Millions of older people are now malnourished in the UK - spot the signs

When most of us think of being malnourished, certain images come to mind: charity campaigns for starving children in developing countries; monochrome photos of bow-legged Victorians. But how many of us think of people just like ourselves?

Despite the fact that the UK is suffering from an obesity crisis, around 3 million people in the UK are malnourished.

What does that mean? Being malnourished doesn’t necessarily have to involve looking skeletal. In fact, you can be suffering from malnutrition and have a BMI that sits well within the normal or overweight/obese categories.

Malnutrition happens when you’re deficient in certain vital nutrients like protein, vitamins or calories, and if you’re overweight, you may be consuming a diet high in calories but low in other nutrients. That can lead to all sorts of issues - from delayed wound healing to compromised immune systems.

It’s especially problematic the older you are, and that’s worrying because people aged over 65 are now more likely to suffer from the condition than any other age group. In fact, over the past decade, the numbers of over-60s being admitted to hospital with malnutrition has more than trebled.

There are a number of reasons why older people may struggle to get the full gamut of vitamins and vitamins necessary for healthy living. Ill-fitting dentures, mobility issues and chronic illness can all play a part, as can the fact that not everyone is abreast the lastest nutritional advice. Poor mental health and loneliness are also a reality for many people living alone who might not feel up to cooking for themselves. And of course, many people the UK are having to survive on very little; around 1.9 million pensioners live in poverty so may choose to skip meals to save money or spend on nutritionally-valueless but cheap grub.

If you’re not eating enough of the right things, you’re a lot more likely to suffer from long-term health problems and take much longer to recover from illness. The problem is that malnutrition builds up over time and many of the signs are easily written off as natural signs of aging.

Look out for:

Weight loss - if you or someone you know has lost up to 10% of their body weight unintentionally, then it’s something that definitely needs looking into.
Sore mouth - mouth ulcers and cracks in the corner of the mouth can be a sign of iron or B vitamins.
Lack of interest in food or drink - the body is good at adapting to situations and if you’re regularly underfeeding it, it’ll get used to surviving on very little. It’s not normal to go for hours and hours with eating or drinking.
Tiredness - lack of nutrition inevitably leads to a lack of energy, so if you’re feeling more lethargic than usual, it’s worth assessing what you’re consuming.
Changeable mood - when our brains don’t get enough glucose, we can become increasingly irritable. The same is true of vitamin B12 deficiency, which can leave us with memory loss, anxiety and cognitive difficulties.

If you’ve got older friends and family members, do keep an eye out to ensure that they are eating regularly and don’t dismiss lack of appetite as being just a typical sign of old age.

How to stay properly nourished

It’s not simply about making sure that you’re eating enough to keep body and soul together. It’s about what you’re eating, as well as how much.

Put food first - look at what you’re eating and prioritise energy-dense, high-protein foods like fish, yoghurt and milk.
Drink your vitamins - load up on nourishing fluids like milk, soups and if you’re really struggling, protein shakes or supplement sachets.
Fruit and veg always - experts believe that we should be aiming for around 10 portions a day. If that’s too ambitious, prioritise having at least one portion with every meal. Making smoothies and soups is also a great way of consuming a lot of vitamins without having to chew down on a lot of food.
Frozen is fine - if it’s money or time that’s the issue, remember that you can always keep fruit, veg and proteins in the freezer. Why not set yourself one day a week when you can batch cook some nutritious meals and then keep them frozen until you need them? Frozen products are often cheaper than the fresh alternatives but offer just as much nutritional value so can be a great option for anyone looking to cut costs and food waste.

Information contained in this Articles page has been written by talkhealth based on available medical evidence. The content however should never be considered a substitute for medical advice. You should always seek medical advice before changing your treatment routine. talkhealth does not endorse any specific products, brands or treatments.

Information written by the talkhealth team

Last revised: 25 February 2020
Next review: 25 February 2023