What is malnutrition? 

Malnutrition is a condition that develops when a person's diet does not contain the right amount of energy (calories), protein or other nutrients. As a result, changes to the body occur that affect its normal function. The term malnutrition encompasses both insufficient intake of nutrients (under nutrition) and nutrient intake above what is required (over nutrition). During times of illness, when recovering from an operation or recent infection, or as we age we may be unable to eat and drink enough to meet our needs; in some instances our nutritional needs may be increased. Both of these circumstances can lead to disease related malnutrition.

Malnutrition can be identified by healthcare professionals using a simple screening tool which looks at 3 factors:

1. Body mass index (BMI) 
2. Recent unintentional weight loss (in past 3-6 months)
3. Whether a person is unwell and unable to eat or drink

In the UK, it is estimated that 3 million people are malnourished; the majority of these people are living at home or in a care facility.

The effects of disease related malnutrition 

Disease related malnutrition may lead to a number of consequences including:

• Loss of muscle and muscle weakness
• Tiredness and fatigue
• Increased risk of infections
• Impaired wound healing
• Low mood

These consequences can make it more difficult for some of us to get adequate nutrition as they may reduce our ability to access shops, prepare food, or feed ourselves. They may also impact upon appetite.

The importance of good nutrition 

Food provides us with energy and nutrients which are the substances the body needs to enable us to function every day. No single food provides us with the right mixture of these nutrients which is why we need to try and eat a varied and balanced diet to keep well.

During times of illness, getting enough energy, protein, vitamins and minerals is essential to manage disease related malnutrition; it helps to reduce further weight loss, improve strength and reduce the risk of complications. For those who are malnourished and find it difficult to eat and drink enough the following might help:

• Eating small frequent nutritious meals, rather than fewer larger meals which can feel overwhelming when your appetite is poor
• Maximising intake during times of the day when you are feeling well or have the best appetite
• Having snacks and milky drinks between meals
• Choosing high calorie snacks, like cakes, cheese and crackers, nuts and dried fruit, toast with peanut butter
• Adding full fat milk, butter, cream, or cheese to sauces, soups, drinks and desserts

The role of oral nutritional supplements in disease related malnutrition 

Getting adequate nutrition from diet alone can be hard when you are unwell or recovering from a recent operation or infection. In this circumstance, healthcare professionals may prescribe oral nutritional supplements. Oral nutritional supplements are specially designed to meet the nutritional needs of those with disease related malnutrition. They provide additional energy, protein, vitamins and minerals. They come in a range of flavours and formats including milkshakes, juices, yoghurt style, powders and desserts.

What can I expect when visiting a healthcare professional to discuss my nutrition?

Oral nutritional supplements are a Food for Special Medical Purposes for use in the dietary management of disease related malnutrition and must be used under medical supervision.