Striking a balance – feeding the elderly

22 May 2008
Striking a balance – feeding the elderly

This week, our Healthy Eating series focuses on feeding the elderly - and there's a lot the catering industry can do to improve nutrition for this sector of the population, as Louis Levy, head of nutritional policy and advice at the Food Standards Agency, explains

If we are to believe reports in the media, as many as one in seven UK citizens aged 65 and over are malnourished or at severe risk of malnutrition.

With more than nine million in this age bracket, this is an unwelcome headline, and certainly not what you want to read if you're in charge of a catering operation helping to feed the 410,000 older people living in the UK's residential and nursing homes.

Not that improving diets is just the preserve of the elderly or those feeding them. Data from the National Diet & Nutrition Surveys (NDNS), which analyses the diets of thousands of people, show that on average we consume too much saturated fat, salt and sugars and too few starchy foods, fruits and vegetables. All of this is contributing to a rising tide of increasing waistlines and diet-related illnesses and diseases.


This background offers a challenge to every catering business, especially those involved in providing food for the elderly and infirm. Maintaining a balance between customer demand, nutrition, health and profitability is a tall order for any catering business.

The Food Standards Agency (FSA) believes it is the role of everyone involved in catering to ensure they can offer balanced and nutritious meals that are also appealing and filling. This is particularly important for older people at greater risk of poor nutrition. The reasoning behind this is simple - good diet plays a crucial role in keeping us fit and healthy as we age. Certain diseases that become prevalent with age, such as osteoporosis, and some cancers and coronary heart disease could be prevented through better diets.

We also realise that the elderly can feel "it's too late for me now" or that encouraging an older person to eat healthily may mean changing the habits of a lifetime. We believe it's never too late, and this is precisely why we have published guidance to ensure caterers have a resource to turn to if they need a helping hand. Available at, our guidance includes practical tips on food safety and procurement, and sample weekly menus based on dietary references for older people in residential care. There's also lots of advice from other sources, including the Department of Health ( and the National Association of Care Caterers (

The principles of feeding people healthily remain the same regardless of age - starchy food should make up one-third of the daily diet with fruit and vegetables making up another third. The body also requires moderate amounts of meat, fish, eggs, beans, milk and dairy foods, and only small amounts of foods and drinks high in fats and sugar. The FSA's advice goes further to reflect areas where older people's diets need to improve, including greater levels of calcium, folate, riboflavin, potassium, magnesium, iron and zinc.

The advice may also be relevant for some caterers with a range of options on the menu outside the residential care setting, while for others it may be that there are limitations to meeting the full guidance. For both these situations you can choose to move towards helping older people meet their dietary needs by taking smaller steps to reduce saturated fat, sugar and salt and increasing starchy foods, fruit and vegetables.

To finish off with a quote from such an unlikely source as Hugh Hefner, founder of the Playboy empire: "I truly believe that age - if you're healthy - is just a number." Let's hope we can all work together to make this true for a lot more people.

Stop press

The FSA has just launched a Safer food, better business supplement designed to help small caterers and staff working in care homes across the UK prepare and cook safer food for their residents. For more information, log on to

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