Malnutrition is a serious medical condition that happens when a person’s diet doesn’t contain the right amount of nutrients.

Malnutrition means “poor nutrition” and can refer to:

  • under nutrition – when you do not get enough nutrients
  • over nutrition – when you get more nutrients than you require

This article focuses on under nutrition.

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Who’s affected by malnutrition?

Malnutrition is a widespread health problem. There are an estimated 3 million malnourished people in the UK at any time, with many more at risk of getting malnourished.

Around one in three people admitted to hospital or care homes in the UK are discovered to be malnourished or at risk of malnourishment.

Malnutrition is produced by having an inadequate diet or a problem absorbing nutrients from food. There are many reasons why these might happen, including having lowered mobility, a long-term health condition, or a low income.

Signs of malnutrition

The most common symptom of undernutrition is accidental weight loss (losing 5-10% or more of your body weight over three to six months).

Other signs may include:

  • weak muscles
  • feeling tired all the time
  • low mood
  • an increase in illnesses or infections

The main sign of overnutrition is being overweight or obese. However, people with undernutrition can equally be overweight if they eat a diet high in energy (calories), but low in other nutrients.

Signs of malnutrition in children can also include failure to grow at the expected rate and changes in behaviour, such as appearing unusually irritable, sluggish or anxious.

Your child’s weight and physical development should be regularly checked by your caregiver when your child is young. Speak to your caregiver or health visitor if you have any concerns about your child’s health or development.

When to see your caregiver

See your caregiver if your body mass index (BMI) is lower than 18.5 or you notice the above symptoms.

BMI is a measure of whether you’re a healthy weight for your height. You can use the BMI healthy weight chart to calculate out your BMI.

You should visit your caregiver if you believe you or someone you care for is at risk of malnutrition. They can check for symptoms of malnourishment and any conditions that may cause malnutrition.

Treating malnutrition

Depending on what’s caused a person to get malnourished and how severe it is, treatment may be carried out at home or in hospital.

Dietary changes are the main treatment for malnutrition. If you’re undernourished, you may have to increase the nutritional content of your food, with or without taking nutritional supplements.

If you’re unable to eat enough to meet your nutritional require you may need:

  • a feeding tube to provide nutrients directly into your digestive system
  • a drip to give nutrients and fluids directly into a vein

Preventing malnutrition

The best way to avoid malnutrition is to eat a healthy, balanced diet.

A healthy, balanced diet is important for maintaining health and fitness. To stay healthy, you need to eat a variety of foods from the four main food groups including:

  • plenty of fruit and vegetables
  • plenty of bread, rice, potatoes, pasta and other starchy foods
  • some milk and dairy foods
  • some meat, fish, eggs, beans and other non dairy sources of protein


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