Making Every Bite Count

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Malnutrition is a leading cause of hospital admissions, falls and fractures, infections and poor wound healing in our elderly. Yet it often goes undetected, until your loved one loses their independence and quality of life.

Recently I celebrated a 90th birthday for a family member. Living almost a century of life is an achievement and a landmark worthy of a hearty meal and large piece of birthday cake. And it usually comes with the comments like – ‘if I reach this age I am going to eat whatever I want’. 

However, I couldn’t help but notice that despite that willingness of family members to offer all the forbidden fat laden food that was available, he ate very little. This is not the first time I have witnessed this. We think that if a loved one reaches almost a century than it is ok for them to eat what they like or very little in most cases. But are we just ignoring the signs of hidden danger that puts our loved ones at risk.

Older people have difficulty regulating their food intake, which means they are less likely to want to eat and more likely to feel full quickly. They also do not compensate with an increase in food intake when they have eaten little due to illness. This can lead to further disinterest in eating and a lack of appetite which makes the problem worse. 

Do you know how to detect malnutrition?

The causes of malnutrition might seem straightforward – too little food or a diet lacking in nutrients. In reality, though malnutrition is often caused by a combination of physical and mental factors associated with ageing.

For example – if your loved one has

1.       Health concerns such as dementia, chronic illness, swallowing difficulties, recent hospital admissions, diminished sense of taste or smell or side effects of medications

2.       Needs to follow a restrictive diet to manage a medical condition such as a restriction in salt, protein or fluid which can contribute to poor eating.

3.       Reduced social contact due to a loss of a partner may result in your loved one eating alone causing them to lose interest in cooking and eating.

4.       Depression due to grief, loneliness, failing health, lack of mobility and social networks.

5.       Limited income to spend on groceries, especially if they have expensive medical costs.

Then they are more at risk of malnutrition.

How to spot malnutrition

The signs of malnutrition can be tough to spot, especially in people who don’t seem at risk. Uncovering the problems at the earliest stage can help prevent further complications.

What to look for

1.       Observe your loved one’s eating habits – Spend time with them during meal times, not just special occasions and look how much of the meal they are eating. Take note who buys their food, and how much food is in their cupboard.

2.       Watch for weight loss – Encourage them to monitor their weight at home and take note of clothing that is not fitting

3.       Be alert to other red flags – wounds that don’t heal, complaining of sore mouth, difficulty chewing food, increased number of falls, and tires quickly.

What can you do about malnutrition?

Even small dietary changes can make a big difference

1.       Talk their doctor and request to see a dietitian who can help identify any contributing factors like medications, dietary restrictions, teeth problems.

2.       Encourage your loved one to eat food packed with nutrients by layering food

Add grated cheese and cream to scrambled eggs, soups and casseroles

Spread peanut butter on toast, crackers or pikelets

Use sauces and toppings to dress up meals, like white sauce on vegetables or custard over cake

3.       Plan between-meal snacks

Offer fruit, fruit juice, cheese and crackers, yoghurt and jelly, spoonful of peanut butter or smoothie for extra nutrients

4.       Make meals social by dropping by during meal times or invite your loved one over to your home for occasional meals.

5.       Encourage regular activity even if it is light activity as this can stimulate appetite.

Remember, identifying and treating malnutrition issues early can prevent hospital admissions, decrease infections, allows wounds to heal faster and ensure your loved one enjoys independence and quality of life for longer.


Tell us about your dieting experience in the comments, or book an appointment with us today and let's discuss your goals!

Solutions With Food

WinterRuth Burton