How to spot malnutrition

The signs of malnutrition in older adults can be tough to spot, especially in people who don't seem at risk — but uncovering problems at the earliest stage can help prevent complications later. To detect malnutrition:

  • Observe your loved one's eating habits. Spend time with your loved one during meals at home, not just on special occasions. If your loved one lives alone, find out who buys his or her food. If your loved one is in a hospital or long term care facility, visit during mealtimes.
  • Watch for weight loss. Help your loved one monitor his or her weight at home. You might also watch for other signs of weight loss, such as changes in how clothing fits.
  • Be alert to other red flags. In addition to weight loss, malnutrition can cause poor wound healing, easy bruising and dental difficulties.
  • Know your loved one's medications. Many drugs affect appetite, digestion and nutrient absorption.

What you can do about malnutrition

Even small dietary changes can make a big difference in an older adult's health and well-being. For example:

  • Engage doctors. If your loved one is losing weight, work with his or her doctors to identify — and address — any contributing factors. This might include changing medications that affect appetite, suspending any diet restrictions until your loved one is eating more effectively, and working with a dentist to treat oral pain or chewing problems. Request screenings for nutrition problems during routine office visits, and ask about nutritional supplements. You might also ask for a referral to a registered dietitian.
  • Encourage your loved one to eat foods packed with nutrients. Spread peanut or other nut butters on toast and crackers, fresh fruits, and raw vegetables. Sprinkle finely chopped nuts or wheat germ on yogurt, fruit and cereal. Add extra egg whites to scrambled eggs and omelets. Add cheese to sandwiches, vegetables, soups, rice and noodles.
  • Restore life to bland food. Make a restricted diet more appealing by using lemon juice, herbs and spices. If loss of taste and smell is a problem, experiment with seasonings and recipes.
  • Plan between-meal snacks. A piece of fruit or cheese, a spoonful of peanut butter, or a fruit smoothie can provide nutrients and calories.
  • Make meals social events. Drop by during mealtime or invite your loved one to your home for occasional meals. Encourage your loved one to join programs where he or she can eat with others.
  • Encourage regular physical activity. Daily exercise — even if it's light — can stimulate appetite and strengthen bones and muscles.
  • Provide food-savings tips. If your loved one shops for groceries, encourage him or her to take a shopping list to the grocery store, check store fliers for sales and choose less expensive generic brands. Suggest splitting the cost of bulk goods or meals with a friend or neighbor, or frequenting restaurants that offer discounts for older adults.
  • Consider outside help. If necessary, hire a home health aide to shop for groceries or prepare meals. Also consider Meals On Wheels and other community services, including home visits from nurses and registered dietitians.

Remember, identifying and treating nutrition issues early can promote good health, independence and increased longevity. Take steps now to ensure your loved one's nutrition.

Sep. 23, 2011 See more In-depth