Toggle: English / Spanish


Malabsorption involves problems with the body's ability to take in nutrients from food.


Many diseases can cause malabsorption. Most often, malabsorption involves problems absorbing certain sugars, fats, proteins, or vitamins. It can also involve an overall problem with absorbing food.

Problems or damage to the small intestine that may lead to problems absorbing important nutrients. These include:

Enzymes produced by the pancreas help absorb fats and other nutrients. A decrease of these enzymes makes it harder to absorb fats and certain nutrients. Problems with the pancreas may be caused by:

Some of the other causes of malabsorption include:


In children, current weight or rate of weight gain is often much lower than that of other children of similar age and gender. This is called failure to thrive. The child may not grow and develop normally.

Adults may also have failure to thrive, with weight loss, muscle wasting, weakness, and even problems thinking.

Changes in the stools are often present, but not always.

Changes in the stools may include:

  • Bloating, cramping, and gas
  • Bulky stools
  • Chronic diarrhea
  • Fatty stools (steatorrhea)

Exams and Tests

Your health care provider will do an exam. Tests that may be done include:


Treatment depends on the cause and is aimed at relieving symptoms and ensuring the body receives enough nutrients.

A high-calorie diet may be tried. It should supply:

  • Key vitamins and minerals, such as , folic acid, and
  • Enough carbohydrates, proteins, and fats

If needed, injections of some vitamins and minerals or special growth factors will be given. Those with damage to the pancreas may need to take pancreatic enzymes. Your provider will prescribe these if necessary.

Medicines to slow down the normal movement of the intestine can be tried. This may allow food to remain in the intestine longer

If the body is not able to absorb enough nutrients, total parenteral nutrition (TPN) is tried. It will help you or your child get nutrition from a special formula through a vein in the body. Your provider will select the right amount of calories and TPN solution. Sometimes, you can also eat and drink while getting nutrition from TPN.

Outlook (Prognosis)

The outlook depends on what is causing the malabsorption.

Possible Complications

Long-term malabsorption can result in:

When to Contact a Medical Professional

Call your provider if you have symptoms of malabsorption.


Prevention depends on the condition causing malabsorption.


Högenauer C, Hammer HF. Maldigestion and malabsorption. In: Feldman M, Friedman LS, Brandt LJ, eds. Sleisenger and Fordtran's Gastrointestinal and Liver Disease. 10th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2016:chap 104.

Semrad CE. Approach to the patient with diarrhea and malabsorption. In: Goldman L, Schafer AI, eds. Goldman's Cecil Medicine. 25th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2016:chap 140.

Version Info

  • Last reviewed on 5/11/2016
  • Subodh K. Lal, MD, gastroenterologist with Gastrointestinal Specialists of Georgia, Austell, GA. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.

A.D.A.M., Inc. is accredited by URAC, also known as the American Accreditation HealthCare Commission ( URAC's accreditation program is an independent audit to verify that A.D.A.M. follows rigorous standards of quality and accountability. A.D.A.M. is among the first to achieve this important distinction for online health information and services. Learn more about A.D.A.M.'s editorial policy, editorial process and privacy policy. A.D.A.M. is also a founding member of Hi-Ethics and subscribes to the principles of the Health on the Net Foundation (

The information provided herein should not be used during any medical emergency or for the diagnosis or treatment of any medical condition. A licensed medical professional should be consulted for diagnosis and treatment of any and all medical conditions. Call 911 for all medical emergencies. Links to other sites are provided for information only -- they do not constitute endorsements of those other sites. © 1997- 2013 A.D.A.M., Inc. Any duplication or distribution of the information contained herein is strictly prohibited.