Malnutrition on the rise - is the economic crisis to blame?

18 November 2013

Malnutrition is not a condition confined to the developing world. And according to a selection of today's newspapers it is increasingly common here in the UK, with the likes of the Independent claiming that the number of cases is "almost double" what it was five years ago.

The source of this number is data provided by health minister Norman Lamb in response to a Parliamentary Question from Labour MP Jim Cunningham. 

These official statistics show that the incidence of malnutrition in England has been steadily increasing in the last five years. Since then, the number of hospital episodes for the condition (where malnutrition is cited as a primary or secondary diagnosis) has jumped by 73% - from 3,161 cases in 2008/09 to 5,499 in 2011/12. 

As the Independent points out, this doesn't necessarily represent an increase in the number of patients as the figures may tell of repeat visits by the same patient.

Malnutrition - more than one cause

Mr Cunningham is quoted as saying that the increase in malnutrition could be attributed to the "economic situation of the past five years".

The NHS defines malnutrition as a condition that occurs when somebody's diet doesn't contain the correct balance of nutrients. While malnutrition usually involves not obtaining enough nutrients (undernutrition), it can also be a result of "overnutrition" or eating too much. It isn't always linked to hunger - those who are overweight or obese can also be described as malnourished if their high calorie diet is low in vital nutrients.

The Independent has overlooked this nuance, arguing that these malnutrition statistics (which offer detail at a local level) show us where "the heaviest burden of hunger" is to be found. 

The condition has many causes, and there's some evidence that a squeeze on household income may have contributed to a rise in malnutrition cases. The Trussell Trust says that in the last six months it has seen a three-fold increase in the number of people relying on emergency handouts from its food banks (although there is some dispute about whether this reflects a growth in demand or the Trussell Trust being in a position to supply more food). 

However, the economic crisis isn't the only possible explanation for the increase in malnutrition.

People with certain long-term health conditions can't always retain all the nutrients they need - particularly the elderly, who might also struggle to make the trip to the supermarket. With this in mind, the higher incidence of malnutrition might also reflect broader demographic trends, including the fact that the UK's population is ageing. The most recent Nutrition Screening Survey showed that those aged 65 plus were more likely to be malnourished than those who were younger. In addition, it may also be that hospitals are now more likely to screen a patient for symptoms of malnourishment. 

Without statistics from before 2008 it's difficult to assess whether the rise that's been identified is a product of the economic troubles of the last five years or part of a longer-term trend. We've asked the NHS for access to its archives in the hope that this historical data might shed light on the issue.


Flickr mage courtesy of Alpha

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