Dr. El
Dr. El

Ah, January — a moment to consider plans and directions for the upcoming months. Like many people, one of my personal goals is to recommit to mindful eating and wise food choices. While some residents like to rethink their diets as a New Year’s resolution, there are good clinical reasons to review the facility’s menu at any time of the year. 

Researchers have found that the diet and the stomach microbiomes of those in long-term care are significantly less diverse and healthy than those of community-based elders, with institutionalized elders eating diets that are higher in fat and lower in fiber. 

Not only that, but the alteration in gut microbes are detectable within 24 hours of dietary changes, suggesting an immediate payoff to dietary improvements (and immediate deleterious effects).

Benefits of a diverse menu

Studies indicate that a more diverse, healthier menu can promote healing, reduce inflammation and help to fight infection. Moreover, there’s a line of research suggesting that the foods we eat influence not just physical health, but also mental health and moods. A healthy gut microbiome is associated with better cognition and reduced anxiety, depression and other emotional maladies.

“The tried-and-true advice of a high-fiber, low-sugar, mostly plant-based diet can benefit patients in body and mind,” author Kirsten Weir writes in “The Future of Psychobiotics” (Monitor on Psychology, December 2018). 

Offering healthier options

With new options for plant-based foods proliferating, 2020 is a great time to assess the menu with the dietary and food service departments to consider substitutions and alternatives. Perhaps some residents would choose one of those newfangled plant-based burgers, for instance, or enjoy multigrain pasta over that made of white flour. 

Providing such choices could be used as a way to empower residents. Most have observed news programs regarding the impact of diet on health and the environment. Offering the possibility of an environmentally friendly food choice can give institutionalized frail elders a welcome opportunity to take small daily actions to address societal challenges. 

Rolling out changes

A well-planned rollout for new food options can increase acceptance on the part of residents and employees.

Healthier selections could be previewed on the rehab units, for example, to see if there’s an interest among the short-term residents and to give the kitchen staff the chance to become familiar with the preparation of new items.

If there’s a decision to move forward with the plan, consider involving the resident council to generate buy-in and excitement about plant-based diet options. Educational programs, colorful resident-designed posters of vegetables and a musical event to mark the start of the new meal plan can create enthusiasm and add a sense of personal agency.

Facilities might use metrics to measure before-and-after satisfaction with the menu, determine variations in meal costs and assess whether or not there’s an impact on overall health status or need for medications. For those interested in more thorough analysis, consider partnering with a local university in exchange for data access. 

Other options

If the idea of offering more plant-based meals isn’t appealing to your facility, increase the food rotation (say from every three weeks to every four weeks) to bring more variety to the menu. Alternatively, quiz the residents and replace the least popular food items with something they desire. Work with the dietary and food service staff to create a more enticing, diverse menu.

Doing so can improve the physical and emotional health of residents while increasing the appeal of the facility. 

Eleanor Feldman Barbera, Ph.D., author of The Savvy Resident’s Guide, is an Award of Excellence winner in the Blog Content category of the APEX Awards for Publication Excellence program. She also is a Bronze Medalist for Best Blog in the American Society of Business Publication Editors national competition and a Gold Medalist in the Blog-How To/Tips/Service category in their Midwest Regional competition. To contact her for speaking engagements and/or content writing, visit her award-winning website at MyBetterNursingHome.com or her new website at EleanorFeldmanBarbera.com.