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The nutrition levels of aged care residents could be improved if they were simply offered larger meals, according to new research from the University of South Australia.

Investigating the effectiveness of environmental cues within a nursing home – music, fragrance and other health information – researchers found that residents would eat more if they were offered larger meals, thus increasing their energy and nutrition levels.

The study found that for each kilojoule increase in served energy there was a 0.73 kilojoule increase in consumed energy.

Researchers acknowledge that according to the Aged Care Quality and Safety Commission (ACQSC) and under the Aged Care Quality Standards, aged care service providers in Australia are required to ensure appropriate nutrition and energy intake for all residents.

However, evidence given throughout the current Aged Care Royal Commission from multiple sources has revealed that many aged care homes in Australia spend as little as $6 per day on food per resident.

UniSA researcher Hei Tong Lau said the study aimed to explore ways in which to encourage older people to eat more.

It examined the presence of the portion size effect – the act of eating more food when served a more significant portion – in an Adelaide residential aged care facility. Over a seven week period, the food intake of 31 residents was recorded once a week, both under a control and cue-enhanced setting.

“Our research is focussed on improving the nutrition and health status of older Australians living in a residential aged care facility, Ms Lau says.

“In Australia, up to 70% of elderly people living in aged care facilities are suffering from malnutrition, the primary reasons for which is inadequate food intake.

“To improve this, we must find ways to encourage older people to eat more. And while there has been a justified focus on the food itself – including look, taste and texture – we have been concentrating on other factors that can improve the food experience.”

Exploring environmental factors that could improve the dining atmosphere, Ms Lau says the research found portion size was highly correlated with the amount of food residents consumed. Music and fragrance could positively influence food consumption as well, but secondary to portion size.

She says the findings provide food for thought for aged care providers and caterers.

“With an ageing population and high levels of malnutrition among aged care residents, there is a clear need to better understand factors that can influence residents’ food intake.

“Increasing serving sizes may seem like a small step, but for residents who need the nutrition, it’s a massive move forward.”