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Good nutrition – Food for thought
A report, Food for thought: promoting healthy diets among children and young people was published by the British Medical Association Board of Science, recently. This report not only looked at issues within this younger age group, but also includes a wider look at practical ways of tackling the growing problem of diet-related ill health.
Some might question why it is the place of doctors to highlight these issues. The report points to the obvious answer – it is because of the substantial impact of poor diet on the health of the patients they serve, and on the healthcare service they work for. But the BMA report also argues that the clinical role extends beyond providing good quality patient care, advocating the right of patients and the public to live within healthy environments, including the environments provided in social care homes.
Health and social care environments should promote good nutrition
The healthcare environment provides a closed setting suitable for promoting and supporting healthy behaviours, and doctors believe this setting should be an exemplar of best practice. One key aspect is the food provided to hospital patients. However, beyond hospitals a wide range of social care homes exist throughout the UK, notably nursing homes and residential care homes, including permanent care homes for older people, homes for younger adults with disabilities, and children’s homes. These typically have responsibility for providing food and drink to their residents.
Do current nutritional standards go far enough?
The report notes that whilst standards for the care provided in these homes have been developed (and we should now be familiar with these!), in terms of nutrition they typically only include overarching requirements for the food to be nutritionally balanced, varied and appetising. There are no specific standards related to nutritional content of the food and drink provided. In the view of the BMA Board of Science, this increases the likelihood of residents receiving unhealthy meals, and does not give sufficient priority to this aspect in inspection and monitoring.
Within the final recommendations given, they suggest that action is needed to develop specific nutritional standards for care homes in the UK, which should be implemented on a statutory basis.
The approach to nutritional standards in hospital and care homes is a widely debated area and whilst there is recognition that the area has improved there is also recognition that poor nutritional standards are still too prevalent. Whether specific statutory nutritional standards are the way forward – as suggested by BMA – is unclear.
Preventative action now could be key to healthy ageing
What is clear though is that concerted action across all government departments is necessary to work on the prevention of health harms arising from poor diets. Although it is the NHS that is responsible for helping individual patients with the consequences of poor diets, the way to prevent this happening in the first place is to take action across the complex pattern of our lives: our environment, our transport, our leisure activities, our shopping and eating habits, and our education.
Perhaps there is no clearer indication of the need for prevention when we look at our care home population and consider that such preventative actions may improve healthy ageing within the UK.
Ayela Spiro, British Nutrition Foundation – QCS Expert Nutrition Contributor