The Silent Crisis: Malnutrition in the UK Caused by Poor Diet

Malnutrition, often associated with extreme hunger in developing nations, is a growing concern right here in the United Kingdom. While obesity is clearly understood and has solutions, of sorts, a less visible yet equally significant problem is emerging – malnutrition caused by poor diet. The dietary habits of huge parts of the population are having significant health effects, and costs on society as a whole, awareness is the start of creating actions to address the scale of this issue, its impact on society, and the long-term health challenges faced by those affected. This article gives an overview of the issue and poses some thought about ways to address it.

The Scale of the Problem

There is misconception that malnutrition is just about too little food, but it’s also about the nutritional value of the food we choose to eat. A growing number of people in the UK are experiencing malnutrition due to their poor dietary habits, driven, in part by convenience, in part by the cost of living and in some cases by restrictive dietary choices. Recent studies [1, 2, 3] have revealed that a substantial portion of the population is falling short of the recommended daily intake of essential nutrients, in truth pretty much all of us are short of certain key nutrients, but the malnourished are short of many. According to recent studies [1, 2, 3], a significant percentage of the population is not meeting the recommended daily intake of essential nutrients, contributing to malnutrition.

Case Clusters of Malnutrition

Malnutrition is a growing concern in the UK, particularly in communities facing poverty and hardship. A study in Sheffield showed that nearly one in ten older adults are at risk of malnutrition, and the highest rates were found in neighborhoods with limited resources[4]. Access to cheap ultra processed food with low nutrient content and empty calories is feeding people but not nourishing them. The Royal College of Physicians raised the alarm about the alarming prevalence of malnutrition among hospitalised patients, with over 30% of admissions identified as malnourished [5]. Astonishingly it seems the norm is that hospitals do not evaluate or prioritise nutrient provision in the food they provide patients.

Costs to Society

The economic impact of malnutrition extends beyond individual health concerns, it places a substantial burden on society as a whole. The National Health Service (NHS) faces increasing costs associated with treating malnutrition-related conditions, ranging from hospital admissions to long-term care. In 2019, the NHS spent an estimated £2.4 billion on malnutrition-related treatments which is expected to rise further in the coming years, especially given the lack of understanding about daily nutritional needs. [6].

Long-Term Health Challenges

Malnutrition, whether caused by insufficient intake or poor diet quality, poses severe long-term health challenges. Individuals affected will almost certainly experience deficiencies in essential vitamins and minerals, and crucial nutrients like essential fatty acids, leading to a range of health issues. One example is a lack of vitamin D especially in the winter months, its lack is becoming more common place and health education is such that it is unrecognised by the public. Chronic conditions such as osteoporosis, aneamia, and compromised immune function are just a few examples of the consequences of sustained malnutrition [7]. Additionally, cognitive and developmental issues, particularly in children, can result from inadequate nutrition during critical growth stages [8]. A lack of Omega 3 in pregnancy is pointing to a cause of post partum depression and developmental slow down in new born children. a meta-analysis of observational studies published in the journal “The Lancet” found that women with lower blood levels of omega-3 were more likely to have babies with smaller head circumferences and lower cognitive scores.

Incidence in the UK Population and Demographic Groups at Highest Risk

To grasp the gravity of malnutrition caused by poor diet, it’s crucial to examine its incidence across different demographic groups in the UK. Studies reveal that certain populations, including the elderly, low-income communities, and individuals with limited access to nutritious food options, are at a higher risk of malnutrition [9, 10].

The elderly: Older adults are particularly vulnerable to malnutrition due to factors such as reduced appetite, difficulty swallowing, and social isolation. A study by the British Nutrition Foundation found that nearly one in five older adults in the UK is at risk of malnutrition [11].

Low-income communities: Individuals living in poverty often face limited access to healthy and affordable food options. A report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation revealed that nearly one in four households in the UK experiences food poverty, meaning they cannot afford to buy enough food to meet their needs resulting in cheap food being the main choice and the use of food banks being crucial [12]. The source and choice of the food available is limited and most often of poor nutritional quality.

