Nicola McBride, a Registered Dietitian, explains the factors that can influence our nutritional needs.
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What is unintended weight loss?
Unintended weight loss is when weight loss isn't planned. It happens when your diet doesn't provide enough calories for your body needs. A chronic poor appetite and lack of interest in food, underlying health conditions or their treatment can all lead to unintended weight loss. Some weight loss as we get older is part of the natural ageing process, but excessive weight loss hampers health.
Our nutritional needs shift as our health needs change, and as we age. In some cases, such as when someone is recovering from surgery, the body needs good nutrition to support the healing process. Besides having a poor appetite, some people have so little physical energy for shopping or preparing food that this can slow their recovery. Some common reasons for being unable to eat include:
Not feeling well enough to prepare or eat food
Effect of medications on appetite
Problems with pain control
Digestive symptoms such as taste changes, feeling full quickly, or tummy upsets after eating
Problems with ill-fitting dentures as weight is lost
When appetite is poor, many people find it difficult to manage a diet to match their needs. This can cause unwanted weight loss and over time, malnutrition. A poor appetite over weeks reduces energy reserves and muscle strength, impairs the immune system and can contribute to feeling low.
When Food Isn't Enough
A healthy and balanced diet is important for us all – and getting ourselves on track starts with paying attention to our nutritional intake. People struggling with unintentional weight loss should base their meals and snacks on foods providing protein and energy. Think meat, fish, dairy foods, eggs and nuts for protein, and pasta, bread, rice and potatoes for energy. If you easily feel full, save your mealtime drink or soup until after you've eaten your meal to help improve your food intake. If able, spending some time in the fresh air when the weather is good may help to stimulate your appetite, too.
It's important to speak with your healthcare professional about any unexpected weight loss or concerns about your nutrition. There are many easy ways to fortify food and drinks to boost their nutritional content and your GP, practice nurse or dietitian can offer advice on how to do this based on your specific needs and health issues. Fortifying your food and choosing small, frequent meals and snacks may be sufficient to help prevent or correct unintentional weight loss. Having a milk based drink such as a latte coffee or a hot chocolate made with milk at bedtime adds protein and calories to your daily diet. But sometimes even the most concerted efforts to eat well enough just aren't enough, and oral nutritional supplements can provide valuable support when needed. Your healthcare professional can advise.
Oral nutritional supplements come in a variety of forms, including milkshakes, yoghurt, juice and other dessert-like options and flavours. They are designed to use alongside food to support a healthy diet. Rest assured the composition of medical nutrition products is backed by extensive scientific and clinical research. In many cases the use of these products is recommended in international and professional guidelines.
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