An 86-year-old woman enthused to her daughter, “I don’t mind being in the rehab center—the food here is great!” This comment might serve as the standard to which long term and post-acute care facilities aspire: to create delicious, nutritious meals that ensure living there is a highly palatable experience. 

Nutrition is the bedrock of both health recovery and continued well-being, especially among elders and those with compromised immunity. Yet health care providers can face significant challenges designing menus to meet patient needs. Some of the factors providers must address include the following:

Emotional factors. Loneliness and depression can affect appetite. For some, feeling depressed leads to not eating; in others it may trigger overeating.

Metabolism. For every year over the age of 40, metabolism slows down. This means if someone continues to eat the same amount and kinds of food as when they were younger, they are likely to gain weight because they are burning fewer calories. In addition, seniors in assisted living or post-acute care settings are generally less physically active than previously.

Taste and appetite. Taste and smell diminish with age, and salt must often be restricted or omitted due to health conditions. Medications can also negatively influence appetite.

Digestion. Due to changes in the digestive system, older adults generate less saliva and stomach acid, making it more difficult for their bodies to process certain vitamins and minerals, such as B12, B6, and folic acid, which are necessary to maintain mental alertness, memory, and good circulation. 

Conventional Vs. Organic

One of the biggest ongoing food debates concerns conventional versus organic foods. For older people, especially those with chronic health conditions, organic (or unsprayed) is far better and may not cost more when purchased in large quantities, or directly from the organic farmers.

What’s the distinction? The terms “conventional” and “organic” refer to the ways in which food is grown, handled, and processed. Conventional farmers use synthetic or chemical means to fertilize soil, control weeds and insects, and prevent livestock disease. Organic farmers opt for less-invasive methods such as manure or compost fertilizer, crop rotation, and giving animals room to roam; hence, the term “grass-fed” for beef and “pasture-raised” for eggs.

One important caveat: The term “natural” does not equal organic. Natural is an unregulated term that can be applied by anyone and is therefore potentially misleading.

While commonly seen food labels such as “all natural,” “free-range,” or “hormone-free” signify that the food has been raised or grown humanely, only the “USDA Organic” label indicates that a food is certified

However, unsprayed foods, as mentioned above, can often be considered “as good as” organic. Local farmers may not have the financial resources to undergo the lengthy, expensive USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) certification process.

The main consideration is how the food is grown or raised, not whether it has a specific sticker on the package.

If assisted living, nursing center, and post-acute care providers can develop business relationships with local farmers who practice pesticide-free farming methods, this is an excellent way to ensure residents receive high-quality, safe, nutritious food.

What’s Really In Organic And Nonorganic Foods

The Environmental Working Group (, a nonprofit organization that specializes in research and advocacy in the areas of toxic chemicals, agricultural subsidies, public lands, and corporate accountability, compiled two lists using USDA data on the amount of pesticide residue found in nonorganic produce after it had been washed.

The “Dirty Dozen” foods tested positive for a minimum of 47 different chemicals when conventionally grown, while the “Clean 15” are safer to buy as conventional, as they contain little to no trace of pesticide once harvested (see sidebar).

Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are life forms that have been genetically engineered. Genetic engineering (GE) is the process of taking genes from one strain of a plant, animal, or virus and inserting them into another, with the goal of reproducing characteristics of the original species in the receiving species.

The U.S. government first sanctioned pharmaceutical gene splicing in 1982. However, GE and GM foods didn’t make their way onto supermarket shelves until 1994.

Although three government agencies are involved in the GMO approval process (the USDA, Environmental Protection Agency, and Food and Drug Administration), there are no mandated pre-market safety studies. As with pesticides and drugs, safety testing for GMOs is done by the companies that produce them, raising concern about ethics and conflict of interest.

Side Effects

Unintended health impacts from GMOs can include:

Allergens. Because the addition of new genetic material changes protein sequences, GMO could produce known or unknown allergens—especially in people with weakened immune systems.

Nutritional deficiency. Altered DNA could decrease levels of important nutrients in the
GE crop.

Increased toxins. Genetic engineering could inadvertently increase naturally occurring plant toxins—or introduce a new toxic strain created by the marriage of genes.

Antibiotic resistance. An antibiotic resistant gene inserted into most GM crops may pose the most serious health hazard, since there is the possibility that these genes might transfer to pathogenic bacteria in human bodies and create new, antibiotic-resistant super-diseases.

The Organic Advantage

In addition to eliminating the potential health and environmental hazards posed by pesticides, GMOs, irradiation, and additives, organically grown produce actually confers health benefits, according to new research. Organic foods are better for a senior’s body because they have more nutritional value, contain more antioxidants, and promote biodiversity.

Organic foods contain higher levels of vitamin C, calcium, magnesium, and iron, while also containing more antioxidants.

Food scientists at the University of California, Davis, found that organically grown fruits and vegetables show significantly higher levels of cancer-fighting antioxidants than conventionally grown foods.

In addition, pesticides and herbicides reduce the production of phenolics—chemicals that act as a plant’s natural defense and are also good for human health. Organic fertilizers, however, appear to boost the levels of these anti-cancer compounds.

Another benefit of organic foods is that they promote biodiversity. According to a study, “The Biodiversity Benefits of Organic Farming,” organic farms had five times as many wild plants and 57 percent more species. The organic farms also had more birds, spiders, and non-pest butterflies than nonorganic farms.

Amara Rose is a personal and business coach with a broad background in health and positive aging. She is a contributing columnist to seniors housing publications. Rose can be reached at or (800) 862-0157