Examining the Social Environment’s Impact on Food Intake By Older Adults

Recent research indicates that the social environment plays an important role in the amount of food we eat. Although a number of similar studies have confirmed this relationship, few have studied them in institutional settings.

This new research identified what specific elements of the social environment result in an increase in food intake by older adults who have been hospitalized. More specifically the study looks at the nature of the relationship between elderly patients and the type of social interaction that occurs when eating food. The study was conducted in a rehabilitation unit of a geriatric residence in Canada.

The researchers found that certain types of social interactions helped to explain how much food intake occurred. For example, when eating autonomously social interactions at meal time had no relation to food intake. However, during social encounters exhibiting communal behavior, characterized by behaviors promoting intimacy and companionship in social interactions, food intake increased.

The study acknowledges that it is limited in its ability to provide a richer understanding of the role of social environment in the amount of food older adults consume. However the research does demonstrate that there is a positive relationship between meal fellowship and intake of food.

More research in this area is needed as it could benefit those working in institutional settings that aid older adults. For example, it could help staff at nursing homes, long-term care communities, and rehabilitative centers improve the dining environment to make it more conducive to increasing the food intake of their residents and patients who struggle with their nutrition. Changing furniture and adjusting mealtime schedules to facilitate communal dining may be one of a few ways to achieve this goal.

This research drives home the lesson that social interaction and situations should not be overlooked as a factor in attempts to increase the food intake among older adults.

Source: Paquet, C., St.-Arnaud-McKenzie, D., Ma, Z., Kergoat, M., Ferland, G., and Dube, L. (2008). More Than Just not Being Alone: The Number, Nature, and Complementarity of Meal-Time Social Interactions Influence Food Intake in Hospitalized Elderly Patients. The Gerontologist. 48(5): 603-611.

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