Unintentional weight loss can be a warning sign of malnutrition, which can be both a cause and consequence of serious health conditions. Malnutrition not only increases the risk of illness but can also slow down recovery from illness or surgery. We know that decreasing malnutrition is an important goal for the older UK population. But in an age where obesity is a public health focus, older people may not be concerned about unintentional weight loss.
The risk of becoming undernourished increases significantly as people age and this may be exacerbated by the incorrect assumption that losing weight unintentionally is a normal part of the ageing process. In contrast, it should, in fact, be considered a warning sign of malnutrition or another serious condition.
Raising awareness of undernutrition and promoting conversations with older people about food and drink form part of the aims of Malnutrition Awareness Week. It seems even more relevant than ever in the cost-of-living crisis to identify older people who are struggling, who seem vulnerable, or isolated, those who have health problems or are struggling with activities of daily living and those who are finding it difficult to plan, shop, cook or access food.
Some of the simple warning signs that may indicate risk of malnutrition include:
- looser jewellery, such as rings slipping off fingers or a bracelet falling off the hand
- a belt needing to be tightened
- clothing feeling looser
- wristwatch sliding up arm
- loose dentures that make it harder to eat and talk.
They may all be signs that a person is not eating enough, and we should increase awareness of such signs of unintentional weight loss because even if we cannot weigh the person, or they do not have scales, we can always check these signs quite easily.
And if the person or their carer notices these signs, they should know that it is important to raise the matter with a social or healthcare professional. Some food tips could also be tried based on what may work for each individual as there is no one size fits all.
- Eating small portions – little and often
- Adding small snacks in between meals (e.g. cheese and biscuits, malt loaf, nuts)
- Nourishing drinks (e.g. milky drinks made with whole milk)
- Fortified foods, where ordinary foods like milk, soups or custard have additional skimmed milk powder added to increase protein and calorie content
- Ensuring a food source of protein at every meal – fish, meat, eggs, dairy, beans, tofu, seeds (and seed pastes like tahini), nuts and nut butters
The hope must be that the more awareness we generate to not ignore unintentional weight loss, the more we can change the myth that weight loss is merely part of the ageing process.
Ayela Spiro, Nutrition Science Manager, British Nutrition Foundation
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Please note that advice provided on our website about nutrition and health is general in nature. We do not provide any personal advice on prevention, treatment and management for patients or their family members.