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Malnutrition will often be noticeable to the doctor’s trained eye before it causes significant abnormalities in laboratory test results. During physical examinations, doctors and dieticians will evaluate patient's overall appearance: their skin and muscle tone, the amount of body fat they have, their height and weight, and their eating habits. In the case of infants and children, doctors and dieticians will look for normal development and a normal rate of growth.

If there are signs of malnutrition, the doctor may order general laboratory screening tests to evaluate a patient’s blood cells and organ function. Additional individual tests may be ordered to look for specific vitamin and mineral deficiencies. If general malnutrition and/or specific deficiencies are diagnosed, laboratory testing may be used to monitor how the patient responds to treatment. A person who has malnutrition because of a chronic disease may need to have his or her nutritional status monitored on a regular basis.

Hospitalised patients are often assessed to determine their nutritional status prior to, or at the time of, admission. This may include discussing their medical history with a doctor, being interviewed by a dietician, and undergoing some laboratory tests. If the results of these tests indicate possible nutritional deficits, patients may be provided with nutritional support (i.e., given the nutrients they need) prior to a surgery or procedure, and they may be monitored regularly during recovery.

Laboratory tests may include:
For general screening and monitoring:

For nutritional status and deficiencies:

  • Prealbumin (also used to assess protein status, as it rises and falls more rapidly than albumin and can be used to detect short-term response to treatment)
  • Iron tests (such as iron, TIBC and ferritin)
  • Vitamins and minerals (such as B12 and folate, vitamin D, vitamin K, calcium, and magnesium)
  • Trace elements such as zinc and selenium are important for patients on long term parenteral nutrition

Non-laboratory tests
Imaging and radiographic scans may be ordered to help evaluate the health of internal organs and the normal growth and development of muscles and bones. These tests may include:

  • X-rays
  • CT (computed tomography)
  • MRI scan (magnetic resonance imaging)

Last Review Date: September 5, 2017