One in three hospitalised adults in the US is at risk for malnutrition, a major analysis has found. And patients’ poor food intake is having a significant impact on their healing and recovery, compounding their risk of death.
“Nutrition is easily overlooked as healthcare professionals often focus on a patient’s primary diagnosis,” lead author Abby Sauer told NutritionInsight.
“It may come as a surprise to some that when patients don’t get proper nutrition, it can significantly put their health and lives at risk,” she adds, explaining that nutrition is more important than ever when someone is sick or injured.
The invisible malady
The researchers screened around 10,000 patients from 2009 to 2015 to assess malnutrition risk and links with mortality.
They found around one in two patients were eating half or less of their meals. This low food intake was linked to higher risk of mortality, and those who ate none of their food had a nearly six-fold higher risk of dying than those who ate at least some.
The findings support previous studies that have identified hospital malnutrition as a global public health problem, including Australian research which also found that this “silent epidemic” affects one in three hospitalised patients.
Despite this growing awareness, it is still not given the attention it deserves.
“Malnutrition can be invisible to the eye and is rampant in US hospitals because it’s not always top of mind,” said Gail Gerwitz, president of nutritionDay, an organisation which was involved in the study.
Loss of muscle mass and strength takes the brunt of poor nutrition, leading to sarcopenia, an age-related disease of accelerated muscle wasting that results in a downward spiral of poor health and mortality.
Some Australian hospitals are taking action by implementing basic malnutrition and sarcopenia screening tools. Relatives can also look for key signs of malnutrition.
These include unexpected weight loss, tiredness, low mood, poor appetite, unhealthy teeth and gums, listless hair and brittle nails, constipation and poor wound healing.
Hospitals and aged care facilities can take several measures to boost patients’ food intake, by using patient-centred service models, introducing mandatory nutrition standards, addressing obstacles to eating like poor dentition, and providing a choice of meals that are tasty and appealing.
High protein, high energy meals are the first line of defence to prevent or address malnutrition and promote healing. This can be achieved by adding extra cream or butter to food. Where necessary – especially with poor appetite – supplements can be used between meals to boost protein and calorie intake.