Improving Older Adults’ Mood with Food
The role of nutrition on brain health is a growing area of research. In elderly people, little research has been conducted on dietary patterns. But that doesn’t mean the dietary patterns from younger individuals cannot be implemented into older adults. There are two main types of dietary patterns, healthy and unhealthy. Healthy dietary patterns are those that consist of regular consumption of healthy fats, lean proteins, antioxidant-rich foods, and fiber from fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Unhealthy dietary patterns consist of high carbohydrate, high fat, and low nutrient-dense foods. Studies have shown the effect of unhealthy eating patterns: people who eat poorly tend to have lower self-rated health as well as decreased mood. This means that people do not think of themselves as healthy and feel less than ideal when they eat fatty, processed, sugary foods. This is important as so many options are available and people have difficulty choosing healthy foods over tasty but less optimal options.
One study examined the effects of dietary patterns of over 1,700 elderly people living in a residential facility in France on brain aging. For both older men and women, those who regularly ate fish, vegetables, and fruits had better cognitive performance and mood than both older men and women who consumed carbohydrate-rich foods such as pasta and biscuits. These findings are consistent with research on which dietary patterns are best for health, suggesting that a Mediterranean diet rich in antioxidants, lean proteins, healthy fats, and whole grains is best for maintaining and improving brain health.
Eating healthy may be difficult as foods such as pasta, bread, and cookies are tasty, readily available, and cheap. However, these foods lack important macro and micronutrients that our bodies need to thrive. Western diets are high in these processed foods, leading to poor health outcomes. Long term consequences of poor eating habits include developing high blood pressure, diabetes, becoming obese, and increasing the risk of heart attack, stroke, and the development dementia later in life.
What Does This Mean for Your Older Clients?
If you are working with older clients in a residential setting, work with your staff and your clients on helping your residents have access to healthy foods. Encourage budget spending on fruits and vegetables rather than processed foods. If you have residents who have a sweet tooth, help them get their fix by having a spoonful of sugar-free nut butter, a piece of fruit, and water. Oftentimes when someone has cravings for caloric rich foods, they need to rehydrate and have something nutritious. Other healthy snack combinations include fruit with a piece of low-fat cheese, a small salad with mixed nuts and simple dressing, or a few cut up pieces of a lean protein with some mixed vegetables.
If you are working with clients who are outpatient, help your clients learn how to meal prep. While it is tempting to reach for easy-to-assemble food items such as a box of macaroni and cheese, these food choices do not contain the balance of nutrients your clients need. Help your clients set nutritional goals, such as eating 5 servings of vegetables a day and drinking at least 64 ounces of water throughout the day. The process of meal planning helps your client practice executive function, attention, working memory, visual, verbal, and spatial memory skills. Plus, it’s hands-on and results in a tasty outcome!
Dietary patterns have a significant impact on how we think, feel, and perceive ourselves. For older adults in residential facilities or living on their own, it is important that they consume a balanced diet of healthy fats, lean proteins, antioxidant-rich foods, and healthy fiber sources. You can help your client address their nutritional needs by working with them on meal planning, which allows them to practice a variety of cognitive skills. If you are working in a residential facility, work with your staff and residents on allocating funds to improve access to healthy options that your residents will love. The outcome will result in healthy and happy seniors.