Cutting back on fat is one of the biggest health messages of the modern age, but it could be putting the elderly at risk. Some 1.3 million pensioners are suffering from malnutrition and are being encouraged to go against received wisdom to put cream in their coffee and fry their food.
Dr Simon Gabe is the president of the British Association for Parenteral and Enteral Nutrition and a consultant in gastroenterology at St Mark's Hospital in north London. He has warned that the current focus on cutting back on certain foods is putting many elderly people at risk.
Among the advice he put forward for the over-65s was to stock up on cakes, add butter to scrambled eggs and brush chicken with more oil before putting in the oven. Maximising food intake is important for those at risk of becoming malnourished.
Dr Gabe said: “Malnutrition is a hidden problem in the UK, but awareness, prevention and detection are key to reducing its prevalence.
“For too long, the public have been given health messages focussed on reducing levels of obesity and while obesity is a huge problem, for the malnourished, the best thing to do is ignore these messages entirely and seek professional advice.”
A recent poll found that many British adults were misinformed about what’s normal when it comes to weight in later life. For example, 45 per cent thought that getting thinner was a natural sign of ageing, when it can actually be linked to malnutrition.
Further to this, four in ten people believe that biscuits, cakes and other high-calorie foods should be avoided, even when an individual is underweight. It can be even more difficult to spot the signs of malnutrition during the winter months when layers and big coats are common.
If you’re looking after an elderly relative, then there are a number of other telltale signs to look out for. These include loose dentures and rings, which may be easier to see a difference in than regular clothes.
Anyone with worries should consult a doctor for advice, not only on the best ways to reverse malnutrition, but how any changes to diet could affect pre-existing medical conditions. It’s not just those who are underweight that can suffer from malnutrition. Unintentionally losing five per cent of body weight in six weeks or less is dangerous for anyone.
The knock-on effects of malnutrition include a higher risk of illness and infection, low mood and exhaustion. Those suffering from the condition visit their GP twice as often, are admitted to hospital three times more than well-nourished people and stay in hospital three days longer on average.
Diane Jeffrey, chair of the Malnutrition Task Force said: “Malnutrition is often associated with the extreme poverty we see in the news and on the television, but the truth is that it can affect anyone, including our own family and friends here in the UK.”