An introduction to malnutrition: What every Australian should know
Malnutrition: A first world health problem
Malnutrition is a major international health problem, yet it continues to be unrecognised and therefore, untreated.
It’s not uncommon for people to assume malnutrition is confined to countries where nutrition is poor and living conditions are compromised. However, today malnutrition affects billions of people worldwide. In Australia and New Zealand alone, malnutrition affects approximately 10–30% of people living in the community, with the prevalence being higher in older people and people with certain diseases such as cancer1.
It is estimated to affect 35-43% of patients in hospital and in an Australian study, the prevalence across eight residential aged care facilities ranged from 32-72%2.
The silent epidemic
Malnutrition is increasingly called the “silent epidemic” because it can go unnoticed and undiagnosed. This is especially the case outside of an environment where healthcare professionals are regularly monitoring someone’s health and what they’re consuming.
Overall, only 1 in 6 people think they themselves, a family member or a loved one, living in Australia is at risk of malnutrition. That’s 83% who don’t think they’re at risk, a statistic which may explain why diagnosis rates are so low3.
According to Pharmacist Gerald Quigley, misconceptions about malnutrition often mean its overlooked.
“Malnutrition is not top of mind – yet – and this is especially true when chronic illness or advanced age aren’t involved. There are so many other hidden causes – poor dental health, loss of the taste and smell sensation, and disinterest in foods previously enjoyed. Unrecognized dementia can also lead to malnutrition in the older population.”
Malnutrition symptoms – more than weight loss
New consumer research shows that most people think being underweight is the leading malnutrition symptom3. But the signs of malnutrition are many and varied, and it’s important to know what they are.
Surprisingly, malnutrition is not just related to the numbers on the scales; people with malnutrition can be underweight or overweight. That’s because the food we eat and drink can give us energy, but we can still be lacking in the essential nutrients our bodies need to recover well and stay that way.
The signs of malnutrition range from the totally obvious to the very vague. Malnutrition symptoms could also indicate a number of other health conditions, which means it may be overlooked as the core health challenge that needs addressing and remedying.
According to the latest consumer research, Australians correctly identified losing weight, weakness and losing muscle as the signs of malnutrition they are aware of. That’s a great start in terms of basic level awareness, but to ensure malnutrition is diagnosed and treated, it’s important to know all of the symptoms.
Worryingly, only 5% of people are aware of ALL of the signs of malnutrition3. This means there’s a lot of work to be done to ensure all Australians are educated about this serious health condition.
According to expert pharmacist, Gerald Quigley, sometimes a person near and dear to you can be malnourished without you even noticing. “A lack of appetite, a lack of interest in food, being tired and irritable, showing poor concentration, often commenting on feeling cold, having wounds – even minor ones – being slow to heal or just feeling down…these are some of the signs of malnutrition.”
Do YOU know the malnutrition symptoms?
Before reading on, grab a piece of paper and a pen, and write down the malnutrition symptoms you can think of.
Here are the most common malnutrition symptoms; how many did you get right or wrong, and how many did you miss altogether?
- Unplanned weight loss
- Lack of appetite, with lack of interest in food or drink
- Inability to focus or concentrate
- Feeling tired all the time, even when sedentary
- A general feeling of being weaker than usual
- Getting sick often and taking a long time to recover.
Take the Missing Malnourished Quiz
If left untreated, malnutrition can lead to other serious health issues. Right now, there could be thousands of Australians going about their daily lives completely unaware they are malnourished. It could be you or someone you love. Are you one of the Missing Malnourished? If you think that you or someone you know could be at risk of malnutrition when considering the common symptoms, take our quiz to find out more.
Seek professional help
If you are displaying the signs of malnutrition, don’t delay speaking to your healthcare professional, who is best placed to conduct a proper health assessment and provide an official diagnosis. If you suspect a loved one or someone you care for is at risk of malnutrition, discuss your concerns and encourage them to seek professional help.
The information collected during this assessment often includes: weight history/changes in weight, medical history, medications, social history, food intake history, changes in appetite, and any gastrointestinal symptoms including diarrhoea, nausea, vomiting, and mobility. Analysing this information allows your healthcare professional to determine whether your nutritional status is normal, you are at risk of malnutrition, or if you are actually malnourished.
If you are at risk of malnutrition, or actually malnourished, they will advise on the best treatment to restore your nutritional balance. This may include recommending a high energy and protein nutritional supplement shake that can help meet your daily nutritional needs when your usual diet is not enough.
“Help is available by seeking advice from a healthcare professional and by considering a high calorie and protein ready to drink shake like Fortisip Compact Protein, which can help you meet your daily nutritional needs when your usual diet is not enough,” comments Gerald.
Fortisip Compact Protein
Cancer and weight loss
- Dietitians Association of Australia. Evidence based practice guidelines for the management of malnutrition in adult patients across the continuum of care. Nutr Diet. 2009; 66 (3): S1-S34.
- Is malnutrition an issue in Australia? https://dietitiansaustralia.org.au/smart-eating-for-you/smart-eating-fast-facts/medical/is-malnutrition-an-issue-in-australia. Accessed July 2020.
- The Digital Edge Weekly Omnibus Survey conducted amongst 1,500 Australians in February 2021. Data on file.