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Malnutrition During COVID-19


People often associate summertime with good food and fun with family. It is hard not to associate these things with summer – given the warm weather and the access to plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables. Like any other time of the year, it is important to look for healthy options to ensure our bodies are getting the nutrients we need to stay in good physical condition. Malnutrition is a common condition that occurs across the entire world and unfortunately, the current COVID pandemic has intensified the problem. The pandemic has greatly impacted food accessibility in the United States, casting a broader light on malnutrition in our communities.

What Symptoms & Conditions are Associated with Malnutrition?

Malnutrition is a condition that impacts many people worldwide, with global estimates reporting that up to 45% of children and 30-50% of adults are affected. People may show signs of malnutrition in a variety of ways. One of these signs is weight loss due to reduced body fat and muscle mass. Malnutrition may also impact daily function, often due to reduced energy intake that does not meet requirements for daily activity. Additionally, swelling/edema is another concern that can occur with malnourishment.

The effects of malnutrition are widespread throughout the body. Inadequate nutrition weakens muscles and bones and can lead to decreased mobility, poor posture, and increased risk of falls. The immune system also becomes less capable of fighting infection, making it more difficult to recover from illness. The brain relies on proper nutrition for optimal function, and malnutrition can lead to memory loss, poor focus, and slowed motor planning. Even eye and kidney function can be affected.

Who is Most At-Risk for Malnutrition?

As noted above, malnutrition often occurs due to poor food accessibility. Even in normal times, certain populations, such as those with lower education levels and elderly individuals with poor mobility, have higher rates of malnutrition due to poorer availability or accessibility of food. Due to COVID, fragile populations, such as the elderly or immunocompromised, are hesitant to leave home and may rely solely on delivery services or a family member to bring them food. Food is also expensive, and this can be a barrier to obtaining quality food choices. Recently, low income families that were relying on low cost school meals may have greater difficulty securing healthy food. Problematically, malnutrition can worsen the other health problems people are already experiencing, underscoring the importance of ensuring food availability to all members of our communities.

Although COVID has emphasized the issue of poor food accessibility, other factors can play a role in malnutrition. Medication usage can negatively impact nutrition for a few reasons, especially in people who take several different medications at the same time. Medications may reduce the body’s ability to use nutrients from food and may decrease appetite, leading to malnutrition. Individuals with chronic injury or illness, neurological disorders, and psychiatric disorders commonly take medications that impact appetite and nutrient absorption in the body and experience greater rates of malnutrition compared to other groups as a result. Interestingly, in these individuals, malnutrition may occur even if a healthy diet is followed due to the poor absorption of nutrients by the body.

Even otherwise healthy individuals can develop malnutrition due to poor dietary choices. In the United States, malnutrition can occur just as often with overeating as with undereating and may be worsened by poor food choices. Individuals may be making infrequent trips to the market and rely heavily on shelf stable foods to last between trips. While these foods are convenient because of their long shelf lives, they tend to be low in nutritional value and high in sodium, which can contribute to heart health problems. Another convenient choice is fast food but this also tends to be low in nutrients and higher in calories. These scenarios are two of many that emphasize the importance of meal planning and understanding the nutritional value of foods.

If you have concerns that you or someone you know is affected by malnutrition, reach out to your physician or a registered dietitian in your area for guidance. You can also mention your concern to your physical therapist or occupational therapist. They can guide you on how to address this concern. Find a registered dietitian in your area by visiting eatright.org. Continue following Access Physical Therapy & Wellness for more information on healthy food options, how to navigate your grocery store to ensure you are getting the most nutritious foods, how to buy nutritious foods on a budget, and meal ideas for one person.