“I work at a nursing home, so I see people coming in at all different ages,” says Kayla Olmstead, MS, a registered dietician who works in Wisconsin’s Chippewa and Barron Counties.
“With some people, you can see the effects of poor nutrition over time. So if you can get to people before they’re that sick, it can have a real benefit. It can be as simple as getting enough calcium and Vitamin D. In the nursing home, you see people with compression fractures who are in pain every day. And it could have been avoided.”
Olmstead is passionate about improving older adults’ nutrition and health, but she understands that eating well isn’t easy for many older adults.
“It’s hard to cook when you’re just one person or you don’t feel motivated to cook,” explains Olmstead. “You have to be careful about how much fresh produce you buy, because it doesn’t keep as long. Maybe you have trouble chewing, so fresh vegetables and fruits are not the easiest. Or maybe you can’t taste your food as well, so you don’t eat as much.”
Olmstead is drawing on her understanding of these barriers, along with her experiences leading educational workshops, as she helps develop the first evidence-based nutrition behavior change program for older adults. Her partners in developing “Beneficial Bites for Healthy Living” include the Aging and Disability Resource Center of Barron, Rusk and Washburn Counties and the University of Wisconsin–Madison School of Nursing, with support from the Greater Wisconsin Agency on Aging Resources, Wisconsin Bureau of Aging and Disability Resources and Bader Philanthropies.
Beneficial Bites for Healthy Living was inspired by Barron County’s Beneficial Bites classes, which highlight a different healthy food each month. Expanding these classes into an evidence-based program involves researching and writing an eight-week curriculum, getting feedback from focus groups, then offering the revised program and measuring its impact on participants with surveys and blood and urine tests.
The behavior change component of Beneficial Bites for Healthy Living encourages participants to set nutritional goals, identify barriers and strategize about overcoming them, and monitor their diet. These skills are included to help participants keep eating healthy, after the eight weeks of classes and six monthly follow-up phone calls are over.
Effective nutrition programs are needed, as malnutrition among older adults continues to rise. Malnutrition, which can occur in both underweight and overweight individuals, is linked to decreased strength, increased falls, longer hospital stays, higher healthcare costs and higher mortality rates. An estimated 60 percent of older adults in healthcare settings are malnourished.
As Olmstead led the first group of 15 older adults through the Beneficial Bites for Healthy Living program, she noticed some exciting changes.
“One week, we did this great activity related to hydration. The next week, I see—oh my gosh—there’s nine people who brought water bottles to class. I asked them, ‘How are you feeling?’ And they said, ‘Oh, I just feel so much better! I feel more energized.’ They talk about these issues and then start doing something. There is short-term change, like drinking more water or eating more fiber or protein. Making these changes later in life can work well for folks who didn’t have time before they retired to really focus on themselves.”
Two more groups of older adults will participate in Beneficial Bites for Healthy Living this fall. If the initial data show a positive impact, larger trials are planned.
“I hope that the research shows that Beneficial Bites for Healthy Living makes a difference,” says Olmstead. “I’ve taught a lot of educational programs for older adults and this one stands out. Down the road, I hope it’s offered as an evidence-based program throughout Wisconsin and beyond.”