Malnutrition will affect growing numbers of Europeans as governments fail to tackle the problem, instead concentrating on obesity, warns a new charity.
The European Nutrition for Health Alliance says malnutrition is already endemic among the elderly, and with the number of 80-year-olds doubling every decade, the problem is set to get worse.
"Studies have shown that up to 40 per cent of patients are malnourished when they're admitted to hospital, which is a shocking statistic," said Suzanne Wait, one of the co-ordinators of the new group.
The organisation's members include clinical nutrition company Numico as well as former MEPs, doctors, healthcare organizations and public policy experts.
After an inaugural conference in September, the alliance is now working on an action plan to raise awareness of malnourishment among European governments.
"The impetus came from Numico, which is doing this as part of its CSR. But this is a non-profit alliance with no product focus. The scope is way beyond clinical nutrition," Wait told NutraIngredients.com.
With the current media spotlight on the obesity epidemic, most attention from policymakers and health promotion campaigns is aimed at reducing caloric intake and improving nutritional habits.
Yet malnourishment, an imbalance of energy, protein, and other nutrients that can severely affect health, is going unrecognised in hospitals, nursing homes and the community, according to the ENHA.
The elderly are particularly prone to mineral and nutrient deficiencies but "most of it is preventable using screening tools and good nutritional advice", claims Wait.
"The big issue is accountability. If an older person goes into hospital, they may be screened for malnourishment and given appropriate feeding but once they leave, there is no follow-up. There is no-one who really owns nutrition," she added.
Malnutrition is still irregularly defined and often goes detected so it is difficult to estimate the extent of the problem. However Professor Marinos Elia, professor of Clinical Nutrition at Southampton University, estimates that malnutrition and its associated diseases cost the UK £7 billion a year.
"Political authorities are still not aware of the problem of malnutrition. It's not on the political agenda, in any of the 25 countries of the EU nor in Brussels. It is urgent that policy-makers and society in general make this major public health problem a top priority," says Professor Jean-Pierre Baeyens, chair of ENHA and also president of the International Association of Gerontology and of the European Union Geriatric Medicine Society.