Malnutrition is an imbalance between the nutrition the body needs and the nutrition it actually receives through food.
Disease-related malnutrition primarily refers to inadequate nutrient intake, most commonly protein and energy, and can be a result of increased requirements and/or a decreased capacity to absorb nutrients due to illness and disease.
Both terms refer to a nutritional imbalance, which can be over or under. Malnutrition occurs when a person gets too much or too little of certain nutrients; it is a diagnosable condition and requires treatment. Malnourishment is when we lack the nutrition necessary for the body to function at its best and is caused by not having enough to eat, or not eating enough food with the right nutrients.
Malnutrition can have a detrimental impact on your body in many ways, which in turn impacts your quality of life. It can lead to a higher risk of infections and poor immunity. Muscles can be weakened and muscle function can decrease, and it may lead to an increase in falls. Malnutrition can result in longer and more frequent hospital admissions, reduced effectiveness of medical treatment and delay your recovery from illness.
Inadequate or poor intake, increased requirements due to illness and/or decreased capacity to absorb nutrients can contribute to malnutrition. There are certain factors that can put individuals at higher risk of malnutrition including:
- Chewing or swallowing problems
- Hospital admission
- Inability to shop, cook or feed yourself
- Social isolation
Malnutrition can be prevented. Monitor your weight and note any unplanned rapid weight loss; if you are concerned, your healthcare professional is the best place to start for an assessment and official diagnosis. Also monitor changes in appetite, food intake and nutritional needs with the support of a healthcare professional. They may recommend you supplement your reduced intake or increased requirements that cannot be met by diet alone with nutrition support solutions e.g. high energy, high protein oral nutritional supplements. If you have recently become unwell, speak to a dietitian regarding any possible changes in nutritional requirements as they can provide you with an individualised assessment and therapy plan.
A malnutrition assessment involves gathering information from an individual to assess if their nutritional status is normal, at-risk of or have a diagnosis of malnutrition. The information collected often includes: weight history/changes in weight, medical history, medications, social history, food intake history, changes in appetite, gastrointestinal symptoms e.g. diarrhoea, nausea, vomiting, and mobility. Please note a credible malnutrition assessment can only be performed by an appropriately qualified healthcare professional, such as a dietitian.
It’s not uncommon to find you lose weight unintentionally due to the impact of cancer, and/or its treatment has on your body. If you are diagnosed with cancer, depending on the type and location of cancer it may increase the body’s nutritional requirements and/or impact your ability to eat and drink what you normally would due to your symptoms, if you have any.
During cancer treatment, common side effects can include loss of appetite and changes in your sense of smell, taste and food texture which can impact your desire to eat and drink. A dietitian is best placed to help you devise strategies appropriate to your individual situation. These may include smaller, more frequent meals throughout the day, and/or a high energy, high protein diet. If your usual diet is not enough to meet nutritional requirements, a healthcare professional may also recommend a nutrition support solution e.g. oral nutritional supplement like Fortisip Compact Protein.
If you experience a loss of, or change in, taste you can try the following strategies:
- Using seasoning such as herbs and spices, lemon, garlic in cooking, which can make food more palatable.
- If you have become sensitive to strong flavours, try limiting overpowering foods such as spicy or hot foods.
- If your usual diet is not enough to meet nutritional requirements, your healthcare professional may recommend a nutrition support solution such as an oral nutritional supplement like Fortisip Compact Protein.
- The Cancer Council of NSW has a detailed factsheet that can provide further advice and guidance on taste and smell changes.
Recovering from cancer doesn’t happen when your cancer treatment concludes. The fact is it can take years to regain your energy and strength. While it’s totally understandable that you want to return to your “normal” life as soon as possible, it’s important to remember your body needs time to recover and find a new normal. A dietitian can help you map out strategies and an eating plan that can adapt to how you feel, and what you feel like eating, as the months post-recovery pass. Who knows, you may discover you like a particular food that your pre-cancer self couldn’t stand! To ensure you maintain a healthy weight and get the right nutrients consistently, your healthcare professional may also recommend an oral nutrition supplement as your diet recalibrates with the needs of your body.
