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apetito investigates: What are the effects of malnutrition on the NHS?

As the NHS comes under increasing pressure, it’s impossible to pinpoint one single thing that has caused the crisis. As should be expected, it’s an extremely complex issue. One problem, however, is that the NHS is spending more than ever before on age-related conditions and an increased need to combat malnutrition.

When the NHS was created, life expectancy was 13 years shorter than it is now. This is of course something to celebrate, but it also comes at a cost.

How does malnutrition affect the NHS?

Malnutrition costs the NHS in excess of £19bn each year, but often goes unrecognised. Over 3 million people in the UK, and one in ten older people, are suffering from, or at risk of malnourishment. Despite this, malnutrition is often overlooked as a serious public health issue. 

When it takes hold, malnutrition impacts every aspect of a person’s life, including overall sociability and mental wellbeing. As well as causing a number of health risks, it can also result in poor immunity, resulting in increased doctor and hospital visits, longer hospital stays and increased dependency. It’s no surprise then, that malnutrition puts a significant strain on the NHS.

Why is good nutrition important?

Good nutrition and hydration play a critical role in the management of many medical conditions ranging from diabetes and heart disease to allergies, autoimmune disorders and kidney disease. Eating and drinking well can also help reduce slips, trips and falls and even help manage the symptoms of dementia.  The right nutrition can help set the patient on the road to recovery, help control the symptoms of an on-going condition and even improve the efficacy of some medicines.  

Therefore telling 3 million people that high calorie food is good for them is a challenge. It is also a challenge to identify people at risk, particularly because people very often don’t self-identify as malnourished. This can often lead to a situation where vulnerable people are eating less than they require. They mistakenly believe they need to reduce their food intake in response to healthy eating and obesity messages.

According to Nice, improving the identification and treatment of malnutrition is estimated to have the third highest potential to deliver cost savings to the NHS.

What has apetito discovered?

apetito, in partnership with OnePoll, conducted a survey of 2,000 people aged between 30 and 71 who are looking after elderly parents, to find out more about their perceptions of malnutrition.

Our findings told us that neither the elderly, nor their children, are being made aware of malnutrition by their GP. 79% of those questioned said their elderly parents had not discussed malnutrition with their GP, whilst 47% wouldn’t know where to seek advice on this issue. Despite the high prevalence of this condition in the UK, four in ten of those questioned were not aware of the symptoms of malnutrition, with only 31% recognising loose fitting dentures as a warning sign. It was also revealed that almost half (42.6%) of the UK population aged 30-50 is unaware of the serious nature of under-nutrition in the elderly. 

What can we do to help lessen the strain of malnutrition?

As part of The Malnutrition Task Force, apetito urges GPs to do more to tackle this important issue. Obesity is often the main focus for medical practitioners, but in the face of the NHS crisis, more attention should be given to the over shadowed problem of malnutrition. By raising the issue of under-nutrition on their elderly patient agenda, GPs can educate on the signs, symptoms and causes of the condition, so people are aware of this issue, and know how to treat it.

Signs of malnutrition to look out for

Is mum’s wedding ring looser? Have you noticed Dad doing his belt up a notch tighter? Do your neighbour’s clothes seem looser? These small signs might suggest that an older person is getting thinner and it’s time to act.
Someone who isn’t eating enough will often lack energy, they might be cold, dizzy, lethargic or constipated. They may be in a low mood. Perhaps they’ve lost their appetite and interest in food. These are all signs that somebody might not be eating enough, and their health could be at risk.

If someone suddenly loses their appetite, becomes thinner, or steadily loses weight unintentionally for a while, it is important to speak to a GP. A GP can rule out any serious illness, and you can raise any other issues—like difficulty swallowing.

If serious illness is ruled out, the messages are clear: if you’re malnourished or at risk of malnutrition it’s ok to add higher calorie food to your diet, things like a slice of cake, cheese and full fat milk. People might also choose to eat smaller meals, packed with more calories, such as apetito’s Mini Meals Extra range.

Need help combating malnutrition in your hospital or care home?

Our friendly team are on hand to discuss your needs and identify the best way we can help you protect those in your care.

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About apetito

We are a leading provider of nutritious and award-winning meals, with a strong reputation in the care home and healthcare sectors.

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