UNLV partners with the University of Washington on study researching dietary interventions among older adults

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Each New Year’s Eve strings along yet another group of people setting the resolution to eat healthier. This specific wish tends to rehash itself every year. Despite the longing to make a legitimate change, a person’s personal willpower makes all the difference. Years can easily pass with little to no improvement. 

However, UNLV researchers partnered with the University of Washington to focus on older adults and their choice to improve their diets later on in life to uncover not only what methods work, but also how they work. Their study is titled “Behavior change factors and retention in dietary interventions for older adults: scoping review,” published in The Gerontologist on Sept. 3. 

Dr. Oleg Zaslavsky, lead author of the project, became interested in what interventions have improved the dietary health of older adults. Given her background in the care of older adults and their mental and behavioral health, he sought out his colleague Dr. Brenna Renn, an assistant professor at UNLV and clinical psychologist specializing in geropsychology. 

“Poor diet is a leading contributor to chronic disease among older adults,” said Dr. Renn, “But very little is known about dietary interventions in this population—meaning, how we help older adults make and sustain healthier eating choices.”

After reviewing 43 studies that overviewed specific dietary interventions in adults ages 60 and above, they found multiple gaps that they wanted to find the answers to. For example, less than half of those studies revealed the theories used to construct their interventions and less than a third identified the behavior change agents believed to boost the success of a dietary intervention. Dr. Renn maintained that interventions should be developed and tested in ways that are “clearly based in science” while being “transparent and reproducible” so that they may understand how an intervention truly works. 

They also looked at how often volunteers chose to stay in these studies, or their retention rate. The findings are more reliable if the majority of participants stay in the research rather than drop out; if they drop out, it is difficult to determine who the results apply to and may even indicate that something is wrong with the intervention. They discovered that studies that with a strong alignment between theory, mechanisms and actual interventions had a higher rate of retention.

Through the study, they discovered that interventions with goals and planning in mind led to the most success. “Goal-setting is tied to planning,” advised Dr. Renn, “meaning you want to actually develop a plan for meeting your goal. It can help to write it out in your planner or online calendar and actually break down and schedule all the steps you need to take, including recipe planning, grocery shopping and prepping/cooking.” Through its publication, the research team hopes to spread the word to those working in this population so that more thorough research can be accurately performed for this age group. 

Samantha Coogan, a nutritionist and professor at UNLV, shared her input, “The fact that older adults were ready and willing to adopt a brand new lifestyle, after living their entire life the same way for years, is incredibly promising and a refreshing take on people’s ability, and willingness, to change. I think this knowledge should be taken as a preventative measure by UNLV students.”

Most 18-25 year olds do not consume the recommended amount of fruits and vegetables per day and are less likely to make healthy food choices after gaining personal independence in college. According to Coogan, this age group has a significantly more efficient metabolism than someone in their 30s and above, so eating pizza and ramen all the time does not really seem like a big deal or lead students to try to optimize their nutrition habits. 

However, the harm lies in the fact that physical detriments like weight gain are not always obvious to such an age group with their higher metabolisms. Physical signs, such as acne and brittle hair, exist, but most people will turn to physique as a sign instead. Long-term, this lifestyle could lead to heart disease and plaque buildup, an increased risk of diabetes and obesity, as well as feelings of low self-esteem, lethargy and possibly anxiety or depression.

Coogan said, “We shouldn’t punish our bodies by either restricting all of our favorite foods, but we also shouldn’t punish it by only feeding it our favorite foods. Yes, enjoy that pizza and beer with friends during a tailgate, just don’t make that your nightly routine. Create balance and then you can incorporate the fun stuff into your life. For example, if you love soda, I’m not saying to remove it completely, but if you have a few in a day, at least try to fit in equal servings of water between those soda servings.”

In terms of how to actually improve one’s personal diet, Dr. Renn recommends following SMART goals, goals that are specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-based. Another suggestion is to surround yourself with a support system, or find like-minded individuals, and build self-efficacy and confidence that you can attain your goals.

Coogan also suggests to “Surround yourself with people, content, media/social media, marketing, & branding that aligns with you, your goals and your belief system. Don’t follow certain social media feeds or news content that could be triggering. Don’t hang out with people who drain your energy and keep you from reaching your goals. Make yourself, and your health, a priority.”

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