That rosy glow of good health? No matter how old you are, the magic ingredient is always good nutrition. After all, you are what you eat. And if you don’t eat enough of the right foods, you can kiss that healthy glow goodbye.
But sometimes—for lots of different reasons—your loved ones may not be getting the nourishment they need to live their best, healthiest life. “Anyone, across the life span, can be at risk,” says Vanessa Millovich, RDN, clinical nutrition director of Kate Farms. “You might be a super-stressed out working parent who’s the primary breadwinner with no time to sit down and eat a meal, or an older adult who’s lost interest in food.” 1
Malnourishment is more common than you think. In the United States, some 15 percent of white seniors and 38 percent of African-Americans are at risk for malnourishment. 2 And it’s not always related to a shortage of food or the lack of money to buy it. A 2019 study found that about a third of affluent seniors living in a well-to-do Hong Kong neighborhood were at risk of malnourishment. 3
You don’t even have to be skinny to be malnourished. People who are overweight or obese may eat too much, but the food they consume often lack important nutrients—the foods they eat may give them, providing energy but lacking key nutrients for good health. Globally, more than 2 billion children and adults are overweight—while over 150 million are underweight. Researchers call this the “double burden of malnutrition.” 4
Malnourishment can lead to some serious health issues, from a weakened immune system to decreased bone mass to a higher risk of hospitalization and death. So keep an eye on your loved ones—be on the lookout for these five signs of poor nutrition:
1. Weight loss
Luckily, you don’t need to lug a scale to a family visit to tell if your loved one has dropped too many pounds. There are simple ways to spot a dangerous 5 to 10 percent loss of body weight over three to six months.
“You might notice that someone’s clothes, belt, or jewelry seem a lot looser,” says Millovich, “and they’re just hanging on the body. Especially for older adults, you may see that their skin has started to loosen and sag.”
2. Tooth loss
A 2018 study at Rutgers University showed that older adults with fewer than 19 teeth were more likely to be at risk for malnutrition. 5 That’s because the mouth is the entryway for nutrition, so if your teeth are impaired, it can be tough to get the food you need.
If your mouth hurts and you’ve got missing teeth, it’s hard to eat healthy foods like veggies, which require lots of chewing. Be on the lookout for gaps in your loved one’s smile and pay attention to any complaints of tooth pain.
Notice lots of bruises—even though your family member hasn’t taken a tumble? What about wounds that seem to take way too long to heal? Those could be signs of malnourishment—a lack of protein and micronutrients like zinc and vitamin C, which are super-important to the healing process. 2
4. Lack of energy
When your loved ones lack their usual get-up-and-go, they may not be getting the iron they need in their diet. That can lead to anemia, a shortage of red blood cells that pump oxygen and nutrients all over the body.
“If you notice your loved ones looking tired and listless,” says Millovich, “and they can’t perform their usual activities at their normal level, that’s a sign that you should be concerned about their nutrition status.”
5. Brittle hair and nails
Hair and nails are way more than a fashion statement—they’re a window into the body and a glimpse into a healthy—or unhealthy—diet. When hair and skin are lackluster and dull, it could be show a shortage of nutrients like iron, folate, and vitamin C, which keep hair shiny and skin healthy and clear.
Check out your loved one’s nails, too: If they’re thin and brittle with ridges, or if they curve into a spoon shape, that could be a sign that their diet is low on protein, calcium, or vitamin A—all indicators of serious nutrient shortages. 6
1 Vanessa Millovich, Clinical Nutrition Director at Kate Farms
2 Joseph Moinar et al., “Nutrition and Chronic Wounds.” Advances in Wound Care, 2014; November`; 3 (11): 663-681. DOI
3 Wong, M.M.H., So, W.K.W., Choi, K.C. et al. Malnutrition risks and their associated factors among home-living older Chinese adults in Hong Kong: hidden problems in an affluent Chinese community. BMC Geriatr 19, 138 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12877-019-1148-5
4 Barry Popkin et al., “Dynamics of the double burden of malnutrition and the changing nutrition reality.” The Lancet. December 15, 2019; 395:10217; 65-74. DOI 10.1016/S0140-6736 (19) 32497-3.
5 R. Zelig et. Al., “Dentition and Malnutrition Risk in Community Dwelling Older Adults.” Journal of Aging Research and Clinical Practice, 2018; 7: 107-114.