Nutrition: eating for health may not follow healthy eating

 By Sophie Murray, Head of Nutrition and Hydration at Sunrise Senior Living UK.

The Government’s Eatwell Guide undoubtedly plays a vital role in showing us how to eat healthily and achieve a balanced diet. Promoted by the NHS, the document provides information on the relative volume of fruit and vegetables, carbohydrates, protein and dairy that we should aim to consume.

However, when it comes to older people, we must accompany this general guide with a flexible approach to nutrition that emphasises personal choice and individual freedom. The unique circumstances faced by people of older age mean we must sometimes modify and re-shape the Eatwell Guide to enhance both physical and mental wellbeing.


Physical Wellbeing

A particular challenge often faced by older people is malnourishment, which can be caused by a spell of ill health, difficulties chewing and swallowing, and a loss of appetite, among other factors. In this situation, it may not be wise for people to focus their diet on fruit and vegetables and carbohydrates, but rather to eat more fats and protein so that they can put weight back on. While unsaturated fats and good-quality proteins are preferable for those experiencing malnourishment, we should not stand in the way of those who wish to enjoy cheeses or creams.

This personalised outlook to nutrition is shared by the Hospital Caterers Association (HCA) and National Association of Care Catering (NACC), who both recognise the specific needs of older people, and place freedom of choice at the heart of dietary plans. This is often referred to as ‘eating for health’.


Mental Wellbeing

Maintaining a flexible approach to the Eatwell Guide is crucial not only for physical wellbeing but also from a mental point of view. What is often neglected is the fact that health has a large social and emotional component. Given this, we should see meal times as much more than the simple consumption of nutritious food, but also as social occasions through which people can enjoy one another’s company and eat the foods that they like most.

For example, if an older individual wishes to eat a childhood treat in order to bring back happy memories, they should be able to do so. And if this treat helps them to overcome malnourishment, all the better.

We have to remember that those of an older age may find it much harder to break eating habits and comply with new nutritional guidelines. At their stage of life, why force them to follow top-down dietary prescriptions? People must have the right to make decisions which technically hinder physical wellbeing if it brings mental satisfaction.

Seeing the Eatwell Guide in a New Light

Promoting autonomy for older people does not mean we should turn attention away from the Eatwell Guide, or downplay its importance. But what it does mean is that we should view the Eatwell Guide in a more flexible and personalised manner, and adapt its recommendations for those with unique circumstances.

The guide is a crucial source of nutritional information for individuals but must act as something that informs individual choice, rather than restricts it. That way, we can combine a good understanding of balanced eating with the pleasures and enjoyment of tasty food, allowing older people to live the happiest, fulfilling lives possible.

It is a user-friendly brief which holds so much more behind it. It is useful to keep in mind that whilst nutritional supplements are not promoted as a first-line approach to daily food consumption, they can be essential for some to maintain adequate micronutrient balance - especially with the well-publicised Vitamin D levels that are often low in older people.