While malnutrition is an insidious problem in aged care, simply giving residents more biscuits and cake is not the answer.
Yet that is what many residential facilities are doing, according to research in Melbourne presented at the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety.
Skimping on protein
In fact, the study added to evidence that aged care facilities have been spending less on food, and in the process skimping on high protein sources – critical with aging to prevent disability and malnutrition.
Previous research by the group found that two thirds of residents were malnourished or at risk of malnutrition – and inadequate protein was a major factor.
Essentially, the facilities they researched only provided one serve of high-protein food, such as lean meat, seafood, eggs, poultry and legumes per day – only half of the recommended two serves every day.
Dairy protein only amounted to one serve each day, falling well short of the recommended four servings.
At the same time, the amount of “discretionary foods” high in sugar, refined carbohydrates and unhealthy fats and devoid of nutrients has increased.
So while centres might be trying to save costs, it’s a false economy, lead researcher Dr Sandra Iuliano argues.
Malnutrition results in a host of poor outcomes including bed sores, falls, poor wound healing and general immunity.
This is not only debilitating for sufferers; it also increases hospital stays, estimated to add nearly $1,800 to the cost of each admission.
Putting things right
Some argue that a ban on junk foods in health care facilities is a good start, and research shows it helps shape behaviour and improve diets.
For aged care, where a healthy diet is most critical, mandatory nutrition standards would help lift and standardise the quality of food and nutrition provided – with a particular focus on delivering quality protein.
Beyond protein, poor and medium quality diets have been associated with 92% and 40% greater incidence of frailty, respectively, than a high quality diet.
Lifestyle factors such as diet and exercise can also reduce the risk of dementia.
Enhancing the dining experience would help overcome many obstacles to eating well, such as improving the sensory experience, and making food more appealing through greater choice, communal dining, cooking smells and attractive food presentation.
Some centres have even engaged residents with cooking to help stimulate appetite with foods they are familiar with – an enjoyable, social and stimulating activity with multiple rewards.
As Sandra Iuliano says, “It’s not about adding years to life; it’s about adding quality to the years they have.”