Sophie Murray is the Head of Nutrition and Hydration at Gracewell Healthcare. She was named Healthy Eating Champion at The Caterer’s Foodservice Awards 2019 and is the Deputy Chair of the National Association of Care Catering.
Over the past few years, there has been a notable shift in our eating habits across the country. This includes a rise in the number of people following vegetarian, vegan, or so-called ‘flexitarian’ experimental diets, with many looking to adopt a healthier lifestyle or responding to increased awareness about the environmental benefits of such diets. Similarly, free-from diets have also seen an increase, with individuals both with and without allergies or intolerances enjoying a greater choice of products that exclude common allergens in supermarkets.
As Head of Nutrition and Hydration at Gracewell Healthcare, I know that as the changing lifestyle choices of individuals begin to mark a shift amongst the generations it is important that we all, including those of us in the health and social care sector, are adequately prepared to keep up. However, it is important that we encourage healthy, balanced and nutritious diets whilst still recognising individual choices and preferences and increasing awareness around health and diet.
The effect upon the older generation is particularly interesting, and there are lots older people can do to ensure they are getting the right nutrients. Given that the advancement of vegetarianism and veganism is most prevalent among younger generations, it is useful to note that more and more older people are making plant-based choices or experimenting with flexible diets without necessarily describing themselves as a follower of one of the two. With the rise in local supermarkets providing free-from aisles and restaurants offering meat-free options, many, whether consciously or even unconsciously, are taking the opportunity to try something different.
Of course, health is a huge factor behind changing diets and for older people, vegetarian meals can also be popular for reasons of accessibility, with soft, plant-based meals often being slightly easier for those with dentures or chewing difficulties. Vegetarian, vegan or free-from diet need not mean that the nutritional needs of people of all ages will not be met - but there are steps that will need to be followed. Whilst a big concern is where people get nutrients that typically come from meat or fish, such as protein, iron, calcium or zinc, eating a balanced diet based on foods such as whole grains, pulses and vegetables will offer good nutritional sources. There are plenty of organisations that offer nutritional information and advice, such as The Vegetarian Society and Vegetarian for Life, an organisation working to improve the standard of vegan and vegetarian catering.
When it comes to allergies and intolerances, we know that the percentage of older people affected is disproportionate to the 25% of children living with such a need, with allergies seemingly on the rise amongst younger generations. However, there are of course many dietary needs associated with medical issues more common in older people. As more and more people without specific dietary needs also opt for free-from choices to keep an eye on their health, we expect that many staple products, such as bread and dairy, will become less popular. What is promising however is the advancement in free-from options both when doing the weekly shop or going out to eat – opting for these can help to ensure that intake of essential food groups, including carbohydrates, protein and dairy or alternatives, continues.
Another change to consider is how more and more people will respond to experiences of different cultural diets, either from time spent living in another country or family background. For older people, food providers, caterers and care homes are embracing these experiences, gradually introducing a range of foods from around the world. This is something that individuals can emulate, by trying out main meal options with strong and diverse flavours.
As well as main meals, another area to consider within changing diets is snack options. Whilst many popular snack options for older people, such as cakes and biscuits, are high in sugar, we are seeing an increase in awareness of the need for healthy options and increasing diversity in choice on the high street. Of course, slower progress in the implementation of new choices can be a good thing so as not to overwhelm individuals, so snack alternatives can be a good place to start before moving on to altering main meals.
Knowing as much as possible about healthy eating is key – taking the time to talk to friends, family or health professionals about individual needs can be really valuable in discovering more about nutrition and hydration. For example, common issues such as constipation can be eased by a diet packed with fruits and vegetables, and so knowing the huge part food choices can play in impacting one’s health in older age is imperative to living with a better quality of life.
Both individuals and organisations can follow the metrics on the high street to stay up to date with changing trends and know what options are available to them, as these will likely continue to receive interest within the national media. Awareness of tolerance and free-from diets are expected to continue rising, and we can all think about how to reimagine our own food choices. Organisations are also spreading the word. Coeliac UK, National Association of Care Catering and Love British Food, all promote awareness of diverse food choices, with the latter promoting seasonal food which support nutrition and benefit our economy. This is an exciting time for the food industry, and it is promising to see such increasing levels of awareness.
Of course, what these changing trends in food choices demonstrate is how important individual choices are. As the preferences of new generations of older people continues to change, it is crucial that individuals look at the information needed to support nutrition and hydration, and so food providers have a large part to play in making this available. It is this that will allow us all to respect individual wishes whilst focusing on the enjoyment of food and drink, both now and well into the future.
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