Coronavirus (COVID-19) and malnutrition

Coronavirus (COVID-19) can affect your appetite. Eating less can make it difficult to get the nutrition (nourishment) that your body needs.

Malnutrition is a serious condition. It happens when your diet does not have the right amounts of nutrients. 

Signs of malnutrition include:

  • not being interested in food
  • losing weight without trying
  • clothes and jewellery feeling loose
  • feeling weaker

Malnutrition can increase your risk of infection and slow down your recovery. You are more likely to get weaker muscles or infections, have falls or need extra care.

If you struggle to eat enough or are losing weight or strength in your muscles, you might need to make some changes. By eating and drinking well, you can give your body what it needs to stay healthy.

Eating and drinking well

Good nutrition includes having enough protein. You can find this in foods like meat, fish, eggs and beans. Protein protects your muscles, including the muscles used when you breathe.

Drinking enough fluids is also important for your health. If you have an infection, you need to drink more fluids.

Try to drink 6 to 8 mugs or large glasses of fluid a day. You might need to drink more if you have a high temperature.

Think about having nourishing drinks, such as full-fat milk or fruit juice, rather than water. They have energy and protein, in addition to fluid. You can ask your doctor, nurse or dietitian for more information on nourishing drinks. 

If you are older, the guidance you get about healthy eating might seem different from general healthy eating guidelines. This is because you might be more at risk of malnutrition.

Taking vitamins or mineral supplements

A healthy, well-balanced diet gives you almost all the vitamins, minerals and nutrients that you need.

Vitamin D is the exception. We mainly get vitamin D from the sun rather than food.

The sun is at its strongest during the spring and summer months. Try to spend about 20 minutes outdoors in the sunshine every day.

If you are self-isolating or cannot go outside, think about taking a supplement that has 10 micrograms of vitamin D every day. A microgram is 1,000 times smaller than a milligram (mg).

People at risk of malnutrition

Many people who are at risk of getting COVID-19 might also be at high risk of malnutrition. 

Malnutrition is more common in older people and people who are socially isolated.

Social distancing and social isolation could make it harder to get access to a wide variety of foods. This could affect how much you eat.

Whatever your original weight, it is not advisable to lose weight because of illness and infection.

If you are at risk of malnutrition, try to get more nutrients into your food. 

To increase the energy that you get from a meal or drink, you can add foods like:

  • butter
  • grated cheese
  • powdered milk
  • honey
  • sugar
  • nuts
  • coconut milk

If you struggle to go out regularly, prioritise tinned, frozen and dried foods over fresh foods when you go shopping. These last longer and mean that you can do food shopping less often. 

The British Dietetic Association (BDA) has information on:

Food safety and hygiene

There is currently no evidence to suggest that COVID-19 is spread when handling, preparing or eating food.

It is important to continue following general food safety advice.

  • Wash your hands thoroughly before and after preparing meals.
  • Clean surfaces before and after preparing meals.
  • Separate raw meat and fish from other foods when preparing food.
  • If family or carers support you with eating or drinking, they should wash their hands thoroughly and clean surfaces before helping.

Getting food and essential supplies when you have COVID-19

If you cannot get food because you cannot afford it or are self-isolating, there are options for you.

If you are self-isolating or cannot leave your home, most supermarkets and ready meal delivery services take orders online or over the phone. Some might take payment on delivery, but most need an online registration and payment. Family members or carers can arrange this for a vulnerable person if they cannot do it themselves.

Local councils and charities have created support groups, which offer a range of services.

Local councils can support you if you cannot get food or essential supplies. We will update these websites regularly to reflect the changes in the services available.

Resource number: 4932/VER1
Last reviewed: April 2020
Next review: April 2023

Contact us

If you have any questions or concerns, please contact the nutrition and dietetics department.

Phone: 020 7188 2010 or 020 7188 4128, Monday to Friday, 9am to 5pm.

If we cannot take your call, please leave a message and we will call you back.

Do you have any comments or concerns about your care?

Contact our Patient Advice and Liaison Service (PALS)

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