Poor nutrition is a common problem in older adults and those with chronic conditions. If you have an ongoing health problem, it’s important to prevent and treat poor nutrition because it can lead to more medical complications and hospital readmissions.
Identifying solutions to malnutrition problems
If you are concerned about your nutrition or are caring for a loved one with poor nutrition, follow these four steps.
Step 1: Alert your doctor to nutrition problems
If you or a loved one has limited interest in food and eating, this is a serious problem that needs attention. Two of the biggest warning signs of poor nutrition are:
- Eating poorly
- Unplanned weight loss
These warning signs should be talked about every time you are admitted to a hospital or other health care facility. Make sure the doctor or nurse knows right away if you or your loved one has been eating poorly and/or has lost weight recently.
Other things that can alert you to a possible nutrition problem are:
- Chewing and swallowing difficulties
- Taking multiple medicines (this often affects appetite)
Step 2: Ask for a nutrition assessment
Individuals who are identified as having a nutrition risk sign should be seen right away by a registered dietitian for a comprehensive nutrition assessment. If this does not happen, ask the doctor for a consult with a registered dietitian.
A comprehensive nutrition assessment looks at the person’s diseases and medical history, including changes in weight, diet, and potential digestive issues. The nutrition assessment also looks for physical signs of nutrition problems, like loss of muscle or more limited ability to move about and take care of oneself.
Step 3: Ask for a nutrition care plan
After the nutrition assessment finds specific issues, the dietitian will help you develop a nutrition care plan to improve your nutritional health. If this does not happen, ask for it. Request specific ways to eat better and regain your weight or prevent further weight loss.
Ask for ideas on what can be done in the hospital, as well as what you can do at home to help improve your nutrition and speed your recovery.
Step 4: Consider therapeutic nutrition
Therapeutic nutrition is the use of specific nutrients and food products in the right quantity to help manage a health problem. Therapeutic nutrition cannot prevent health problems, but it may help reduce complications, hospital stays, and the need for more expensive medical care. It can be used by itself as recommended by a doctor or registered dietitian, or along with other medical care.
Causes of malnutrition in hospitalized patients
Often, when you are in the hospital for surgery or other medical treatments, you may not feel up to eating very much. But a poor appetite will not help your recovery. And this is not the time for you to lose weight—particularly since the weight loss is often muscle, not just fat! If you are losing weight, talk to your doctor right away and try to identify why.
Therapeutic nutrition can help other treatments work better and may cut down on the length of hospital stays and reduce costs. Some therapeutic nutrition products are created by nutrition specialists to help in the dietary management of specific health problems, like cancer, kidney and lung disease, and other conditions. Be sure to talk to your doctor for more information. Here are some things you can discuss:
- Maybe medications or medical therapies are decreasing your appetite or digestion. Ask what changes can be made to help stimulate appetite and help with digestion.
- Can you easily chew or swallow? Talk to a dentist about how to treat mouth pain or chewing problems. Ask for a referral to a speech pathologist to help with swallowing problems (often called dysphagia).
- Special diets needed to help treat chronic disease or medical problems may be limiting the foods you really like to eat. Talk to a registered dietitian about how your special diet can be adapted to include the foods you most enjoy.
- Are there therapeutic nutrition products that can be taken between meals to help increase nutrition?
Preventing malnutrition after coming home from the hospital
What you eat often affects how your body responds to treatment, so it is important to plan for your nutrition. At home, since you will not be seeing a doctor as often, be alert for signs of nutrition problems like the following and talk to your doctor when they occur:
- Eating poorly
- Change in appetite or digestion (may occur because of taking multiple medications)
- Problems chewing and swallowing
- Weight loss (you may first notice this when your clothes no longer fit)
When you first arrive home from the hospital, it may be difficult for you to shop for and prepare food. Also, you may not have the strength or appetite to eat much at a meal. Here are some tips to improve your nutrition:
- Reach out to a loved one or friend to help you plan for small meals and snacks that are packed with nutrition. Make sure everything you eat has plenty of calories and protein.
- Try eating your favorite foods; eat something, even if just a few bites at a time.
- Try not to have a lot of dietary restrictions, if possible (talk to your doctor or registered dietitian).
- If you need to eat bland foods, give them flavor with spices.
- Drink plenty of water and other fluids.
- Take therapeutic nutrition products to help supplement meals.
- Try to be active every day, if possible. This will help increase your appetite.
- Ask family/friends to join you for meals. They can encourage you to eat and make mealtime pleasant by having someone to talk with.
As you recover at home, your family/friends may not always be there to help with meals. Here are some ways to get support when they’re not around:
- Ask family/friends to help shop for foods that are easy to prepare yet still packed with nutrition. It may be helpful to have them stop by once a week or so with food.
- Stock up on therapeutic nutrition products, which can help supplement meals.
- Consider hiring outside help; home health aides can shop for food and prepare meals.
- Use the Eldercare Locator to find local services, including home-delivered meals, transportation, community centers, and more.
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