Prevention and Treatment of Malnutrition

Malnutrition occurs when someone does not receive enough dietary nourishment to sustain their physical health needs, leading to wasting.

The most common, and most obvious symptom is weight loss; technically, it is defined as unintentionally losing 5-10% of body weight over three to six months – and a high percentage of that comprises lean muscle tissue which is a critical problem in itself.

Prevention and Treatment

Health bodies are calling for mandatory nutrition standards across residential aged care facilities, including staff training and awareness. While the issue is complex and needs a multi-pronged approach, a simple start is prioritising quality food in aged care budgets.

Important strategies to prevent and treat malnutrition are regular meals and snacks containing protein and energy, a variety of food from the key food groups, and regular drinks to avoid dehydration. Where patients have difficulty eating or swallowing, high energy, high protein drinks can be given between meals.

Challenging conventional wisdom, diet quality is even more important for preventing frailty than food quantity or protein intake, according to a recent study in the US. The authors found four studies showing that a Mediterranean diet reduced frailty risk – an eating pattern high in plant foods such as vegetables, fruit, legumes and healthy fats contained in extra virgin olive oil, nuts and seeds. It is low in processed foods, confectionary and red meat.

So giving custard and ice cream to patients at risk for malnutrition might not be the ticket for boosting protein and energy intake, but rather generous amounts of extra virgin olive oil for cooking and salads, a handful of nuts each day for those who can chew them, avocado, salmon, eggs and full fat dairy products such as yoghurt and cheese.

Barriers and catalysts of eating also need to be identified and addressed, and every effort made to help older people enjoy food and the enhanced wellbeing that it delivers.

Pleasure in Eating

Ultimately, if meals and food choices are appealing, older people are more likely to eat. The environment is very important. Cooking smells, communal eating, pleasant, relaxed surroundings and attractive food presentation can all stimulate appetite.

As Maggie Beer says, “It’s all about giving equal measures of pleasure and nutrition. Without pleasure, what is there in life?”


Our Cost of Malnutrition report outlines the problem of malnutrition and its various costs – both financial and physical – and offers a guide to its identification and management.

Download your free report HERE

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