The Causes of Undernutrition in Adults: Beyond Inadequate Intake

The Causes of Undernutrition in Adults: Beyond Inadequate Intake

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Undernutrition can mean more than inadequate intake of food.

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SEPT. 26, 2023   4 MINUTE READ

Malnutrition exists in different forms, and each type can uniquely affect bodily function at all ages. The causes of nutrition imbalances can vary and are often a complex makeup of individual, community and policy factors. Symptoms depend on the degree of nutrient deficiency and may not always be immediately apparent.

Below are various factors that may lead to undernutrition in adults.

What Is Undernutrition?

Undernutrition is often associated with consuming too few calories, but it may also occur when a person consumes adequate calories but insufficient micronutrients (vitamins and minerals). This is referred to as silent malnutrition. The longer a person experiences undernutrition, the greater the impact. Adults who are undernourished may experience weight loss, muscle wasting or frailty.

What Causes Undernutrition?

Poor nutrition can result from a variety of factors at the individual level:

  • Inadequate dietary intake. The body requires a minimum amount of calories, macronutrients and vitamins and minerals to function properly. Conditions such as dysphagia — or difficulty swallowing — can make it difficult for individuals to meet their needs. A person can draw from stored nutrients for a short amount of time, but inadequate intake for an extended period of time may cause a deficit of essential nutrients.
  • Poor nutrient absorption. A breakdown anywhere in the digestive process — from a lack of stomach acid to genetic abnormalities to an injury of the gut lining — may lead to malabsorption of macro- and micronutrients. Essential nutrients could go unabsorbed and instead pass into the stool, leaving the body undernourished.
  • Increased nutrient needs. When a person's body is in a state of inflammation, such as after surgery or illness, they may have increased nutrient needs to support wound healing.
  • Loss of nutrients due to illness or chronic disease. Illnesses or chronic diseases that cause frequent vomiting or diarrhea, or that affect metabolism, often lead to nutrient losses or misuse in the body. These conditions may include Crohn's disease, poorly controlled diabetes, liver disease and cancer.

How to Support Optimal Intake, Absorption and Delivery of Nutrients

Consider implementing the following food habits:

  • Take small bites of food. If chewing isn't a problem, consider doing so thoroughly so that your gastrointestinal system won't have to work as hard to break down food once it arrives in the stomach.
  • Eat a balanced diet. A diet consisting of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, good fats and high-quality protein can encourage beneficial bacteria to grow in the gut, which aids digestion and nutrient absorption.
  • Consider an oral nutritional supplement. An oral nutritional supplement is helpful for maintaining weight, has high-quality protein to help maintain muscle, and vitamins and minerals to help fill gaps in the diet. They come in a variety of flavors, which may especially appeal to older adults whose taste wanes with age. Some varieties are also tailored for specific medical conditions that require different nutritional needs, such as diabetes.

To help ensure your body is receiving adequate nutrition:

  • Speak with a healthcare professional. Registered dietitian nutritionists (RDNs) are particularly skilled and qualified to help people plan meals that fit their budgets and unique health needs. They can provide guidance on low-cost, nutrient-rich foods such as frozen or canned fruits, veggies, legumes, beans and eggs.
  • Take advantage of food assistance programs. Communities often have programs that offer vouchers for fresh produce, and others have food pantries that help offset the cost of dry goods and staples.
  • Manage stress. Stress hormones can negatively affect digestion and appetite, exacerbating poor nutrition. Identify ways to reduce stress throughout the day (e.g., going for a walk, doing yoga or meditating)
  • Seek medical treatment for underlying health conditions. Certain issues can affect an appetite or the body's ability to absorb and use nutrients. Some conditions are chronic or uncurable but can be managed to optimize nutrition and quality of life.

If you or someone you know is experiencing undernutrition, these suggestions can help with getting back on track.


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