Malnutrition: Weighing in on a topic where losing weight isn’t a good thing
In today’s world, we’re conditioned to believe that losing weight is a good thing. However, not all weight loss is beneficial and this is certainly the case when an illness and its associated treatment knocks you off your feet – taking your appetite with it.
If you are experiencing unexpected weight loss due to illness, it can be confronting. The human body needs to be strong to recover well, so being aware of other health conditions that may appear, such as malnutrition, is very important.
Weight loss is one of the main symptoms of malnutrition. Malnutrition is a serious health problem in Australia and it occurs when a person gets too much or too little of certain nutrients. Disease-related malnutrition is ‘too little’ – sometimes referred to as protein-energy malnutrition or undernutrition. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the prevalence is higher in older people and people with certain diseases, such as cancer1.
In a recent survey amongst Australians, over ¾ of respondents (71%) identified losing weight as a sign of malnutrition2. This is promising, as it shows we are becoming increasingly aware of the negative health ramifications of losing weight.
Not sure what an unhealthy weight range is for you or someone you care for? According to the Australian Government Department of Health, calculating your body mass index (BMI) is a credible way to determine whether you are within a healthy weight range. If your BMI is less than 18.5, your BMI is within the underweight category. You can quickly find out your BMI with the Australian Government’s online BMI calculator.
Losing weight without explanation
A dip in the numbers on the scales, that you weren’t anticipating, can indicate you are at risk of malnutrition. This is called unintentional weight loss and is defined as losing 5-10% or more of your body weight over three to six months3.
Here are some questions you can answer to see if you may be at risk:
- Do you find yourself eating less in terms of portion sizes?
- Are you skipping meals altogether?
- Do clothes that once fit now, feel looser, and belts need an extra hole to be of use?
- Have your become less interested in food?
- Are you following a restrictive diet that limits your intake of the right nutrients in sufficient amounts?
If you notice a loved one or someone you care for, unexpectedly losing weight, consider asking them these questions too, especially if they live alone and you don’t know what they are eating – if they are eating at all.
Malnutrition and unintentional weight loss are issues frequently underestimated in older people, especially seniors4. Living or eating alone causes older people to eat less and increases their risk of compromised nutritional status; many survive on a ‘tea and toast’ diet that is low in energy, protein and micronutrients. Taste changes often result in a dislike and avoidance of nutrient dense foods like lean meat, which means they’re at a higher risk of malnutrition5.
Weight loss and cancer
It’s not uncommon to find you lose weight unintentionally due to the impact of cancer and its treatment has on your body.
Eating the right kinds of foods during and after treatment can help you feel better and stay stronger6. If you are diagnosed with cancer, it may increase the body’s nutritional requirements depending on the type and/or its location in your body. Cancer may also impact your ability to eat and drink what you normally would, due to your symptoms, if you have any. Common side effects during treatment like chemotherapy can include a dry mouth, loss of appetite, taste changes, nausea and vomiting. Unsurprisingly, these side effects make wanting to eat, and eating itself, an undesirable activity.
Once you start cancer treatment, it can be harder to eat, maintain a healthy weight and meet your nutritional requirements through your usual diet alone. This is often due to common side effects.
Post-cancer treatment, eating well and maintaining a healthy weight, may help lower the chances of some cancers returning and improve your overall health. Research has shown that having a healthy body weight may reduce the risk of some cancers returning and improve survival1. If you or a loved one are living with cancer, you’ll know nutrition has an important part to play throughout its course.
How you nourish your body during this time is something that you can do to look after yourself, so you can continue to live your best life. If you are concerned about weight loss and cancer, consult with a dietitian who can work with you to devise tailored strategies based on your personal circumstances. They may recommend you eat smaller, more frequent meals throughout the day, and/or implement a high energy, high protein diet.
If your usual diet is not enough to regain the weight you have lost, your healthcare professional may recommend a nutrition support solution, for example a nutritional supplement like Fortisip Compact Protein. This dual approach can give your body more energy and protein which helps you regain any lost weight and stablise it.
Are you at risk of malnutrition due to weight loss?
If you think that you or someone you know could be at risk of malnutrition when considering the common symptoms like weight loss, take our malnutrition quiz to find out more. Remember, malnutrition is avoidable. Being aware of the common signs, like weight loss, will help to ensure you and your loved ones stay healthy and well.
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.
- The Digital Edge Weekly Omnibus Survey conducted amongst 1,500 Australians in February 2021. Data on file.
- Queensland Government, Queensland Health: Unintentional weight loss
- Royal Australina College of GPs, weight loss and malnutrition in the elderly: Weight loss and malnutrition in the elderly
- Brownie S. Why are elderly individuals at risk of nutritional deficiency? Int J Nurs Pract 2006;12:110–8.
- Cancer Council NSW: Weight Loss – Cancer Council NSW