Merck Manual

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Undernutrition Due to Hospitalization


Oren Traub

, MD, PhD, Pacific Medical Centers

Last full review/revision Mar 2018| Content last modified Mar 2018
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Undernutrition may result from not consuming enough food or enough of an essential nutrient (such as vitamins and minerals). It may develop or worsen in a hospital. (See also Problems Due to Hospitalization.)

People who are hospitalized may eat less for several reasons:

  • Illness or drugs may cause loss of appetite.

  • Food may be unfamiliar and unappetizing.

  • Some people are on a restricted diet, such as a low-fat or low-salt diet, which they may not enjoy.

  • Meals are served and removed at set times.

  • People may be served foods they do not like or cannot eat for philosophical or religious reasons (for example, because the foods are not kosher).

  • For some people, eating in a hospital bed with a tray is difficult.

  • Some people need help or more time while eating. Often, by the time someone arrives to help with eating, the food has cooled and is even less appetizing.

  • If dentures are left at home, are misplaced, or do not fit right, chewing can be difficult.

  • Water may be difficult to reach from a hospital bed.

Undernutrition is a serious problem, particularly for older people and people who have chronic disorders. People who are undernourished cannot fight off infections. Sores and wounds heal more slowly, and recovery is less likely. Vitamin D deficiency is particularly common among people who are hospitalized. This deficiency increases the risk of fractures caused by falls.


Hospital staff members can make sure that restrictive diets are changed as soon as possible when no longer needed and can check how much people eat each day. At hospital admission, people or their family members can let staff members know what foods are preferred or not eaten. Hospital diets can be modified to some degree. Family members may bring in favorite foods unless those foods are restricted for medical reasons. Having family members present at meals helps because people tend to eat more when they eat with others. Family or staff members should make sure that people who wear dentures have and wear them. The hospital dietitian can provide people with liquid nutritional supplements to help prevent undernutrition.

A pitcher of fresh water should be placed within easy reach from the bed unless fluids must be limited because of a disorder. Family and staff members should encourage people to drink by regularly offering them something to drink.

If people cannot take food by mouth, a fluid containing nutrients can be given through a tube inserted into the stomach (tube feeding through the nose or through a small hole in the wall of the abdomen) or, less often, a vein (intravenous feeding). Such feedings may be necessary for a short time until people can safely eat enough food by mouth.

NOTE: This is the Consumer Version. DOCTORS: Click here for the Professional Version
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