Health & Wellbeing

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Junk food nation

3.6 million people in Britain suffer from malnutrition
Hospitals see 44% rise in cases as cost to the NHS hits £7.3bn

By Marie Woolf, Political Editor
Sunday, 6 May 2007

Alarming levels of malnutrition have been recorded in Britain, The Independent on Sunday has learned, prompting further medical concern at the effects of the nation's addiction to salty, fatty, junk food.

Despite high-profile campaigns by the Government and celebrity chefs to improve eating habits, new figures reveal that there has been a 44 per cent increase in hospital cases of malnutrition over the past five years.

Amid estimates that up to 3.6 million people are suffering from malnutrition, including conditions found in sub-Saharan Africa, MPs and doctors last night called for action to tackle poor diets, and for all patients to be screened for malnutrition. They called for the Government's National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (Nice) guidelines to be made compulsory.

In 2002, 2,729 people in English hospitals were diagnosed with malnutrition. Last year, the number had risen to 3,931.

The British Association for Parenteral and Enteral Nutrition estimates malnutrition costs the NHS more than £7.3bn a year, double the annual obesity bill. Doctors estimate that up to 6 per cent of the population could be suffering from malnutrition and serious vitamin and mineral deficiencies caused by poor diet. Most do not have their conditions identified.

Experts said a reliance on pre-prepared food and failure to eat enough fresh fruit and vegetables is depleting levels of essential micro-nutrients. The deficiencies are found in teenagers, the elderly, adults and babies as young as 18 months. They warn the balance of nutrients is also disturbed by binge drinking, excess sugar and drug use.

The Conservative peer Lord Hanningfield, who obtained the hospital figures, said it was "deeply disturbing that the number of patients suffering from malnutrition has almost doubled in the last five years. Far too many patients leave hospital less nourished than when they were admitted.

"It is time patients were routinely screened for malnutrition, and offered specialist nutritional support."

Dr Mike Stroud, senior lecturer at the Institute of Human Nutrition, University of Southampton, who chaired the group that drew up the Nice malnutrition guidelines, says the health service is not taking the problem seriously enough. "The modern diet is not providing enough vitamins. Malnourishment is going to make you more vulnerable to illnesses and less able to cope with them. The medical profession is only just beginning to take on board the implications of nutrition in patients."

The hospital figures show malnutrition is found in all age groups. Forms of malnutrition found among famine victims in the developing world, typified by wasted limbs and pot bellies, are being diagnosed in UK hospitals. Symptoms are also being picked up in pregnant women and newborn babies.

Anna Denny, a nutrition scientist, said she was surprised at the acute diagnoses of malnutrition in British hospitals. "We don't often see overt nutritional deficiencies. You only see these diagnoses normally in the developing world.

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