Recover Well FAQs
A balanced diet can help prevent and lower risk of chronic illness and improve recovery from illness. Requirements may change during and after illness so a consultation with dietitian can help you understand changes in nutritional requirements. They can implement strategies to help meet your nutrition goals and improve recovery. The Australian Dietary Guidelines provide a succinct overview of the five principal recommendations for eating healthily, however consultation with a dietitian will ensure you understand how these recommendations can be applied to your individual situation and specific health needs.
Good nutrition can support and improve recovery by providing the body with the essential nutrients it needs to repair and maintain its key functions during and after periods of being unwell. Your nutritional requirements may change during your illness, so a consultation with a dietitian can help understand these changes. A dietitian is best placed to advise you on appropriate strategies to implement to help you meet your nutrition goals and improve recovery.
Nutritional needs are based on individual factors such as age, weight, health status and physical activity. A healthcare professional is best placed to provide an accurate calculation. Remember your nutritional requirements may change during illness, so consulting a dietitian can help you to understand changes in nutritional requirements and implement strategies to help meet your nutrition goals and improve recovery.
Calories are a unit of measure for energy. An adequate intake of calories is essential to your health and wellbeing, so your body can perform key functions such as repair and maintenance. Calories come from different nutrients such as carbohydrates (1 gram of carbohydrate = 4 Calories), protein (1 gram of protein = 4 Calories) and fat (1 gram of fat = 9 Calories).
Calories and kilojoules are different measures used to describe the same concept - that is, the amount of energy in food and drink or energy required to meet your bodies nutrition needs.
Calories are a unit of measure for energy and come from different nutrients such as carbohydrates (1 gram of carbohydrate = 4 Calories), protein (1 gram of protein = 4 Calories) and fat (1 gram of fat = 9 Calories).
Good nutrition can support and improve recovery by providing the body with the essential nutrition to repair and maintain functions of the body during and after periods of being unwell. Nutritional requirements may change during illness, so a consultation with dietitian can help you to understand changes in nutritional requirements and ensure that strategies are implemented to help meet your individual nutrition goals and improve recovery. If your healthcare professional has recommended that you take a nutritional supplement from the Fortisip range to aid your recovery, there are recipes to help you recover well too.
It may be harder to get all of your required nutrients when unwell. This can be because of difficulties with eating and drinking enough, poor appetite, changes in taste and smell, or your body being unable to absorb all the nutrients it needs from food and drink. Your healthcare professional can advise you on what to do, and can assess whether you have, or are at risk of, malnutrition. They may recommend daily nutritional supplementation to ensure you consume essential nutrients for good health on a consistent, ongoing basis. This can be in a liquid form like Fortisip Compact Protein or Fortijuce, which help to provide a quick and easy way to help restore nutritional balance when your usual diet is not enough. Dietitians Australia has further details about malnutrition including advice and tips, plus credible information about eating well
Protein is made up of 20 building blocks called amino acids, although some are amino acids made by the body it is essential to get others from your diet. Protein helps build, maintain and repair muscle, skin, and other body tissues such as bone. It is also a source of dietary energy for the body and can be found in both animal and plant food. A protein deficiency can negatively impact your immunity and your ability to recovery from an illness.1
Protein requirements are based on factors such as your age/life stage, weight, health status and physical activity. When unwell, your body often requires more protein per day than usual to support recovery. Your protein requirements may change during illness, so consulting a dietitian can help you understand changes in nutritional requirements and implement strategies to help meet your nutrition goals which will assist recovery.
Recommendations for physical activity can depend on age, physical ability and health status. Regardless, staying active to some degree consistently is important to improve recovery in the short and long term when unwell. As recommendations can change when unwell, a consultation with a qualified healthcare professional is advised to determine what activities you are capable of doing safely and how frequently to do them.