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The Nurse's Role in Preventing Malnutrition

Proper nutrition is crucial for a patient to maintain well-being. Both adults and children can suffer from a lack of required nutrients. When the body does not get the necessary protein, minerals and vitamins, it is hard for a person to stay healthy. It makes recovering from illness, injuries or surgery even more difficult. Nurses who complete an RN to BSN program gain an in-depth understanding of health problems such as malnutrition, and learn how to educate patients so they can overcome and avoid it.

What Is Malnutrition?

Malnutrition occurs when a person does not ingest an adequate amount of the following:

  • Essential calories: Number depends on gender, age and health status.
  • Macro-nutrients: Proteins, carbohydrates and fats.
  • Micro-nutrients: Vitamins and minerals.

What Are the Types of Malnutrition?

The Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality identifies six types of malnutrition:

  1. Cachexia (wasting of the body and weakness due to illness)
  2. Nutritional neglect
  3. Postsurgical nonabsorption
  4. Protein-calorie malnutrition
  5. Low body weight
  6. Weight loss or failure to thrive

What Can Cause Malnutrition in Patients?

Malnutrition can affect patients of all ages, but the most vulnerable population is the elderly. The major cause for malnutrition is chronic disease. Other factors include side effects from medications or medical treatments that may suppress a patient's appetite and interfere with the absorption of nutrients. These treatments may also induce nausea, vomiting or diarrhea. And, many times patients are required to adhere to restrictive diets, which can lead to minimal food intake. In addition, patients may not eat a healthy diet for these reasons:

  • No transportation
  • Reduced mobility that makes it difficult to prepare a meal
  • Low income that limits the amount of food they can afford
  • Difficulty communicating due to dementia
  • Eating disorders such as bulimia or anorexia nervosa
  • Mental health issues like depression and anxiety

What Threat Does Malnutrition Pose to Patients?

Malnutrition is a serious threat that can negatively impact patient health outcomes. Here are ways malnutrition can harm patients:

  • Contributes to the development of pressure ulcers
  • Impairs wound healing
  • Raises the chances of complications
  • Increases the likelihood of readmission
  • Increases mortality for patients with malnutrition-related hospital stays

What Are the Symptoms of Malnutrition?

Patients suffering from malnutrition may have these symptoms:

  • Chills
  • Exhaustion
  • Low mood or behavioral changes
  • Poor concentration
  • Social withdrawal
  • Muscle weakness

What Are the Signs of Malnutrition?

The most common sign of malnutrition is weight loss — especially if patients lose 5 to 10 percent of their body mass over three to six months. Additional signs include:

  • Achy joints
  • Bleeding gums
  • Brittle nails that break easily
  • Bruising
  • Dull and thin hair
  • Dry and flaky skin
  • Failure to grow to expected weight and height for age
  • Rashes
  • Weakened immune system

How Can Nurses Treat Malnourished Patients?

Treatment options vary depending on the cause of a patient's malnutrition. The severity of malnourishment indicates whether patients should be treated in a hospital or at home.

The primary treatment for patients who can eat on their own is to make dietary changes. Nurses educate patients about the nutritional content of food and how to make healthy choices. If patients will not or cannot eat, nurses may need to feed them intravenously.

Nurses have a responsibility to address patient nutritional needs by conducting screenings, performing assessments and administering interventions. But, malnutrition is not just a problem for patients.

In the United States, for example, people residing in areas far from grocery stores have limited food choices. Children in low income families may go hungry due to limited funds. There are many reasons for malnutrition. In cases like these, public health nurses can make a difference. They can inform people and communities about eating healthy foods and direct them to available nutritional programs and services.

Learn more about TAMIU's online RN to BSN program.


Healthcare Cost and Utilization Project: All-Cause Readmissions Following Hospital Stays for Patients With Malnutrition, 2013

One Nurse at a Time: Malnutrition

Johns Hopkins Medicine: Malnutrition

NHS Inform: Malnutrition

Today's Dietitian: Malnutrition in Older Adults Nurses Can Make a Difference When It Comes to Malnutrition

Indian Journal of Critical Care Medicine: Pressure Ulcer and Nutrition

American Nurse Today: Six Steps to Optimal Nutrition Care

Healthcare Cost and Utilization Project: Characteristics of Hospital Stays Involving Malnutrition, 2013

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