How to recognize malnutrition?

Signs of malnutrition can sometimes be detected by the individual themselves or by his/her relatives and these should always be taken seriously.

As a patient or relative you are in a position to pay close attention to your or your relative’s weight and appetite.
Unexpected weight loss, change of appetite and decreased food intake are considered as risk factors and are possible signs for malnutrition. Many diseases, disorders and acute conditions need special attention to maintain an adequate food intake. People who are ill may find it particularly difficult to meet extended nutritional needs especially when their appetite has decreased. In addition, changes in taste and smell make it more difficult to eat full meals. Inform the unit staff about these changes and thereby help the medical staff to identify malnutrition at an early stage and initiate action.

Good nutrition is essential for the attainment and maintenance of good health. Determining whether a person is at risk of malnutrition requires completion of nutritional screening and further assessment if necessary. Screening are increasingly becoming part of the routine clinical examination undertaken by medical or nursing staff when patients are admitted to hospital or residential care.

These screening tools are based on three or sometimes four basic questions which consider:

  • weight loss within the last 3 to 6 months
  • current body mass index (BMI)
  • recent and actual food intake
  • disease severity

The most widely used classification of malnutrition is based on calculation of body mass index (BMI). Usually BMI lower than 20 kg/m² identifies high probability of undernutrition. However, individuals with BMI > 20 kg/m2 may also be at risk of undernutrition when reporting more than 10% unintentional weight loss over 3-6 months.