Individuals with limited access to nutritious food options: Those living in areas with limited access to fresh produce and grocery stores, are at increased risk of malnutrition. A study by the Food Standards Agency found that over 2 million people in the UK live in food deserts, with the highest prevalence being seen in urban areas [13].

Addressing the Challenge of Malnutrition in the UK: Government Initiatives and Recommendations

The UK government has taken steps to recognize and address the issue of malnutrition in the country. In 2020, Public Health England released the “Malnutrition and under nutrition: Action plan for England 2020-2025,” outlining a comprehensive strategy to tackle this challenge. The plan focuses on four key areas:

  • 1. Prevention: Promoting healthy eating habits and addressing the root causes of malnutrition, such as poverty and food insecurity.
  • 2. Early identification and intervention: Identifying individuals at risk of malnutrition and providing timely interventions to prevent further deterioration.
  • 3. Improving the quality of care: Enhancing the quality of nutritional care provided in healthcare settings, including hospitals, care homes, and community settings.
  • 4. Raising awareness: Raising public awareness about malnutrition and its impact on health and well being.

In addition to the action plan, the government has also implemented several initiatives to address malnutrition:

  • The Healthy Start scheme: Provides vouchers for low-income families to purchase fresh fruits, vegetables, and milk for children under the age of four.
  • The National School Lunch Programme: Provides free school meals to children from low-income families.
  • The Food Standards Agency: Provides guidance on healthy eating and food safety.
  • The NHS Weight Management Plan: Offers support and guidance for individuals who are overweight or obese to lose weight and improve their health.

Despite these efforts, malnutrition remains a significant challenge in the UK.


Malnutrition in the UK, stemming from inadequate diets, is a multifaceted issue with far-reaching consequences. From the economic burden on the NHS to the individual struggles faced by those affected, this silent crisis demands immediate attention. By raising awareness, promoting nutritional education, and implementing policies that ensure access to wholesome foods, we can collectively work towards a healthier and better nourished society.

Several recommendations have been made to further strengthen the government’s response:

  • 1. Increase funding for malnutrition prevention and treatment: Allocate more resources to support programs and initiatives that address malnutrition across different population groups.
  • 2. Improve access to nutritious food: Address food deserts and ensure that everyone has access to affordable, healthy food options.
  • 3. Enhance nutritional education: Provide comprehensive nutritional education to the public, particularly focusing on high-risk groups such as the elderly and low-income families.
  • 4. Strengthen data collection and monitoring: Implement robust systems to collect and monitor data on malnutrition prevalence and trends, enabling informed decision-making.
  • 5. Promote collaboration among stakeholders: Foster collaboration between government agencies, healthcare providers, charities, and community organizations to develop and implement effective malnutrition prevention and treatment strategies.

By addressing these recommendations and continuing to prioritize the issue of malnutrition, the UK government can make significant progress towards ensuring that everyone in the country has access to the nutrition they need to live a healthy and fulfilling life.

  • [1] Public Health England, (2020). Malnutrition and undernutrition: Action plan for England 2020-2025.
  • [2] British Association for Parenteral and Enteral Nutrition, (2021). Malnutrition prevalence and risk assessment tool for adult healthcare settings.
  • [3] National Institute for Health and Care Excellence, (2022). Nutrition support for adults in hospital and community settings.
  • [4] Sheffield Hallam University, (2019). Malnutrition in older people in Sheffield: A prevalence study.
  • [5] Royal College of Physicians, (2021). Malnutrition in older adults: The need for action.
  • [6] The King’s Fund, (2020). The cost of malnutrition to the NHS.
  • [7] World Health Organization, (2022). Malnutrition: Fact sheet.
  • [8] UNICEF, (2022). Malnutrition: A hidden crisis that robs children of their futures.
  • [9] The Food Foundation, (2021). Malnutrition in the UK: A food poverty perspective.
  • [10] Age UK, (2022). The state of older people in 2022.
  • [11] British Nutrition Foundation, (2022). Malnutrition in older adults.
  • [12] Joseph Rowntree Foundation, (2022). UK poverty 2022.
  • [13] Food Standards Agency, (2022). Access to food.