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  • Nancy Griffin

Food as Medicine: Changing the Landscape of Senior Dining

Specialized senior wellness programs focus on preventive and therapeutic benefits of healthy eating


Senior living is taking notice: food is a powerful weapon against disease. Increased recognition of the preventive and therapeutic benefits of healthy eating is changing the landscape of senior dining—vastly improving dining options and food delivery. The “three squares a day” notion is being replaced by a range of flexible options and personalized nutrition programs to improve healthy longevity.


Dire statistics are driving change. According to the Global Burden of Disease database, an unhealthy diet contributes to one in every five deaths globally, and is the leading risk factor for death, contributing to cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, cancer, and health conditions associated with food, including intolerance and allergies, nutritional deficiencies, and digestive health.


Global consultancy Deloitte defines “food as medicine” as a concept that recognizes the preventive and therapeutic benefits gained through personalized, healthy diets based on scientifically validated claims. Their survey of 2,054 Americans (aged 18 to 70) who influenced fresh food purchases in their household found:

  • More than three out of four consumers think fresh foods have preventative or therapeutic benefits, or at times can be the best medicine.

  • One in two consumers is willing to spend more on food that can act as medicine.

  • Three in four are actively seeking more personalized nutrition, up 13% from the previous year.

  • 55% of consumers are willing to pay a premium for the right foods because they contribute to health and wellness.

Interest among venture capitalists in the medical potential of food has risen as the understanding of diet’s role in disease has grown. The food-as-medicine field recently got a boost when a new coalition of investors, including venture firms, pledged $2.5 billion to work over the next three years to improve health by making nutritious food more affordable and accessible. Startups are exploring diets designed to combat specific illnesses, and technology to uncover beneficial compounds found in nature. For example, Brightseed, a startup that employs an artificial intelligence-based platform that searches for healthy compounds made by plants and other natural sources, recently raised $120 million.


Shift to Fresh and On-Demand Options


Institutional dining where food makes a long journey from kitchen to table is an outdated model. Preparation and cooking are moving closer to the residents. “We elevate dining venues and experiences with fresh made-to-order foods, as opposed to the old school hot box ‘food coffins’ where food goes to die,” says Matthew Schuler, Director of Culinary Development at SCOPOS Hospitality Group, a food service design consultancy. “What we put into our bodies is extremely important in our day-to-day activities and how our bodies work. Ultimately it is our fuel and the better the fuel we have going into our body, the better off we're going to be.”


SCOPOS consulted on the culinary spaces and programs at River’s Edge, a new luxury life plan community in Manhattan. For culinary management and operations, River’s Edge will work with NEXDINE, a management company offering wellness, fitness and culinary solutions for independent living, assisted living, life plan communities, and skilled nursing. Far from an institutional approach, NEXTDINE’s Artisan dining service program focuses on “batch cooking hand-crafted recipes that use seasonally inspired fresh ingredients responsibly sourced from trusted producers and growers, paired with authentic flavors and innovative experiences.”


Food that Boosts the Brain


Progressive senior living and memory care communities are integrating food as medicine for the brain. Going beyond recommendations for brain-healthy foods, communities are working closely with medical professionals and nutritionists to create custom menus and programs. Martha Clare Morris, ScD, a nutritional epidemiologist from Harvard University, developed the MIND diet a hybrid of the Mediterranean and DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diets. MIND is based on research showing a correlation linking certain foods and nutrients to positive effects on brain function.


“Memory Care communities are integrating nutrition as part of their wellness. I think it should be celebrated even more than it is. We have spoken with multiple operators with nutrition programs that feed residents in specific ways to enhance cognitive function. It's about activating the senses and helping promote appetite and what to eat when. In some cases, residents move from memory care to assisted living because of the vast improvement,” says Shuler.


Evolving Tastes for a New Generation


With demand from Boomers seeking wellness at every turn, expect the food as medicine trend to grow and further integrate at multiple touch points throughout the community. Flexibility in design is key.


“The collaboration between wellness and food service are driving move-in sales. We're not designing spaces for one specific style or service, because as we all know if you're not evolving and changing, you're going to be lost in the midst,” says Schuler. “The younger generation coming up want flexibility on when, what and how they eat and how much they want to spend on eating. They want regional cuisines like sushi, Indian, Italian, and Mexican. They want farm-to-table, gluten-free and vegan. It's not meat and potatoes anymore.”

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