Recognizing and Preventing Malnutrition in Older Adults

Familiarize yourself with  malnutrition signs and solutions.
by Dianna Malkowski, Physician Assistant & Registered Dietitian

Malnutrition can lead to a host of physical and emotional problems, from immune system and muscle weakness to depression. Older adults with poor nutrition are more likely to be admitted to hospitals or long-term care facilities if they have experienced illness, dementia or weight loss. Familiarizing yourself with malnutrition signs and solutions can help promote your loved one’s health and longevity.

What to look for

A first step to recognizing malnutrition is to learn your loved one’s eating habits. Spend mealtimes with him, including everyday meals, not just holidays and special occasions. If she lives alone, talk to the person who buys her groceries.

Keep in mind that malnutrition can be caused by social and psychological factors as well as physical.
  • Does your loved one have little social contact? She may not enjoy cooking or eating meals.
  • Is he living on a limited income? He may have trouble affording groceries, especially fresh, healthy foods.
  • Is she depressed? Depression can cause loss of appetite.
  • Does he use alcohol to cope? It can become a substitute for food and prevent nutrient absorption.
  • Has your loved one recently been ill, leading to loss of appetite?
  • Does she have dental problems or trouble eating?
  • Does he take medications? Some can affect appetite, digestion and how nutrients are absorbed. 
  • Is she on dietary restrictions? Food may seem tasteless and unappealing.
Malnutrition will eventually manifest itself in physical signs. Ask yourself the following:
  • Have you noticed your loved one’s clothes fitting more loosely or other signs of weight loss?
  • Is she experiencing dental problems? Oral health problems may be caused by malnutrition.
  • Does he bruise easily? Anemia is a symptom of malnutrition.
  • Do wounds take longer than normal to heal?
Where to start

Early identification and treatment of nutrition problems can help your loved one get back on track.
  • Buy fresh, whole foods whenever possible. Include fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean protein, low-fat dairy and healthy oils found in fish and nuts. Frozen foods are an acceptable alternative to fresh produce.
  • For those who find grocery shopping or cooking difficult, consider a service like Mom’s Meals, which delivers nutritionally balanced, freshly prepared meals to customers’ homes. Designed to meet the needs of an aging population, each meal contains fresh foods, is microwaveable and will keep in the refrigerator for two weeks. Mom’s Meals menus include specialty choices like low-sodium, low-fat, gluten-free and more.
  • Add flavor to foods using herbs, spices, salt-free blends and lemon juice.
  • Encourage snacking. Older adults may get full quickly at mealtimes, but snacking between meals on fruit, cheese or milk can provide nutrients and calories.
Make meals more social. Eat together whenever possible to boost spirits, and encourage your loved one to join programs or groups where he might eat with other seniors.

  • Help with grocery savings. Look for sales, shop together and split bulk foods.
  • Encourage light physical activity to stimulate appetite.
Remember, you are not alone. A dietitian can provide a nutrition plan and recipes. Community services, like Meals on Wheels or in-home help, are available in most areas. And you can talk to your loved one’s doctor about medications, health problems or weight loss, and nutrition supplementation.

Dianna Malkowski is a board-certified physician assistant and registered dietitian specializing in diabetes, cancer, wound healing, therapeutic diets and nutrition support. She serves on the board of professional advisers for The CareGiver Partnership and enjoys working with patients and caregivers alike. Ask Dianna a question.

Further Reading: 

Healthy Eating Tips for Seniors
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About The CareGiver Partnership. The CareGiver Partnership helps caregivers and their loved ones with answers to their caregiving questions, including information about home health care products and supplies, from our Wisconsin-based team of Product Specialists who are all current or former caregivers. The company’s Web site provides the largest online library of resources on subjects most important to caregivers — from arthritis to assisted living, and Parkinson’s to prostate cancer — as well as access to more than 3,000 home care products for incontinence, skin care, mobility, home safety and daily living aids. The CareGiver Partnership was founded in 2004 by Lynn Wilson of Neenah, Wisc. Visit to learn more or call 1-800-985-1353.


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