Seniors malnutrition: a national crisis

This post is inspired by our experiences with Chefs For Seniors as well as an eye-opening article written by Bob Blancato (chair of the American Society on Aging) in the Huffington post earlier this year. 

Malnutrition can be defined as “insufficient food intake compared to nutrient requirements.”  Causes can include imbalanced diet, clinical conditions that impair the ability to absorb nutrients, or eating excessive foods that lack nutrient density. 

For most people, when they think of malnutrition they picture starving people in third world countries.  Therefore, it may surprise you to hear that more than 1/3 of older Americans admitted to a hospital are deemed malnourished.  While poverty and an inability to pay for balanced meals can account for a portion of those individuals (many communities have local subsidized meal delivery programs, i.e. Meals On Wheels), there are still millions of elderly people who can afford balanced meals yet are considered malnourished. 

Why is this the case?  According to Blancato, “taste disturbances, cognitive or physical limitations, depression, and bereavement may cause older adults to eat less.”  In our experience with Chefs For Seniors, the cause of malnutrition for many older adults is even simpler than that: nutritious meals are not easily accessible.  For many seniors going to the grocery store can be an ordeal, and once they’re at the store many gravitate towards the frozen section where meals are loaded with sodium/preservatives.  If they decide to go the alternative route and purchase fresh ingredients, it can be really tough purchasing food for just one or two people.  This is especially true if you were used to cooking for an entire family most of your life. 

Of course, there are many meal delivery and kit services (i.e. Blue Apron, Home Chef, etc.), but many seniors aren’t online and therefore are not aware of these services.  Plus, with the kits you still have to cook the meal.  Try preparing a meal with severe arthritis or while on oxygen, it’s not easy.

While our perspective on senior malnutrition at Chefs For Seniors is admittedly micro, the macro-level impacts on our healthcare system/economy are staggering.  Malnutrition cost the US $157 billion last year, and research shows that healthcare costs can triple for patients deemed to have poor nutrient status. 

So what can we do about this issue?  Here are a few ideas:

  1. (Warning: shameless plug!) Health insurance companies should subsidize local innovations that help address senior malnutrition.  They don’t even necessarily have to provide insurance coverage; they could just include these programs as part of their wellness incentives package.  This could bring down the cost of quality meal delivery/food prep services, making them more accessible to lower income brackets.
  2. Local senior centers should provide more benefits outreach and enrollment assistance for food stamps programs.  3/5 seniors who qualify for the program aren’t enrolled. 
  3. On a grassroots level, simply sharing a healthy meal with an elderly friend, family member, or neighbor can go a long way.  Eating alone every day can be a disheartening experience, and spending time with someone over a meal can dramatically improve the eating experience. 

As Bob Blancato said, “senior malnutrition affects all of us personally or through higher healthcare costs.”  It’s time for us to be more aware of this issue, and do what we can to help solve it.