning of the body.

What Are The Causes Of Malnutrition?

Malnutrition during pregnancy may be a result of the following factors.

  1. Lack of availability of nutritious diet due to socio-economic conditions of the family.

    Poor socio-economic conditions may lead to malnutrition during pregnancy

    Image: Shutterstock

  2. Painful teeth or mouth conditions that may affect the ability to consume food.
  3. Following an unhealthy diet due to lack of knowledge or interest
  4. Loss of appetite due to other health conditions such as chronic infections, depression, etc.
  5. Use of certain medications that may interfere with nutrient absorption.
  6. Diarrhea, nausea, and vomiting may also cause malnutrition. Nausea and vomiting during pregnancy is common..

    Nausea and vomiting may cause malnutrition during pregnancy

    Image: Shutterstock

  7. Inadequate intake of nutrients and calories that does not meet the increased demands of pregnancy (2).

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Some expecting women with intestinal disorders such as ulcerative colitis or colon diseases may experience malnutrition as these conditions make it difficult for their bodies to absorb nutrition from their food (6).

Health Risks For The Mother

Women who are undernourished at the time of conception may also fail to meet the increased nutritional requirements during pregnancy. It can lead to insufficient gestational weight gain during pregnancy and increase the maternal mortality risk.

Deficiency of micronutrients during pregnancy could lead to the following:

  • Zinc and Magnesium deficiency could cause preeclampsia and preterm birth.

    Deficiency of zinc and magnesium can cause preeclampsia

    Image: Shutterstock

  • Iron deficiency and Vitamin B12 could cause anemia.
  • Inadequate intake of Vitamin B12 can also lead to neurological issues.
  • Vitamin K deficiency can lead to excessive bleeding during childbirth.
  • Inadequate Iodine intake during pregnancy can lead to miscarriage and stillbirth. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about one in 175 babies in the US are stillborn each year.

Effects of malnutrition during pregnancy can be adverse.It can affect the mother’s health in the following ways:

  • It can lower immunity and lead to infections.
  • It can cause anemia and weakness.
  • It can lower productivity.

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Clinical evidence shows that undernutrition before and during pregnancy can raise an individual’s risk of developing metabolic disorders such as gestational diabetes mellitus (7).

Health Risks For The Baby

According to a study, in utero malnutrition could adversely affect the growth of the baby in the early years. It can also increase his risk of suffering from obesity, diabetes, and other metabolic complications like liver disease, etc. (3).

Micronutrient deficiency during pregnancy could adversely affect the baby in the following ways (4):

  • Iodine deficiency can cause – congenital abnormalitiesiXA structural or functional abnormality present from birth , neurological cretinismiXA congenital thyroid hormone deficiency resulting in intellectual impairment and a dwarf stature , mental deficiency, spastic diplegiaiXA type of cerebral palsy caused by a neurological disorder that affects the legs, causing difficulty with movement , myxoedematous cretinismiXA rare form of cretinism caused due to iodine deficiency, characterized by stunted growth, mental impairment, and physical deformities , etc. It can also increase infant mortality risk.
  • Low Zinc levels can cause fetal growth retardation and congenital abnormalities.
  • Vitamin D deficiency can lead to ricketsiXA bone disease caused by lack of vitamin D, calcium, or phosphorous resulting in bone deformities in children in the fetus.
  • Folate deficiency can cause neural tube defects in the infant.

    Folate deficiency may cause neural tube defects in the baby

    Image: Shutterstock

  • Low iron levels in the mother’s body and protein deficiency can cause fetal growth restriction.

An unbalanced diet during pregnancy could take a toll on the newborn’s health in the following ways (4):

  • It can lead to stillbirth.
  • It can cause a premature birth.
  • It can increase newborn mortality risk.
  • It can lead to neurological, respiratory, intestinal and circulatory complications in the infant.

Maternal under-nutrition can make a child prone to the following health complications, in the long run (4):

  • Renal dysfunction.
  • He may face cardiovascular issues like – hypertensioniXHigh blood pressure , atherosclerosisiXHardening of the arteries due to accumulation of fats, cholesterol, and other substances , stroke, and coronary heart disease.
  • OsteoporosisiXA condition that weakens bones, increasing the chance of sudden, unsuspected bone fractures .
  • Breast Cancer.
  • Organ dysfunction of testes, ovaries, brain, heart, liver, and small intestine, etc.

