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Identifying and Addressing Malnutrition

Identifying and Addressing Malnutrition

In a community with so much abundance many are perplexed when malnutrition is discussed as a condition that affects a significant number of individuals in the northern Shenandoah Valley. In fact, malnutrition is a serious health condition that warrants discussion as Malnutrition Awareness Week, October 5-9, ends.

“Malnutrition occurs when there is an imbalance between what a person eats and the nutrients that they need to maintain good health,” notes registered dietitian Susan Lessar, MS, RD, CNSC, Valley Health System director of Nutrition Therapy and Integrated Support Services. “Malnutrition is defined as an inadequate intake of nutrients, particularly protein, over time, and can be present in individuals who are underweight or overweight/obese.”

Individuals at highest risk of malnutrition include the elderly, people with low incomes or those who are socially isolated, have eating disorders or are recovering from a serious illness (such as cancer or a stroke).

“Malnutrition can lead to reduced muscle mass and mobility, difficulty breathing, impaired immune function, impaired wound healing, and fertility issues. And recent studies indicate that malnutrition has a significant impact on health outcomes of COVID-19 patients,” Lessar continues.

For example, symptoms of COVID-19 can lead to issues with nutrient absorption and/or overall food and water intake. COVID-19 patients, as well as those with flu or other illnesses, may experience fever, shortness of breath, sore throat, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea, and loss of taste and smell, all of which may influence appetite, nutrition status and overall immune function.

COVID-19 has also exacerbated food insecurity for some because of the economic impacts of business shutdowns and job loss; school closings that eliminate access to subsidized meal programs for area children and youth; social isolation; and fear of shopping in public and/or avoiding public transportation.

Valley Health’s role in caring for the malnourished in our community is multifaceted. A significant number of ill and injured patients arrive at our hospitals needing analysis of nutritional status, nutrition therapy, and home health care upon discharge, all keys to a full recovery and successful healing. Valley Health also provides substantial financial and in-kind support to local nonprofits and free clinics, partners who are on the frontlines in caring for those with a range of physical, mental health and other basic well-being needs, including food insecurity. In fact, Valley Health System has pledged over $3.2 million of support to area organizations to help them address a host of health and wellness challenges over the next several years.

(You can read more about Valley Health’s community commitments in the Healthier Tomorrows: 2020 Community Benefit Report, scheduled for publication in later this month.)

Of course we can all play a role in battling food insecurity and malnutrition, and Lessar offers the following tips:

  1. Get educated! The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics is the world's largest organization of food and nutrition professionals. During COVID-19, they are offering telehealth and online resources. For evidence based nutrition information, go to
  2. Reach out! Connect with elderly and/or home-confined relatives and neighbors to ensure they are getting adequate nutrition and activity, if exercise is allowed by their care provider. It might be difficult to assess weight loss and if they are eating if you are only interacting virtually, so make face-to-face connections when possible. (Use social distancing, masks and other COVID safeguards, of course!)
  3. Become an activist! Research your community resources such as Meals on Wheels, food banks and other federally-assisted programs, and become a volunteer.
  4. Explore alternatives! If you or a loved one is unable to meet calorie and protein needs from healthy food sources, consider adding a high protein supplement such as Boost or Ensure. Generic brands or Carnation Instant Breakfast are just as good.

Visit to learn more about how our team serves patients and partners with other local organizations so we are “Healthier Together”.