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Nutrition Problems of the Elderly : Older Consumers Need Help to Improve Eating Choices

February 12, 1987

DAVIS, Calif. — "It's high time this country paid attention to the wide diversity in the nutritional needs of the elderly," said food scientist Dr. Christine Bruhn of the center for consumer research at UC Davis.

Bruhn, also Institute of Food Technologists regional communicator for Northern California, pointed out that 25 million Americans are 65 or older yet are often overlooked in setting nutritional standards for the elderly.

Four food scientists explore these differences in the institute's recently released scientific status summary, "Nutrition and the Elderly."

Status Summaries

Scientific status summaries are published by the Expert Panel on Food Safety and Nutrition of the institute, which is the 23,000-member professional scientific society of food scientists and technologists.

"The nutrition problems of the elderly are related to physiological decline, to low economic status and limited food consumption, and to a multitude of disease processes and the therapeutic regimens prescribed to cure or treat those illnesses," the summary said.

"Thus, as a group, the elderly are much less uniform in their health status than are the younger members of the population," the food scientists note.

This is not to say that all elderly are ill, but there is a larger proportion of that population who have physiological problems.

"Even if dietary standards can eventually be agreed upon, they will need to be applied carefully to meet each individuals needs," note Drs. Wayne R. Bidlack, Christine H. Smith, Roger A. Clemens, and Stanley T. Omaye.

The four scientists note that research has been sparse on dietary needs of the elderly and call upon the food industry to take into account what is known and being learned in developing products for this growing market.

Few Detailed Studies

"Unfortunately, very few detailed studies have been carried out on the elderly, and the existing knowledge has been taken from diet recall studies and extrapolated primarily from younger adults," the institute's summary reports.

The summary explains that in addition to declines in digestive organ activities needed to extract nutrients from foods, other changes diminish the desire for foods. While the senses of taste and smell (which also lessen) are obviously important, so too is vision: "The inability of the eye to adapt easily from bright light to dim light or to focus clearly can hinder food shopping and meal preparation," the IFT scientists note.

In addition, many elderly with impaired vision who are physically incapable of preparing their own meals are reluctant to eat in restaurants because they find it difficult to read the menus.

Many elderly tend to eat less as their appetites decline as a result of reduced physical activity, physiological changes, or effects of drug and medication. They may also tend to avoid those foods that don't have taste appeal or those foods that are difficult to chew.

This means that the foods they do consume should have a greater nutrient density to assure proper nutritional status.

The IFT summary notes that older persons are often urged to reduce fat and sugar intakes and increase fluid and fiber ingestion.

Of the elderly, " . . . many just don't like water," the report says. "The most common complaint with age is the increased number of trips to the bathroom, which is why they decrease their intake of fluids."

Noting that younger adults need two to 2.5 liters of fluids a day, the report says specific needs for the elderly haven't been determined. "But dehydration can decrease their energy level and, if severe enough, compromise their health."

Best Dietary Breakfast

As for fiber consumption, the food scientists point out that this, too, has not been scientifically established. The report does state, however, that "the best dietary sources include whole grain breads, breakfast cereals, fresh fruits and vegetables.

"To simply take bran supplements may not be as beneficial, since decreased absorption of minerals and other nutrients have been reported," the status summary says.

Despite the lack of scientific attention to the needs of the elderly (the authors note the 1980 federal Recommended Dietary Allowances "simply make recommendations for everyone older than '51+' . . . "), food technologists can work toward improving choices for older consumers:

--Products should have decreased calories, less fat and more nutrients.

--Products should appeal to the consumer visually as well as through desired taste and texture.

--They should be easy to prepare by those partially disabled.

--Labels should be easy to read.

--Products should be economically priced and have extended shelf lives.

"The resulting food products will not only improve the nutritional quality of the diets of the elderly, but will also enhance their nutritional status and general well-being."

"In fact," the IFT scientists conclude, "such a product line would also meet the nutritional needs of the whole population."

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