A Healthy Diet is the Key Ingredient to Aging Well: A Q&A with Our Registered Dietitians
While we know that diet plays a key role in overall wellness by enhancing the body’s immune response and reducing the risk of disease, for seniors, proper nutrition is essential to healthy aging. Beyond nutrition, food can also evoke memories of family celebrations and cultural connections.
For the Witherell’s registered dietitians, creating meal plans for over 200 short-term and long-term residents involves balancing nutritional needs with personal preferences. Here, our dietary wellness team, Nicolle Cucco, MS, RD, CDN, Clinical Nutrition Manager and Kim Schupp, RD, CDN, Clinical Dietitian, shares their strategies for helping the Witherell’s residents thrive.
Q: What’s your guiding principle for creating dietary plans for the Witherell’s residents?
Nicolle: My approach to nutrition has always been individualized care. I look at each resident’s medical history and interview that person to find out his/her personal and cultural preferences. Then, I make a plan that will work without being overly restrictive. I believe in a full-body approach to nutrition incorporating mind, body, and whole-foods for better clinical outcomes.
Kim: As with medication, every body has its own individual needs. My approach is informed by a combination of medical history, preferences of the resident/family members, and what the resident needs that day. I believe all foods can be incorporated in a balanced diet, and I like to honor our residents’ cravings, within reason, as best I can.
Q: How do you juggle different preferences, medical needs, etc.
Nicolle: We get pretty creative! I am a trained chef so I know how to make things work. Also, we don’t just see the residents on admission and for follow up assessments mandated by the state; we are always rounding on the floors, chatting with residents and clinical staff, and making sure they’re getting the things they like.
Kim: Agreed – I make it a point to visit the floors daily and chat with the residents during mealtime. If I see a resident is not eating well or losing weight unintentionally, I review that person’s preferences and work with the cooks to best fit his or her requests. I also put “likes and dislikes” in the resident’s’ MealTracker profiles to help me keep track. (MealTracker is a skilled nursing menu software, nutrition management, and dietary analysis solution).
Q: How are nutritional needs different for seniors?
Nicolle: Nutritional needs change slightly as we age, but are usually more dependent on medical conditions. Generally speaking, seniors should focus on getting enough lean protein to maintain muscle mass as well as fruits, vegetables, and whole grains for fiber. As we age our GI tract starts to slow and fiber is really important to keep things moving smoothly! It’s also important to keep the body moving with physical activity and weight-training, when possible. The idea is to keep the mind AND body sharp. These are things that are important throughout our lifespan and support a healthy aging process.
Kim: Seniors tend to have smaller appetites, so they should focus on incorporating more nutrient-dense foods in their diet instead of “junk” food to aid in meeting their nutritional needs. As we age, our muscle mass tends to decrease, which is one of many factors that put the elderly at risk for falls. Adequate protein intake and regular exercise/movement are important for maintaining that muscle. A protein, such as fish, eggs, chicken, or turkey should be incorporated into every meal!
Q: What do seniors need from a nutritional standpoint? Is there anything that should be avoided?
Nicolle: Seniors need lean protein, lots of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and low-fat dairy. It’s also fine to enjoy all your favorite foods, but in moderation. Taking time to relax and making time to move your body is the most important way to live a long and happy life. Unless there are medical complications, everything fits in moderation!
Kim: I agree with Nicolle. All foods can fit in moderation! Older adults can be prone to deficiencies in vitamins and minerals such as calcium, Vitamin D, iron, and Vitamin B12 and may need to increase their intake through their diet, or with a supplementary pill. As with any age group, older adults should consult with their doctors and dietitians who will review their lab work and medical history and incorporate additional supplements as needed. Just avoid foods that have expired, interact with an individual’s medication, or that contain an allergen.
Q: For at home caregivers, when should they be concerned about a loved one’s weight loss?
Nicolle: Weight loss looks different on everyone, but really shows in a person’s face. If you notice dark circles under the eyes, if the temporal region or cheeks appear to be sunken in, or if the shoulder and chest area begin to look boney, these are all signs of muscle wasting and fat loss. If a loved one has increased difficulty finding words, are refusing foods they used to love, or just seem uninterested in eating at all, they should be referred to a Registered Dietitian (RD). If an RD isn’t available, items like smoothies with whole fat milk and yogurt and cream-based soups and sauces are all ways to incorporate more calories into someone’s diet.
Kim: Aside from weight loss, drastic weight gain can be concerning too, because an individual could be retaining fluid. In that case, a doctor should be consulted. If a loved one is losing weight, incorporating foods that are naturally high in fat may help keep that weight on. Some of my favorite foods containing healthy fats are peanut butter, whole milk, avocados, and cheese. Taste buds tend to modify with age and hormonal changes. Therefore, your loved ones may dislike foods that they used to love, and enjoy foods they used to hate, so don’t hesitate to try new foods with them.