Malnutrition is not usually associated with the prosperous west, but according to the European Nutrition for Health Alliance (ENHA), which is lobbying for public health action at EU level, more than 50m Europeans are at risk.
The multi-disciplinary alliance comprising stakeholders from health care professions, patient groups, non-governmental organisations, governments and industry says that 46 per cent of patients are found to be malnourished on admission to hospital.
The scope of ENHA's campaign covers the general population, but the largest target group is the over-60s; one third of older people are thought to suffer from malnutrition, which is described as "an imbalance of energy, protein, and other nutrients that causes measurable adverse effects on tissue and body form and function, as well as on clinical outcomes".
At a one-day conference in Brussels yesterday, the alliance presented information on the topic to policy makers and stakeholders, and discussed steps to put the issue on public health policies and ageing programmes.
"Malnutrition is not on the political agenda in any of the 25 countries of the EU nor in Brussels," said president Professor Jean-Pierre Baeyens. He called age- and disease-related malnutrition a "forgotten facet of poor nutrition", which places financial burden on health care systems across the continent. In the UK alone, the cost of malnutrition to the state has been estimated to be in the region of €10.5bn.
ENHA spokesperson Frank de Man told NutraIngredients that malnutrition is a complementary issue to obesity, the latter being brought about by a nutritionally imbalanced diet. Obesity gets more public health attention as a stand-alone problem - and indeed has been the focus of high-profile action in which food industry has been involved. But malnutrition, said De Man, is a bigger problem in terms of public health and money.
"Like obesity, which leads to an increased risk of heart disease, diabetes and some forms of cancer, malnutrition is an issue that could be dealt with from a disease management point of view."
ENHA would like to see nutrition positioned as part of the care pathway, which would increase the effectiveness of care delivery - not to mention save money for insurers.
"Would like to encourage people to live alone for as long as possible, but they may need some coaching and information," said De Man. Education could come from a variety of sources, including GPs, nurses, dieticians, and the food industry.
He stressed that screening for malnutrition is also important. ENHA says that malnutrition is underdiagnosed and under treated, both in hospitals and nursing homes and in the community.
"Many people think they have no problem, but they are at an increased risk and may have longer stays in hospital if they are not well fed," said De Man.
He added that the food and nutrition industries have been very supportive of the conference, having a commercial stake and playing a role in the development and positioning of nutritional products. Industry stakeholders include Numico and Nestle.
A full report of the conference will be published early next year, together with an action plan for 2007-8.