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Hunger Pains: How Malnutrition Is Hindering Patient Recovery & Signs To Watch For

Malnutrition Awareness Week is upon us and this year’s theme is malnutrition in hospital patients, a problem plaguing up to half of all people admitted to hospital – including adults, seniors and children. Malnourished patients in care settings are not only more at risk of negative outcomes, but their recovery times can be longer, resulting in extensive hospital stays.

Living in Canada, it’s easy to feel like we’re far removed from the issue of malnutrition, mistakenly assuming access to nutritious food is a problem reserved for less developed countries. But factors like increasing poverty, a growing elderly population, lack of education on and knowledge of the importance of nutrition (especially in recovery), and reduced access to nutritious food is leading to higher rates of malnutrition in patients admitted to the hospital than ever before. (Looking for food support near you? Start here:

But who’s doing something about it? And can you?

The Canadian Malnutrition Task Force (CMTF) was formed to address this very issue. Made up of a group of clinicians, decision makers and investigators from the Canadian Nutrition Society, the CMTF works to reduce malnutrition by promoting nutrition care knowledge and optimal practices through research and education across Canada. Malnutrition Awareness Week is all about educating healthcare professionals, patients, and the general public about the dangers of malnutrition in hospital patients, and how we can combat this problem.

Before we look at what you as an individual can do to help fight this growing danger, let’s first define what malnutrition is (and isn’t).

Malnutrition isn’t about feeling hungry all the time, although that can be part of it. It includes both the deficiency of as well as the excess of protein and critical nutrients. Being undernourished can affect body tissue, functional abilities, and your overall health (including things like muscle mass, bone health, memory, and much more). In patients, being undernourished can be further complicated by acute injuries, inflammation-causing disease and dangerous infections.

What Are the Types of Malnutrition?

There are many factors that can lead to malnutrition, including whether a family is able to produce or buy enough nutritionally diverse food, and whether parents are breastfeeding their children and introducing enough healthy food at the right age.

Something like diarrhea that many people consider not that harmful can be life-threatening for some people and is a major contributor to malnutrition, especially in children. And unfortunately in some areas, women or girls can suffer from malnutrition due to discriminatory eating and feeding practices, such as forcing them to eat less, last out of everyone, and nutritionally poor food. Statistically, women and girls are also far more  likely to be negatively impacted by damaging and unrealistic beauty standards portrayed in the media which can drive them to develop an eating disorder. (If you or someone you know are suffering from malnutrition due to an eating disorder, search for help in your area at now.)

Moderate Acute Malnutrition

Moderate acute malnutrition (wasting) is defined by a weight-for-height indicator between -3 and -2 z-scores (standard deviations) of the international standard, or by a mid-upper arm circumference between 11 cm and 12.5 cm.

Severe Acute Malnutrition

Severe Wasting

This type of acute malnutrition is characterized by an enormous loss of body fat and muscle tissue. Kids with severe wasting begin to look nearly elderly and their bodies are very thin and skeletal.


Present typically on the lower limbs, oedema can be verified by applying  thumb pressure on top of both feet for three seconds to see if you leave a pit or indentation in the foot once you lift your thumb off. This can eventually spread to the legs and face, leaving the child’s face puffy, and they are  usually irritable, weak, and lethargic.

The key to combating malnutrition in patients admitted to the hospital is first identifying the signs, but also acting quickly to involve specialized and highly trained dieticians. A dietician is a healthcare practitioner trained in nutritional best practices who can help address immediate dietary problems and correct long-term eating habits so patients don’t fall back into malnourishment. 

Tips for Identifying Malnutrition 

One – Weight Loss

Weight loss that isn’t planned can be an indicator of a nutritionally lacking diet. Keep an eye out for baggy clothing, loose jewelry and cinched belts because they could be symptoms. 

Two – Appetite Loss

Suddenly no interest in their favourite foods or food in general? Try to take a closer look at what, how often and how much they’re eating (peek inside their refrigerator if you can).

Three – Unable to Eat or Only Eats Small Amounts

If they’re only nibbling at mealtime or eating small snacks, it’s possible they’re not getting enough nutritionally rich foods. And if they’re refusing food, it could be time for a visit to the doctor.

Four – Swelling & Fluid Build Up

If you can see swelling or fluid built up in their feet or ankles, it’s possible they’re not getting enough nutrients and electrolytes to properly flush fluid in their body. Are they having trouble getting socks and shoes on, how about bracelets and watches? It could be malnutrition.

Five – Low Energy & Fatigue

Needing frequent naps? Too tired to handle everyday activities? Constantly overwhelmed and exhausted? Malnutrition could be playing a big part in their behaviour and it’s likely time to talk to a doctor.

Are you or someone you know suffering from malnutrition? There are support programs and services that can assist in your recovery, including one-on-one consultations with trained dieticians. No matter where you live in Canada, you can  access nutrition care as a patient and get the help you need to recover properly and stay healthy!

Search eating disorder and nutrition supports in your community at

Alina Turner

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