What is malnutrition?
Malnutrition is a serious health condition that develops when someone doesn’t have enough nutrients to meet their body’s needs.
There are different types of malnutrition. In some countries, people don’t have enough to eat. This can lead to their being underweight, and to wasting or stunted growth in children.
In countries like Australia, malnutrition is more common among the elderly, people who don’t eat enough, or those who don’t eat the right types of foods in a balanced diet. Some people develop malnutrition if they have a health issue that prevents their body from absorbing nutrients from food.
What are the symptoms of malnutrition?
The symptoms of malnutrition are:
- losing weight
- losing muscle
- pale skin
- hair loss
- wounds that don’t heal
- dental problems
Malnutrition can result in illness, time spent in hospital, pressure ulcers, infections, falls and fractures. It can sometimes even be life threatening.
Elderly people with malnutrition may not be able to look after themselves at home. They can develop sarcopenia, which means they lose muscle mass and strength. Malnutrition weakens the immune system and makes it more difficult for wounds to heal. Often, people with malnutrition lose their appetite, making the problem worse.
Is malnutrition a problem in Australia?
Undernutrition and poor nutrition are common in Australia. Research shows that up to half of older Australians living in aged care or at home are either at risk of malnutrition or are malnourished. No matter whether you are a child or over 60, everyone needs a healthy diet for good health.
You can have malnutrition even if you eat a lot of food or are overweight. For example, people who eat very poor diets may be obese but they lack the vitamins and minerals they need for health. People who were malnourished before they were born or as babies are more likely to be overweight or obese in later life.
Those most at risk of malnutrition in Australia are the elderly, those who have eating disorders, people with a poor appetite, and people with medical conditions such as cancer, HIV or kidney failure that mean they need more nutrients.
What causes malnutrition?
Malnutrition is often caused by several different factors in combination.
In older people, it can start because they have health problems, such as dementia or dental problems that make it difficult to eat. They may lose their appetite, find it hard to swallow, or may have chronic diseases or take medications that affect their diet.
Some people deliberately restrict their diets, leading to malnutrition. Others don’t have access to nutritious food, either because they can’t afford it or it’s not available where they live. Being isolated and lonely, with failing health, depression and grief can all affect people’s diets and contribute to malnutrition.
How is malnutrition treated?
Health professionals diagnose malnutrition by asking questions about weight and appetite, measuring body mass index (BMI), and asking about the person’s personal situation.
Malnutrition can be treated by a dietitian, who will work with the person and sometimes other health professionals to help them eat the foods they need. Treatment involves ensuring the person’s diet has enough energy (kilojoules), protein, vitamins and minerals. Some people may need nutritional supplements as well.
If you or someone you know has malnutrition, the following tips can help:
- eat small meals and healthy snacks throughout the day — cheese, yoghurt, nuts and dried fruit are good snacks
- use full cream milk and have lots of milky drinks
- add oil, cream and margarine to food in cooking
- boost soups and stews with skim milk powder or grated cheese
Can malnutrition be prevented?
The best way to prevent malnutrition is to spot signs early on. If you are worried about a loved one, watch for weight loss (noting how their clothes fit), watch them eat, and be on the alert if they develop problems with their teeth or have a fall.
Talk to your doctor if you are worried since simple steps, such as altering any medications or your diet or visiting the dentist, may help. The doctor may also refer you to a dietitian.
You can encourage someone to eat by making it a social event, adding herbs and spices to bland food and by helping them to do some exercise to boost their appetite. If the cost of food is an issue, you could consider drawing up a budget, buying food on sale, or splitting the cost of bulk purchases with a friend or neighbour.
Resources and support
- Find out about healthy eating using the Australian Dietary Guidelines.
- Find an Accredited Practising Dietitian from the Dietitians Association of Australia.
- If you need help to get food, you can contact Food Bank on 02 9756 3099 to find a charity in your area that can support you.
- Meals on Wheels delivers nutritious food to people at home.
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Last reviewed: June 2019