We need food to live, and eating a nutritious diet that is varied and balanced; including the major food groups as well as vitamins and minerals in appropriate proportions is important for our health and well-being. Even in the womb, we must have access to the correct nutrients from our mothers if we are to develop optimally.
There are points in life where we may become malnourished either through illness, mental health issues, age, infirmity, reliance on others to provide adequate nutrition or our own actions. At these times, it is important to seek help and advice so that the problem does not become a longer-term one, with all the associated secondary challenges that could result.
Definitions, facts and figures
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), malnutrition includes:
- Undernutrition (wasting, stunting, underweight)
- Inadequate vitamins or minerals
- Overweight and obesity, and resulting diet-related, non-communicable diseases
Recent figures reveal that 1.9 billion adults in the world are overweight or obese, while 462 million are underweight.
When looking at children under 5 globally, 149 million were estimated to be stunted (too short for age), 45 million were estimated to be wasted (too thin for height) in 2020 and 45% of deaths in this age group are linked to malnutrition. In the same year, an estimated 38.9 million children were classed as overweight or obese.
These are startling figures and show how common malnutrition is. In the UK, at any one time, nearly 3 million people are estimated to live with malnutrition or be a risk because they do not eat enough. Many of these are people over 75 years old.
The occurrence of those at the highest risk of malnutrition is projected to almost double within the next 25 years.
In most cases, malnutrition and dehydration are largely preventable and monitoring changes is key to helping to identify and solve the problem.
In the early years, it is not just the children who we need to monitor, but we should also have an awareness of our health, that of our colleagues and our friends and families. However, there is a fine line to tread between concern over a colleague’s eating habits and an intrusion into their personal choices and freedoms!
Causes of malnutrition
People’s nutrition can be affected by several things. People can lose their interest in food or their ability to maintain a nutritious diet after:
- Becoming a carer for someone else
- Increased stress
- Developing mental health issues
- Feelings of loneliness
- Financial worries
- Long-term illness
- Starting certain medications
Many of these issues affect elderly people but some are common in younger ages too, especially in the current financial situation. Children may not lose their interest in food, but they may live in poverty or close to the poverty threshold which can be another barrier to receiving proper nutrition. Other causes for concern are the increasing problem of obesity, and mental health issues that can lead to eating disorders.
The British Nutrition Foundation publishes guidance and resources around nutrition at different life stages and more information can be found on their website at: www.nutrition.org.uk/life-stages/. They recommend the ‘5532’ approach to portion sizes for all 1- to 4-year-olds. This approach, first published in 2014 and updated recently to include information about sugars in children’s diets and vegetarian/vegan diets, suggests that this age group should have a variety of foods from the main food groups in the following proportions:
- Starchy foods (carbohydrates) – about 5 portions a day
- Fruit and vegetables – 5 or more portions a day
- Dairy foods – about 3 portions a day
- Protein foods – about 2 portions a day (3 portions for vegetarian or vegan children)
The portion size is important and changes with age. Information on recommended calorie intake for children and adults can be found on the NHS website at:
Malnutrition Awareness Week
Every year, the Malnutrition Task Force, a charity for the promotion of eating and drinking well in later life, organises Malnutrition Awareness Week. This year, the event runs from 6th – 12th November with the hashtag #UKMAW2023. They are partnering with BAPEN to bring an exciting week of activities, mostly aimed at older people.
However, promoting the value of great nutrition is for everyone at all stages of their life so think about how you can promote good nutrition in your setting.
Top tips for eating well
These tips can help older people at risk of undernutrition but can also be adapted for younger ages as necessary in cases of undernutrition.
- Eat more protein – our bodies need protein to build cells and are unable to store protein in the way we can store fats and carbohydrates
- If people are struggling to eat three meals a day, try smaller, more frequent snacks, or try eating small meals and snacks six times a day rather than three bigger meals.
- Move to full-fat foods such as milk, yoghurt or cheese to increase calorie
- If chewing is a problem, eat softer foods such as scrambled eggs, yoghurts and make sure that older people visit their dentist regularly for check-ups
- Make sure that there is someone who can cut up food, check temperature etc., to help where needed. For more information, see nhs.uk/conditions/occupational-therapy/
- Make use of home delivery services if shopping is an issue
- Ask friends and relatives out for a snack, coffee, or lunch to help reduce the times when people eat alone
- Ask a community organisation or other local groups such Age UK for information about lunch clubs or other social clubs or call the Age UK advice line on 0800 678 1602.
For advice on managing challenges caused by being overweight or obese, please see the NHS website at: www.nhs.uk/conditions/obesity. The Government has published guidelines on what is a healthy amount of physical activity for young children to keep them fit and healthy, and help with maintaining an optimal weight.
Although published in 2013, there is also a lot of valuable information on www.schoolfoodplan.com including recipes, what works well, training for schools and lots of resources to help schools (and early years settings) with their food provision. See www.schoolfoodmatters.org for more up-to-date posts, and a practical guide to school food standards can be found here on www.gov.uk.
Whatever you choose to do to mark Malnutrition Awareness Week, remember to send us your stories and photos to firstname.lastname@example.org.
References and more information