Most food chat these days tends to focus on how to reduce calorie intake, increase vegetable consumption and swap dirty fries for clean eating. There is however another side of the nutritional coin that tends not to get as much air time – malnutrition. It may be a word that we associate with poverty and famine, but malnutrition is something that effects an estimated 150,000 people in Ireland. Dietician with the Irish Nutrition and Dietetic Institute, Louise Reynolds, spoke to Seán O’Rourke about the condition.
Two of the main groups impacted by malnutrition are older people and those with an underlying health condition, but there are a number of other risk factors at play.
“People who are just going along with their lives, who may have difficulty swallowing, people may be getting older, people who are living on their own, maybe it’s through poverty and not having access to good nutrition, lack of education and knowledge. There are a lot of people at risk of malnutrition and there are consequences to that.”
Thinness is not a sole indicator of malnutrition. Many individuals are naturally thin and so when it comes to diagnosing the condition there are a number of symptoms and measurements taken into consideration.
“The symptoms of malnutrition would be things like lack of energy, lack of strength. You’re also at an increased risk of developing other conditions … There are screening tests looking at muscle thickness, taking measurements, weights and so on. There are clinical ways that a nurse and a dietician and a doctor can diagnose malnutrition.”
A significant consequence of malnutrition is increased frailty, which in turn leads to difficulty in healing. This has ramifications for older people who may be at increased risk of sustaining bone breaks from falls, as well as people with underlying conditions who really need to keep their strength up. A common example of this is patients dealing with cancer. Unintended weight loss can result from the extra demands a growing cancer places on a person’s body.
“That weight loss is part of the disease and when it comes to nutrition, what we would love to see is that people are eating well, trying to maintain a good weight and trying to halt, as much as possible, that weight loss so that then when they go through their treatment, they have the energy reserves to withstand it.”
Seán wondered what some of the easiest ways to boost a person’s nutritional intake might be and it turns out there’s one food group in particular that is easy to add to existing meals – dairy. Whether it’s adding a grated cheese topping or cracking open the cream for your porridge, these simple additions, improve the nutritional value of meals.
“Porridge, make your porridge on whole milk rather water – stir a little bit of cream through it. The dairy foods are good, milk, cheese and yoghurt, not the low fat varieties. Another thing is dried milk powder, it’s a good source of protein. It can be added to stews, mashed potatoes, milk puddings, custard.”
There are also prescribed drinks and supplements available to those with a diagnosis of malnutrition who have a very small appetite and struggle to consume a lot of calories.
In general malnutrition occurs in older people, those with an underlying condition and as part of an eating disorder. However, for any parents concerned about the eating habits of young children, Louise advocates keeping track of weight and height.
“Most children won’t starve themselves, so if your child is going through a faddy phase … I wouldn’t worry too much, but if you have concerns about the child’s growth, weight and height are a really good measurement of the growth that’s going on. Drop along to your GP and ask them to keep a track of your child’s weight and height.”
You can listen to the interview in full, including more of Louise’s sage advice, here.
Jan Ní Fhlanagáin
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