Malnutrition in the U.S.

May 10, 2019

We have all seen film footage of malnourished people in other countries.  But, malnutrition is a very real problem in our own country.  The elder community, in particular, is prone to malnutrition problems.

Malnutrition can occur when your body doesn’t get enough nutrients from the foods you eat to work properly. These nutrients include protein, fats, carbohydrates, vitamins, and minerals. These substances give your body energy and help your body grow and repair tissues. They also regulate bodily functions such as breathing and the beating of your heart. While we often think of malnutrition as a possibility for people who are underweight, it can also occur in overweight people.  The quality and variety of food is as important, if not more so, than the quantity consumed. Malnutrition negatively affects quality of life, increases health care costs, and increases the risk of short-term mortality.

Why is the elder community at higher risk for malnutrition?  There are a number of contributors to this issue.

It is not unusual for a person to eat less as they age.  Our sense of taste and smell can decrease with age, making mealtime less enjoyable and easier to skip.  Missing meals can lead to slower metabolism, resulting in lessened hunger.

There can be medical issues that can lead to a poor diet. These include dental problems, difficulties swallowing, reflux, constipation, and diarrhea. 

Chronic illnesses such as diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease are treated with dietary restrictions. Sugar, salt, and fat contribute to the taste of food. These dietary restrictions may be healthier choices, but they can make food unpalatable.  Medications can affect cause side effects (nausea or altered taste perception) that impact nutrition.

Sometimes, nutrition is an economic issue.  The cost of housing and medical expenses can compete with the money needed for food. When financial concerns are present, meals might be skipped and the food that is purchased might not provide a nutritionally adequate diet. Ramen may be cheap, but it doesn’t provide much in the way of nutrition.

Declines in a person’s physical and/or cognitive abilities can affect their ability to shop for food and prepare meals. The inability to get out of the house can lead to social isolation, which commonly leads to apathy about food and therefore decreased intake.

An older person experiences change and loss through retirement, disability and death of friends and family as well as change in financial, social, and physical health status. These changes may lead to depression, a well-known cause of anorexia and weight loss.

SeniorCare has a Nutrition Department that focusses nutrition for elders.  Our Meals on Wheels and Community Dining programs provide healthy lunches five days a week.   In addition to the nutritional support these programs offer, both help ease feelings of loneliness and isolation.   For information on Meals on Wheels or the Community Dining program, visit our website at or call SeniorCare’s Nutrition Department at 978-281-1750.

Three Malnutrition Awareness workshops have been scheduled next week. Each workshop will be conducted by a Licensed Dietitian/Nutritionist and will include: a presentation about the signs of malnutrition and how to prevent it, individual malnutrition risk screenings, healthy diet information, a free snack giveaway, and a recipe demonstration and tasting.  The workshops will be held as follows:  Wednesday, May 15, 10am-12pm, at the Hamilton Council on Aging & Senior Center, 299 Bay Road, Hamilton; Thursday, May 16, 10am-12pm, at the Rose Baker Senior Center, 6 Manuel F. Lewis Street, Gloucester; and Friday, May 17, 10am-12pm, at the Beverly Council on Aging & Senior Center, 90 Colon Street, Beverly.

For more information about these workshops, contact SeniorCare’s Nutrition Department at 978-281-1750.