Drive to raise awareness of impact of ‘malnutrition’ on disease recovery

One in four patients admitted to hospitals may need additional nutrition support.

Campaign highlights that ‘Malnutrition worsens Disease’

Nutrition and medical experts in Ireland and across Europe are this week uniting in an international drive to make the public more aware of the risks of becoming malnourished during illness, and why unintentional weight loss should never be overlooked.

Launching Malnutrition Awareness Week in Ireland, the Irish Society for Clinical Nutrition and Metabolism (IrSPEN), wants to make patients aware that ‘malnutrition worsens disease’, while calling for nutritional care to be given far greater priority as part of a patient’s treatment, in every care setting.

Consultant Gastroenterologist and IrSPEN spokesperson Dr. Karen Boland said awareness is still low of the risks posed by inadequate nutritional intake in someone with a serious or chronic illness.

“Many diseases cause reduced appetite and weight loss, which if not managed effectively, lead to what is termed ‘disease-related malnutrition’. Muscle loss can be significant over a very short timeframe, leading to weakness and fatigue, as well as adversely affecting every organ in the body.

“Being malnourished makes medical treatment less effective, delays recovery and increases the risk of complications, such as infections and poor wound healing. Older patients are particularly vulnerable, since many have had poor dietary intake for social as well as health reasons. They also generally have less muscle to lose and have higher requirements for nutrients like protein.

“The problem of disease-related malnutrition is common in hospitals, affecting more than a quarter of patients on admission. However, of the estimated 145 0001 adult patients at risk of malnutrition on any day in the Republic of Ireland, the vast majority are living in the community, where their needs are far more likely to go unnoticed until they end up in hospital or nursing home care.

“If patients are malnourished when they come into hospital, studies show that they are on average three times as expensive to treat as a normally nourished patient2, due to greater complication rates and longer length of hospital stay. Although malnutrition risk screening became mandatory in Irish hospitals in 2020, we are chronically short of hospital dietitians and often too slow to initiate the right nutrition support as a result.

“Apart from more specialist dietitians, we need greater focus on checking for recent weight loss or muscle weakness amongst patients who see their GPs, particularly if the patient is at risk of frailty, has increased care needs or is living alone”, Dr. Boland said.

National Malnutrition Survey to take place

As part of Malnutrition Awareness Week 2023 activities, a national survey is taking place on 9th November to gather data on the current level of malnutrition risk amongst patients in hospitals, Nursing Homes and Residential Units across the ROI. The data will be collected by dietitians across the country, and is being coordinated jointly by IrSPEN and the Irish Nutrition and Dietetic Institute (INDI).

The last malnutrition survey was carried out in Ireland in 2011 and found that 27% of patients were malnourished or at risk of malnutrition3 when being admitted to Irish hospitals.

Details of how to contribute to the 2023 survey have been sent to dietitian managers in hospital and community healthcare settings across the country, and all will be encouraged to complete and return the survey at https://irspen.ie/national-malnutrition-survey-2023/

IrSPEN Director and Consultant Nutritionist Niamh Rice said that disease-related malnutrition risk is particularly high in patients with cancer, gastrointestinal and respiratory diseases, whilst also being a major risk factor for frailty in older patients, since malnutrition leads to accelerated muscle loss and muscle weakness.

“Every person is a greater risk of becoming malnourished when sick because appetite is compromised, physical activity is reduced, and regular diet, which is often too low in protein and key nutrients like vitamin D, is less effective at preserving body and muscle mass and function.

Dr. Boland added that nutrition needs to be given higher priority in medical education and in patient care generally: “It is time to apply research findings around malnutrition into medical practice. As doctors and healthcare professionals, we really cannot claim to be providing high quality medical care if we are ignoring the patient’s nutritional status.”

This year’s campaign will be run in tandem with European Malnutrition Awareness Week run by the European Society of Clinical Nutrition and Metabolism (ESPENMAW23#).

For information on ESPEN Malnutrition Awareness Week activities, see https://www.espen.org/education/malnutrition-awareness-week


Further Information

Ronan Cavanagh, Cavanagh Communications: (086) 317 9731.

IrSPEN: www.irspen.ie


Malnutrition Awareness Week 2023 Activities


  1. Rice and Normand, The cost associated with malnutrition in Ireland, JPHN 2012; 15:1966 -1972. https://doi.org/10.1017/S1368980011003624
  2. Stratton RJ et al. Managing malnutrition to improve lives and save money. BAPEN, 2018. Available from: https://www.bapen.org.uk/resources-and-education/ publications-and-reports/malnutrition
  3. BAPEN National Nutrition Screening Week Survey 2011 https://www.bapen.org.uk/resources-and-education/publications-and-reports/nsw-reports/nsw11