Hesperian Health Guides

Poor Nutrition Can Cause Disease

Because girls and women often get less food—and less nutritious food — than they need, they are more likely to get sick. Here are some common illnesses caused by poor nutrition.


A person with anemia has weak blood. This happens when red blood cells are lost or destroyed faster than the body can replace them. Because women lose blood during their monthly bleeding, anemia is often found in women who are between puberty and menopause. About half of the world’s pregnant women are anemic, because they need to make extra blood for the growing baby.

Anemia is a serious illness. It makes a woman more likely to get other kinds of diseases, and affects her ability to work and learn. Anemic women are more likely to bleed heavily or even die during childbirth.

a woman pulling down her lower eyelid and lower lip with her fingers
  • pale inner eyelids, nails and inside of lip
  • weakness and feeling very tired
  • dizziness, especially when getting up from a sitting or lying position
  • fainting (loss of consciousness)
  • shortness of breath
  • fast heartbeat
Causes of anemia:

For more information about malaria, parasites, and worms, see Where There Is No Doctor or another general medical book.

The most common cause of anemia is not eating enough food rich in iron, since iron is needed to make red blood cells.

Other causes are:

  • malaria, which destroys red blood cells
  • any kind of blood loss, such as:

– heavy monthly bleeding (an intra-uterine device, or IUD, can make bleeding heavier)

– childbirth

– bloody diarrhea (dysentery) from parasites and worms

– bleeding stomach ulcers

– a wound that bleeds a lot
Treatment and prevention:
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  • If malaria, parasites, or worms are causing your anemia, treat these diseases first.
  • Eat foods rich in iron, along with foods rich in vitamins A and C, which help the body absorb iron. Citrus fruits and tomatoes are rich in vitamin C. Dark yellow and dark green leafy vegetables are rich in vitamin A. If a woman cannot eat enough foods rich in iron, she may need to take iron pills.
  • Avoid drinking black tea or coffee, or eating bran (the outer layer of grains) with meals. These can prevent the body from absorbing iron from food.
  • Drink clean water to prevent infection from parasites.
  • Use a latrine for passing stool, so that worm eggs will not spread to food and water sources. If hookworms are common in your area, try to wear shoes.
  • Space births at least 2 years apart. This will give your body a chance to store some iron between pregnancies.


Beriberi is a disease caused by lack of thiamine (one of the B vitamins), which helps the body turn food into energy. Like anemia, beriberi is most often seen in women from puberty to menopause, and in their children.

Beriberi occurs most often when the main food is a grain whose outer skin has been removed (for example, polished rice) or a starchy root, like cassava.

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  • not wanting to eat
  • severe weakness, especially in the legs
  • the body becomes very swollen or the heart stops working
Treatment and prevention:

Eat foods rich in thiamine, like meat, poultry, fish, liver, whole grain cereals, legumes (peas, beans, clover), milk, and eggs. If this is difficult, a person may need thiamine pills.

Problems From Eating Too Much Food Or The Wrong Kinds of Food

an overweight woman

Women who do not have healthy foods to eat, especially if they are very overweight and their diets have too much fat or sugar, are more likely to have high blood pressure, heart disease, a stroke, gallstones, diabetes, and some cancers. Being very overweight can also cause arthritis in the legs and feet.

Make sure you get enough exercise, and eat more fruits and vegetables. Here are some suggestions for cutting down the amount of unhealthy foods in the diet:

  • Cook with broth or water instead of using butter, ghee, lard, or oil.
  • Remove fat from meat before cooking. Do not eat the skin of chicken or turkey.
  • Avoid processed foods that are high in fat, sugar and salt, such as factory-made meals, chips, crackers, and sweet drinks like Coca-Cola.


Diabetes is a problem in which the body does not use sugars in food properly. It can lead to blindness, loss of limbs, coma, or even death. Type 1 diabetes usually starts in childhood. People with Type 1 diabetes need to take a medicine called insulin their whole lives. Type 2 diabetes usually starts when a person is over 40 years old. It is most common in people who are very overweight.

A woman can also develop diabetes during pregnancy. This is called gestational diabetes. If you are pregnant and are always thirsty or are losing weight, see a health worker to test your blood for sugar.

Early signs:
  • always thirsty
  • urinates often and a lot
  • always tired
  • always hungry
  • weight loss
Later, more serious signs:
  • itchy skin
  • periods of blurry eyesight
  • some loss of feeling in the hands or feet
  • frequent vaginal infections
  • sores on the feet that do not heal
  • loss of consciousness (in extreme cases)

All these signs may be caused by other diseases. To find out whether you have diabetes, see a health worker, or do not eat for 8 hours and then go to a laboratory to get a test for fasting blood glucose (sugar). If your sugar level is over 125 on two separate tests, you have diabetes.

There may be plants in your area that are helpful for diabetes. Check with a health worker.


If you have Type 2 diabetes, you should see a health worker to check the sugar in your blood and see if you need medicines. You may be able to control your diabetes by eating carefully:

  • Eat smaller meals more often. This helps keep the same amount of sugar in the blood.
  • Avoid eating a lot of sweet foods.
  • Increase your physical activity or exercise
  • If you are overweight, try to lose weight.
  • Avoid foods high in fat (for example, butter, ghee, lard, and oils), unless you have trouble getting enough food to eat.

If possible, you should also see a health worker regularly to make sure your illness is not getting worse.

a woman squatting to touch and look at the top of her foot
Check your feet once a day to see if you have any sores or signs of infection.

To prevent infection and injury to the skin, clean your teeth after eating, keep your skin clean, and always wear shoes to prevent foot injuries. Check your feet and hands once a day to see if you have any sores. If you have a sore and there are any signs of infection (redness, swelling, or heat), see a health worker.

Whenever possible, rest with your feet up. This is especially important if your feet get darker in color and become numb. These signs mean that the blood flow to and from your feet is poor.

This page was updated:23 Oct 2019