We’ve all heard the story of the 80-year-old grandfather who brags about smoking like a chimney every day of his life and is not only feeling fine but goes out jogging every day. Well, maybe he doesn’t go out jogging everyday, but he is feeling fine.

This sometimes is referred to as the “smokers paradox.” We have known for decades that smoking can cause a variety of diseases, from lung cancer and heart disease to asthma and diabetes. Yet some smokers never get sick. They appear to have a resistance to the harmful effects of smoking.

The same can be true when it comes to obesity. Although obesity can and does affect anyone, young or old, as we grow older it can become more of a problem and cause a variety of health problems. Among the problems are type 2 diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure and stroke. Even depression has been associated with obesity. 

Yet some obese seniors are living with none of these health issues. This is an example of the “obesity paradox.” And many times, those who fall into this category not only are healthy, but they live longer than other older adults who have maintained a proper weight all their lives.

What we need to know, however, is that those lucky enough to be examples of the smoker’s paradox or the obesity paradox are exceptions to the rule. In most cases, smokers and people who overeat or eat food that is too high in calories, fat, sodium, sugars and other weight gain-causing nutrients, do fall victim to a variety of health-risking diseases.

Food labels and senior obesity

There are ways, however, that senior living community executive directors and nursing home administrators can help residents under their care reduce their weight, if necessary.

This can be accomplished just by placing food labels on the foods served. Another related option is using a menu management system to adjust menus so that they have, for instance, less sodium or less fat.

As to the effect food labels might have, a study published in the July 2012 issue of the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, which was conducted in 2009, in King County, WA, is telling. There, some of this country’s first food labeling regulations went into effect. The study did not involve long-term care locations; it involved restaurants and quick-serve food outlets. Many of the findings apply to senior housing and care, however.

The menus of 11 sit-down restaurants and 26 quick-serve food outlets were audited — likely using a menu management system — six months after the 2009 labeling regulations went into effect and again 18 months later. The researchers wanted to see whether these same food service outlets had adjusted their menus as a result of the food labels. Did they now have less fat, sodium, calories, etc.?

“We did find evidence of a decrease in saturated fat and sodium content after the implementation of the regulations,” reported lead investigator Barbara Bruemmer, Ph.D., a registered dietitian and senior lecturer emeritus of the Program in Nutritional Sciences, School of Public Health, University of Washington, Seattle. “We also saw a trend for healthier [food] alternatives, but only in the sit-down restaurants.”

Although the researchers also found that many of the food entrees still were too high in such things as saturated fats and sodium based on dietary guidelines, there was an overall decline of 41 calories in each of the different entrees tested.

“While that doesn’t sound like very much, it is an improvement, and it is statistically significant,” Bruemmer said. “Forty-one fewer calories could easily translate into several pounds lost over a year for an adult. It’s modest, but it’s a start.”

So why did the food labels have an effect, and how can this help administrators and executive directors in long-term care facilities? 

The menu-labeling information can help administrators and executive directors, as well as older adults, get a handle on such things as the calorie content in the foods they consume, “to the point where they’re making healthier food selections. This gives people a chance to make a more informed decision on the foods they eat,” Bruemmer concluded.

Menu management systems

We’ve referred to “menu management systems” a couple of times. Now it’s time we define what these are. And further, how they can play a role in helping the administrators and executive directors of long-term care facilities better manage the weight of their residents.

Here is a generally accepted definition of this technology:

A menu management system helps food service providers create and manage food recipes as well as prepare entire meal plans. The system analyzes the nutrients in these recipes and, with some systems, notes allergens or gluten that may be present. It also can assist food service providers in labeling their food offerings.

Although this definition may be generally accepted, the best way to understand how a menu management system really works is to see it in action. Let’s say beef stew is one of the most popular entrees served in a retirement community. Using a menu management system that, for instance, has a database of more than 250,000 foods, we find that the beef stew being served has 114 calories, 2.8 grams of fat and 361 mg of sodium per serving.

That’s too much — we want to reduce these numbers. Using the menu management system, we can make ingredient adjustments in the following ways to get more satisfactory results:

  • Reducing the amount of beef in the recipe and increasing the number of vegetables reduces fat content from 2.8 grams per serving to 2.3 grams per serving
  • Using just 16 ounces of potatoes instead of 20 causes the carbohydrate content to drop from 11 grams per serving to 9.7 grams per serving
  • Lowering the fat content from 0.05 ounces to 0.03 ounces cut the sodium content from 361 mg to 343 mg

Although these reductions may seem small, just as Bruemmer mentioned earlier, it’s a start. Further, using apps that work with specially designed printers, at least one menu management system can then print this information on to food labels. Now administrators and executive directors have taken steps to provide healthier food options for their residents. And they have the labels to prove it.