Maternal malnutrition can also negatively affect mental development and school performance of a child.


A balanced diet can help prevent malnutrition during pregnancy

Image: Shutterstock

Having a balanced diet can help you enjoy a safe pregnancy. Consume a lot of fruits and vegetables to gain vitamins, minerals and fiber. Include healthy protein sources like fish, eggs, pulses, beans, and poultry in your diet. Also, add starchy foods like cornmeal, pasta, noodles, bread, and potatoes to meet your increased carbohydrate requirement (5).

Frequently Asked Questions

1. What are the signs and symptoms of malnutrition during pregnancy?

In general, malnutrition may produce symptoms such as weight loss, reduced appetite, a constant feeling of being weak and tired, feeling cold, low mood or depression, and taking more time to recover from illness (8). These symptoms may indicate malnutrition during pregnancy as well.

2. Can malnutrition during pregnancy be reversed?

Nutritional support for pregnant women diagnosed with malnutrition may help reverse its adverse effects (9). Dietary supplements taken under the guidance of healthcare providers may also be helpful.

3. How is malnutrition during pregnancy diagnosed?

Blood tests for specific nutrients such as calcium, vitamin D, and B-group vitamins may be suggested by your doctor to diagnose deficiencies during pregnancy.

Pregnancy increases the nutritional demands of the body to support fetal growth. Excess vomiting, underlying conditions affecting eating and digestion, or socio-economic factors may be responsible for malnutrition during pregnancy. Consuming excess junk food may also lead to malnutrition, if it takes the place of food dense in crucial prenatal vitamins. Congenital abnormalities such as neural tube defects, growth retardation, premature birth, and miscarriage may be attributed to specific nutritional deficiencies caused by malnutrition. Most of the issues may be prevented with dietary and lifestyle changes. However, you should consult a doctor to identify the required prenatal nutrition and supplements to avoid deficiencies.

Infographic: Notable Health Risks Of Malnutrition To Mother And Fetus

Not getting enough nutrients during pregnancy can harm the woman and her unborn baby. This infographic shows the harmful effects of malnutrition during pregnancy and how it can affect the fetus. Save it and share it with other expectant mothers to encourage a healthy and adequate diet.

health risks of malnutrition to mother and fetus (infographic)

Illustration: Momjunction Design Team

Get high-quality PDF version by clicking below.

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Download Infographic in PDF version

Key Pointers

  • Malnutrition during pregnancy is a severe condition that is caused when an expecting mother doesn’t get enough nutrients required for fetal development.
  • Causes of malnutrition during pregnancy can include poor dietary habits, certain medications, and health conditions such as morning sickness.
  • Insufficient micronutrients during pregnancy may lead to preterm birth, anemia, a weakened immune system, and miscarriage or stillbirth.
  • It can cause congenital abnormalities, neural tube defects, poor skeletal, and mental developments in the baby.
  • Regular prenatal checkups, a well-balanced diet, and supplements can help prevent malnutrition in pregnant women.

Pregnancy is a special time, but malnutrition can put both mother and baby at risk. Learn how to prevent it in this video.


MomJunction's articles are written after analyzing the research works of expert authors and institutions. Our references consist of resources established by authorities in their respective fields. You can learn more about the authenticity of the information we present in our editorial policy.
  1. Impact of Malnutrition.
  2. Causes of Malnutrition.
  3. Malnutrition during pregnancy may affect the health of future generations.
  4. Alison D. Gernand et al.; (2016); Micronutrient deficiencies in pregnancy worldwide: health effects and prevention.
  5. Have a healthy diet in pregnancy.
  6. Ebele Philomina Meniru, et al.; Malnutrition in Pregnancy: Causes and Prevention.
  7. Undernutrition during Pregnancy
  8. Symptoms-Malnutrition.
  9. M.P. O’Connell et al.; (2000); Pregnancy outcome in a patient with chronic malnutrition: Case report.
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