Why knowing the signs of malnutrition could save you from an avoidable illness
A silent epidemic
Good nutrition is vital for everyone to live a healthy life. However, in Australia today, thousands of people may be showing signs of malnutrition without knowing it.
A hidden problem, often referred to as the “silent epidemic”, malnutrition affects approximately 10 – 30% of people living in the community1. The prevalence is higher in older people and people with certain diseases such as cancer1.
This is a reality that’s hard to stomach (pun intended!) when living in a first world country. The good news is, malnutrition can be treated effectively once diagnosed. However, being aware of the signs of malnutrition in yourself, and others you care for, is the key to avoiding it altogether.
Malnutrition isn’t always easy to recognise as it can happen gradually over time. Being aware and informed about the signs can make all the difference to your health, and that of those you care for.
Clinical Dietitian and Nutritionist, Jaime Rose Chambers, says “Malnutrition can affect anyone at any age but we’re at greater risk as we age and with certain illnesses like cancer. Malnutrition occurs when a person’s diet doesn’t include enough nutrition or the right balance of nutrients, such as energy, protein and vitamins because of a poor appetite or being unable to eat certain types of food. This can cause serious health problems and affect immunity and slow recovery and wound healing.”
Malnutrition: A weighty problem?
A fact surprising to most is that malnutrition is not just related to the numbers on the scales. According to new consumer research, only 19% of Australians believe that being overweight could be a sign of malnutrition and 71% think being underweight is the leading malnutrition symptom2.
Malnutrition can happen to anyone regardless of size, shape, or weight3. That’s because the food you eat and drink can give you energy, but you can still be lacking in the essential nutrients your body needs to recover well and stay that way. If you do not give your body enough food and drink, you may also experience unplanned weight loss. When this happens, your body is at risk of becoming malnourished3.
If you’re not sure whether you’re underweight, a healthy weight, or overweight, your body mass index, or BMI, is an accurate way to assess whether your weight is in the healthy range. This calculation combines your height and weight to form a measure that can help predict your risk of developing disease. According to the Australian Government Department of Health, if your BMI is less than 18.5, your BMI is within the underweight category; between 18.5 and 24.9, your BMI is within the healthy weight category; between 25 and 29.9, your BMI is within the overweight category; 30 or over, you are within the obese category4.
You can quickly find out your BMI with the Australian Government’s online BMI calculator.
Signs of malnutrition
The signs of malnutrition are many and varied; they’re often related to other health conditions, or seen as a normal part of getting older. However, it’s important to know what they are, so you can recognise them and ensure they are treated promptly.
Common signs other than weight loss can include5:
- Reduced appetite, with a lack of interest in food and drink in general: People at risk of malnutrition can often lose their appetite and not feel hungry, making the problem worse. There are a number of reasons why this can happen, including deliberately restricting your diet, dental problems that make the physical act of eating difficult, losing the desire to cook a meal – especially if living alone, treatment for another illness, like cancer, which can make eating and drinking difficult and also cause changes in taste5.
- Inability to focus and concentrate: Just like the rest of your body, the human brain needs good nutrition to function at its best. Without the right nutrients at the right amounts, our brain chemistry can alter, resulting in increased symptoms of depression and anxiety6. When a person is malnourished, their brain is not adequately fuelled, which leads to changes in brain chemistry, resulting in increased symptoms of depression and anxiety6.
- Feeling tired all the time, even when sedentary: In today’s world, most people lead busy lives, so feeling tired is not unusual. However, if you’re tempted to take a nap during the day as the rule not the exception, a good sleep doesn’t help, or just sitting down makes you feel tired and unable to do anything without effort, it may be fatigue. This is different to just feeling tired or sleepy and can be a result of a poor diet – foods that are nutritionally poor don’t provide the body with enough fuel or nutrients to function at its best7.
- A general feeling of being weaker than usual: Feeling weak can be a transient feeling, especially if it’s related to a short-term illness or a time of intense activity. But because the signs of malnutrition include weight and muscle loss, this can make you feel weak and not able to do your everyday tasks8. If you notice that feeling weak is hampering your ability to do simple things you’ve always been able to do, especially those that don’t require much exertion, this can be an indicator that you’re at risk of malnutrition.
- Getting sick often and taking longer for wounds to heal: Have you noticed you get sick more often than usual and can’t shift the symptoms, or that a wound is taking a longer time to heal, if it heals at all? These are physical signs that your body doesn’t have the necessary nutrients or hydration to get your health back on track. Good nutrition including staying hydrated is important for recovering from acute illnesses and ensuring wounds heal; without eating a wide variety of foods, and getting adequate amounts protein and/or energy in your diet, sickness and wounds can affect you more often, and stay for longer9.
Are you one of Australia’s Missing Malnourished?
If you think that you or someone you know could be at risk of malnutrition when considering the common symptoms, take our quiz to find out more. Remember, malnutrition can be avoidable. Know the signs, so you, and those around you, stay healthy and well.
What your body needs in the way of nutrients changes over time as we age. There may also be times when your body struggles to get all the essential nutrients it needs through diet. You may find that you are eating smaller meals, less protein and a smaller variety of vitamins and mineral rich foods, causing your body to become weaker and therefore less resilient. Did you know this can lead to malnutrition?
Cancer and weight loss
It is not uncommon for people to lose weight unintentionally due to the impact of cancer and its treatment on the body. During your cancer journey it can be hard to get the nutrition your body needs to stay strong and healthy. Learn more about the importance of nutrition here.
- Dietitians Association of Australia. Evidence based practice guidelines for the management of malnutrition in adult patients across the continuum of care. Nutr Diet. 2009; 66 (3): S1-S34.
- The Digital Edge Weekly Omnibus Survey conducted amongst 1,500 Australians in February 2021. Data on file.
- Cancer Council Victoria, Malnutrition and Weight Loss: https://www.cancervic.org.au/living-with-cancer/nutrition/malnutrition
- Australian Government Department of Health: http://healthyweight.health.gov.au/wps/portal/Home/get-started/are-you-a-healthy-weight/bmi/
- Tasmanian Government Malnutrition Background: https://www.dhhs.tas.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0004/343372/Malnutrition_background.pdf
- NEDC Australian Government Initiative: https://nedc.com.au/research-and-resources/show/issue-59-i-the-starved-brain-can-what-we-eat-determine-how-we-think
- Better Health Victoria: https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/conditionsandtreatments/fatigue
- Health Direct Australia: https://www.healthdirect.gov.au/malnutrition.
- Queensland Government, Nutrition & Wound Healing: https://www.health.qld.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0034/363994/hphe_wound.pdf