Food & nutrition

Malnutrition: What You Should Know

Plate with a sliced egg and beans
Written by Monica Matys

Nutrients act as the power source for our bodies, keeping everything running smoothly and maintaining our overall health and energy. But sometimes, making sure we get enough of these essential nutrients can be tough, especially when facing illness or factors like limited income or living alone.

March is Nutrition Month, and to mark the milestone, Anastasia Sawka, Gloria Morgan and Junshu Zhao, clinical nutrition students at Sunnybrook, share their insights on what you can do to make sure you’re getting the nutrients you need.

How does malnutrition affect the body?

Malnutrition means the body isn’t getting enough energy, protein and essential nutrients, and is a major health concern. Malnutrition can slow down the immune system, disrupt heart rate and digestion, deteriorate vision and weaken bones. Just doing daily tasks can be difficult. When someone is hospitalized, or dealing with acute conditions like trauma or infections, malnutrition becomes even more complicated.

What are the signs?

Unintended weight loss is a common indicator, and one way of noticing is that clothes fit more loosely. Other signs include:

  • decreased appetite
  • lack of interest in food or drinks
  • persistent tiredness or low energy levels
  • struggles with everyday tasks
  • difficulty keeping warm
  • problems with chewing or swallowing

These signs can be subtle but shouldn’t be ignored as they may indicate underlying nutritional deficiencies that need attention. Be sure to check with your doctor if you are experiencing any of these signs.

Hospitalized patients may be asked questions to assess changes in their weight and eating patterns. Those at risk for malnutrition will receive the medical and nutritional care they need.

Will oral supplements help?

Illness and medications can sometimes contribute to a suppressed appetite, feeling full faster or noticing a change in the way foods taste. For some people, oral nutritional supplements can help prevent unnecessary deterioration and minimize potential loss of muscle mass and function. Speak with a registered dietitian or your health care team to determine if a nutritional supplement would be helpful.

Other helpful tips

If you are concerned about weight loss and low appetite, here are some things to try:

  • Take a “food first” approach; focus on making simple meals you like to make eating as easy as possible.
  • Opt for frequent, small meals throughout the day instead of three large ones.
  • Swap out low-calorie or low-fat options for alternatives that contain healthy fats and sugars. For example, choose whole milk instead of skim.
  • Keep high-calorie and high-protein snacks – like Greek yogurt or crackers with cheese –  nearby for easy access.
  • Incorporate nutritious drinks between meals and before bedtime to increase your caloric and nutrient intake. For instance, try a full-fat milk hot chocolate, or protein-rich smoothie that includes ingredients like Greek yogurt, nut butter, protein powder or milk powder.

Visit Dietitians of Canada to learn more about the role of registered dietitians, or ask your doctor for a referral.

About the author

Monica Matys

Monica Matys is a Communications Advisor at Sunnybrook.

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