Wellness & Nutrition
Eating well and eating nutritious foods are an essential part of keeping people strong so they can live independent and enjoyable lives.
Nutritionally dense meals support improved health and increased muscle mass, improving overall wellbeing. Research shows that with increasing age, extra kilos of body weight are protective and reduce the risk of illness and death.
Improving nutrition can help reduce:
- Muscle wasting, which reduces mobility and can lead to falls. Falls can lead to ongoing disability, premature institutionalisation, or death
- Poor wound healing and slow recovery from illness
- Depression, self-neglect, and reduced social interaction
- Reduced immune function, more likely to get sick.
Malnutrition in older people is common
Each year thousands of older people are hospitalised, or prematurely admitted to residential care, because of malnutrition. Undernutrition, and ultimately malnutrition, can happen if people are not eating enough food, are eating the wrong type of food, or are unable to absorb the nutrients from the food.
Malnutrition in older people occurs due to:
- Reduced appetite
- Reduced taste perception
- Chewing or swallowing difficulties
- Restricted diet for health reasons
- Depression and cognitive decline
- Reduced ability to digest and absorb nutrients.
Nutritional needs change as you get older
The most significant change in our nutritional needs as we age is the recommended intake of protein. Protein is important to help maintain muscle and bone strength. To help prevent muscle loss the Recommended Daily Allowance of protein for older people is 25-50% more than when they were younger. Muscle loss leads to loss of strength and this increases the risk of falling.
Foods rich in protein include meat, chicken (and other poultry), eggs, fish (and other seafood), milk, cheese, custard, yoghurt, peanut butter, legumes (chickpeas, butter beans, baked beans etc) and soy products.
Calcium is also more important than ever as we age, as it helps reduce calcium loss in bones. Dairy foods, such as milk, cheese, yoghurt and custard supply protein, fat, minerals (especially calcium) vitamins and carbohydrate. Milk includes fresh, powdered, long life (UHT), evaporated and condensed milk.
Last year, the National Heart Foundation research found that full cream milk was neutral on cholesterol levels. So, what does this mean? It would seem that older people who like to drink full cream milk can do so without a detrimental effect on their cholesterol levels. For frail older people this is good news as full cream milk provides more calories than fat reduced milk. Full cream milk is recommended – cholesterol isn’t an issue; malnutrition is.
Nutritional value of Meals on Wheels compared to other ready meals
Most supermarket ready-made meals don’t meet protein or calcium targets and can be high in sodium and fat.
For a comparison of the nutrition information of a prepared roast beef meal by the Meals on Wheels Fairfield kitchen against other popular ready meal brands available in Australian supermarkets, see the table below:
Nutrition for particular health challenges
Adequate Calcium, Vitamin D and protein will help to maintain good bone health. Calcium is the building block of bones. It is also needed for teeth, nerve and muscle function and blood clotting.
Vitamin D works with calcium to increase absorption of calcium into the bones. Protein helps maintain bone health and muscle strength.
Strong bones and good muscle function are an essential element in preventing falls and reducing fractures.
Teeth and mouth problems have a high impact on the ability of people to eat and enjoy food. To help with good mouth health, Meals on Wheels:
- Includes dairy products such as milk, cheese, yoghurt and custard in many meals. Finishing meals with a milky dessert or drink can be a good option.
- Provides different textures in meals, such as firm, crisp foods which stimulate saliva flow, reducing oral disease, and also exercise the jaw, tongue and teeth.
Chewing and swallowing problems make eating difficult and could result in poor nutrition and weight loss. Causes of chewing problems include:
- Poorly fitting dentures, tooth decay or missing teeth
- Sore gums or mouth ulcers
- Cracked or sore lips
- Reduced saliva production
- Poor control of facial muscles
Signs of swallowing problems include:
- Taking a long time to chew and swallow food
- Choking or coughing
- Aspiration (food or fluid entering the airways i.e. ’going down the wrong way’)
- Wet gurgly voice after swallowing
If any of the above signs are present, a doctor or speech pathologist should be consulted.
Meals on Wheels can tailor a menu plan to help people having difficulty with chewing or swallowing. We can deliver a meal plan with soft foods or pureed foods if required.
For people living with dementia there can be special challenges in eating. The challenges involving food and meal time will vary from person to person, from day to day, even from one meal to the next. Some of the eating patterns that people with dementia may develop include:
- A poor appetite and/or refusal to eat
- A big appetite and always being hungry, forgetting they have already eaten
- Wanting to walk around eating
- Eating slowly and becoming too tired to finish the meal.
When trying to encourage people with dementia, it can also be useful to serve small amounts of food, such as finger food or cooked vegetables, regularly throughout the day. And sometimes, sitting with someone while they eat can make a difference.