Signs of malnutrition and how to counter it

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Oct. 4-8 is Malnutrition Awareness Week, so get the facts and know the warning signs.

Malnutrition can occur at any age and isn’t always apparent to the eye. When the body doesn’t get the right balance of energy and nutrients you become malnourished. The rate of malnutrition is highest in older adults and is a serious issue with dangerous consequences on one’s well-being. Malnourished older adults are at a higher risk of falls which can impact their independence.

Malnutrition threatens the body’s ability to fight disease and heal from injuries. Warning signs include weight changes, loss of appetite, muscle weakness, frequent nausea, vomiting or diarrhea, slow-healing wounds, feeling tired or fatigued, swelling in the ankles, legs, or belly, and getting sick often. There is a greater risk for malnutrition if suffering from a chronic health condition, such as diabetes, cancer, heart disease, or dementia. You may also become malnourished if you have a chronic disease.

Other effects include higher stress levels, higher risk of infections, longer and more frequent hospital stays and higher death risk.

Fortunately, malnutrition can be prevented and treated through a healthy diet and lifestyle. Buy foods that are tasty, easy to prepare, and rich in calories and protein together. Examples of these foods include milk, Greek yogurt, cottage cheese, beans, nuts and nut butters, tofu, meat and eggs. Eat several small meals, each with protein and fluids, instead of one or two large meals. Eat with family and friends either at home or at your favorite restaurant, many offer discounts or have daily specials.

Improve the diet with high-protein liquid supplements. Buy those with at least 150 calories and 15-30 grams of protein per eight ounces. These can also be made at home. Here are examples to try or modify based on preferences.

  • Creamy Peach Milkshake: 1 cup of vanilla ice cream, ½ cup of whole milk and 1 peach
  • Berry Good Smoothie: 1 cup Greek yogurt, ½ cup orange juice, 1 cup frozen mixed berries
  • Make it Mine: mix and match ingredients such as milk (soy, almond, cow, etc.), yogurt, banana, spinach, strawberries, blueberries, honey, peanut (or other nut) butter, juice, ice cubes, etc. Choose favorite flavors (make sure to pick a protein) and add as much liquid as needed for preferred consistency.

It’s never too late to maintain or build back lost muscle and strength by lifting weights, using resistance bands, or taking walks. Becoming aware of malnutrition factors and warning signs is the first step to preventing it. Once you are aware, you can take steps to avoid or recover from malnutrition.

For more information, contact:

Pamela Hunt, Executive Director, North Attleboro Senior Center and Member of the MA Commission on Malnutrition Prevention Among Older Adults—phunt@nattleboro.com

Tara Hammes, Director of Member Services for Healthy Aging & Nutrition, Mass Council on Aging and Member of the MA Commission on Malnutrition Prevention Among Older Adults—tara@mcoaonline.com