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When someone is not getting all the essential nutrients needed to maintain a healthy body, it can lead to a serious medical condition known as malnutrition.

'Malnutrition' basically means 'poor nutrition', but it generally refers to someone who is undernourished and not getting enough of the essential nutrients to stay healthy. It can vary from mild to severe and can affect both physical and mental health.

Malnutrition can occur because the person isn't eating a diet that provides enough of the essential nutrients or because a chronic health condition prevents the person's body from absorbing the nutrients. The latter can occur if the person has Crohn's disease, ulcerative colitis, cystic fibrosis, coeliac disease, or persistent diarrhoea or vomiting, for example.

An eating disorder such as anorexia nervosa can be the cause of malnutrition. Alcoholism or having a drug addiction can also interfere with the body's ability to absorb nutrients. However, a person can also be eating plenty of food but have such a poorly balanced diet that he or she isn't getting the right nutrients, so it is possible to be overweight and also have malnutrition.

Who is at risk of developing malnutrition?

It’s estimated that over 3 million adults living in the UK are at risk of malnutrition. Surveys taken in 2007–11 during BAPEN's Nutrition Screening Week indicate that 30–42% of people admitted to care homes and 10–14% of people living in sheltered housing are at risk of malnutrition. Although malnutrition can affect anyone, it most often affects older people over the age of 65, as well as people who become socially isolated due to poor mobility, who have poor physical health, or who have a mental health condition such as dementia or schizophrenia.

It is often the case that a person gets into a cycle that leads to malnutrition. They may have poorly fitted dentures or difficulty in swallowing foods, for example, which can make eating difficult. Or they may struggle to be able to prepare their food or lack transport to shop for it. Sometimes being on a restricted diet due to a health condition, having a health condition such as cancer, liver disease chronic pain, or depression can affect a person's appetite. These and other situations can lead to the person losing interest in food and becoming malnourished, which then makes them more susceptible to disease or illness that can make malnutrition even worse.

Malnutrition can also occur in people with limited income and therefore an inadequate supply of food. Children who are neglected by their care-givers or are living in poverty are also at risk.

What are the symptoms of malnutrition?

Malnutrition can develop over a long period of time, so the symptoms may not seem obvious. Symptoms include:

  • Weight loss, indicated by loose clothes, belts, jewellery and even dentures
  • Being tired and less energetic
  • Not being as capable at performing usual tasks
  • Being less physically active, not being able to walk as far or as quickly as before
  • Changes in mood, such as becoming depressed and lethargic
  • Loss of appetite and not being interested in food and drinks
  • Poor concentration, for example, the person may need more time to understand questions and reply to them

People with malnutrition tend to feel the cold more easily. They are more likely to pick up an infection because their immune system is weaker, and wounds take longer to heal. They are also more susceptible to falls due to weak muscles.

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