Malnutrition affects millions of people across the UK, and members of the public can help people get the help and support they need by looking out for the common signs and symptoms.
Malnutrition can affect anyone. It is more common in people who; are over 65, have a long-term condition that affects appetite, weight and digestion, have problems swallowing or are socially isolated.
People can help by looking out for some of the common signs and symptoms in friends, family and members of their community. These can include unintentional weight loss, low body weight, lack of appetite for food and drink, feeling tired and weak, getting ill often and taking a long time to recover.
Steve, a 59-year-old taxi driver from Torquay, was diagnosed with cancer of the oesophagus in 2022. This had been causing difficulties with swallowing, weight loss and fatigue and had led to malnourishment.
Working with the Macmillan oncology dietitian team at Torbay and South Devon NHS Foundation Trust, a plan was developed to treat Steve. As he could no longer swallow, the team needed to organise a nasogastric feeding tube so that he could receive fluid, vitamins, minerals, protein and calories.
Steve was shown how to use his feeding tube by the nutrition nurses and feeding supplies were delivered to his home as he received chemotherapy and radiotherapy treatments for his cancer.
Steve said: “The minute I called and saw the team, they arranged for me to receive the tube straight away which really helped.”
In March 2023, Steve had gained enough weight to receive a major operation to remove his cancer, which was made possible by the treatment he received for malnutrition. He continued to have a feeding tube following this and was able to eat small amounts.
A year on from his diagnosis, Steve has made a good recovery and has maintained the weight he gained while being tube fed. He is receiving a year of immunotherapy to reduce the risk of his cancer returning, can eat and drink normally and has been able to return to work part-time.
Steve added: “From start to finish the people involved in my care were superb – I couldn’t have wished for better care and I can’t talk enough about it. When I had my diagnosis, I had no idea how I would make it through, but the longer it went on the more I felt I could beat this thing thanks to everyone’s help.”
Fiona Ross, Lead Macmillan Dietitian at Torbay and South Devon NHS Foundation Trust, said: “It is really inspiring to know Steve has had such a good outcome from nutrition support and cancer treatment. He has even managed to return to work and is enjoying eating and life again after such a challenging year.
“Dietitians are part of a big team including nurses, radiographers, surgeons and oncologists but good nutrition support at home and in hospital plays an important role when it comes to tolerating treatment and recovery. All cancer patients in the trust who need to see a dietitian can be referred by their specialist nurse or a doctor.
“The Macmillan website is another good source of cancer and nutrition support information: www.macmillan.org.uk.”
Signs and symptoms of malnutrition
Common signs of malnutrition include:
unintentional weight loss – losing 5% to 10% or more of weight over 3 to 6 months is one of the main signs of malnutrition
a low body weight – people with a body mass index (BMI) under 18.5 are at risk of being malnourished
a lack of interest in eating and drinking
feeling tired all the time
getting ill often and taking a long time to recover
in children, not growing or not putting on weight at the expected rate
When to see a GP
See a GP if:
you’ve unintentionally lost a lot of weight over the last 3 to 6 months
you have other symptoms of malnutrition
you’re worried someone in your care, such as a child or older person, may be malnourished
If you’re concerned about a friend or family member, try to encourage them to see a GP.
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