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Malnutrition

Malnutrition can affect health and wellbeing, increase hospital admissions, and can lead to long-term health problems for otherwise healthy and independent older people. 


What is malnutrition?

Malnutrition means that someone isn’t eating well enough to maintain their health and wellbeing. It results in low body weight or weight loss.

Being malnourished can mean more visits to the GP and longer recovery times from illness.

It’s estimated that around one in ten people over the age of 65 are malnourished or are at risk of malnutrition – that’s over one million older people in the UK today.


What are the signs of malnutrition?

You can be malnourished regardless of your size, weight or body shape.

The main signs are:

  • low body weight
  • unintentional weight loss
  • feeling lethargic or more tired
  • smaller appetite
  • having difficulty chewing and swallowing
  • finding planning, cooking and shopping is becoming more of an effort
  • loose dentures

If you recognise these signs, you should speak to someone about it. These can all be signs of unhealthy weight loss and might mean you're at risk of becoming malnourished.


What causes malnutrition?

The life changes that we experience as we age are complex and very individual – and they can often contribute to loss of appetite and interest in food. There are many reasons why someone becomes malnourished, but it's important to remember that malnutrition is preventable.

Long-term health conditions

Long-term health conditions can have an impact on our ability to eat enough. These include conditions such as diabetes, hypertension, angina, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), or chronic pain conditions, such as arthritis.

Becoming less mobile

It could also be that you're struggling to get out to the shops, carry food, manage purchases or cook and prepare meals – all of which can affect our appetite.

Life events

Other life changes can also affect our appetite, such as loss and bereavement, becoming a carer, feeling lonely and isolated or worrying about finances.

Changing health needs

As we get older, our health needs change and can increase the risk of malnutrition. The messaging we often hear is focused on weight loss, eating low-fat products, eating more fruit and vegetables, and having less sugar or treats. But this style of eating might not be right for someone who has a small appetite, who has unintentionally lost weight or is finding it difficult or tiring to eat.


Tips to help prevent malnutrition

  • Move to full-fat foods like milk, yoghurt and cheese.
  • Try to include protein in every meal.
  • Keep hydrated by having 6–8 drinks every day.
  • If you find it hard to have 3 full meals a day, try eating smaller meals more regularly instead.
  • Have full-fat milky drinks and a biscuit or snack between meals.
  • Packet, frozen and ready meals can be nutritious and convenient options.
  • Try to make sure you always have 3 days' worth of food in your home.

Small packets or portions can be a good option, as it means we don't need to worry about wasting food or becoming overwhelmed by the size of the portion.


What should I do if I notice a lack of appetite or unintentional weight loss?

It's always a good idea to keep a record of your weight and check it regularly. If you notice unintentional weight loss, speak to your GP, Practice Nurse or healthcare professional.

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Last updated: Oct 25 2023

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