Find out about the urgent action required to prevent malnutrition in the British Dietetic Association’s latest column.

The Issue

Malnutrition (1) should not be, but is, a very real and current problem in the Northern Ireland population. It occurs when a person’s diet does not meet their nutritional needs. Malnutrition is estimated to have affected over three million people in the UK pre-COVID, with over a third being over the age of 65. The vast majority are in the community, living at home, with many unknown to healthcare services. COVID-19 has considerably impacted nutritional health and increased risk of malnutrition among vulnerable communities. Since the beginning of the pandemic, it has been reported that nearly five million adults are experiencing food insecurity. (2) As we move towards winter and the ‘flu season’, ongoing social distancing measures and shielding recommendations will continue to affect the normal means of accessing food. Social isolation and loneliness can often be significant underlying social causes of malnutrition. The consequence of all of these factors is creating a perfect storm for significant increase in malnutrition.

Malnutrition, in particular, undernutrition, has a significant impact on the immune system, increasing vulnerability to the effects of COVID-19 and other infectious diseases. Malnutrition impacts on frailty through muscle wasting and cognitive impairment, leading to an increased risk of falls and an inability to go about typical daily tasks, such as buying or preparing food. A parallel risk of anxiety and depression is also a concern.