Eat Right, Live Well

It’s no secret people undergo many physical changes as they age. Some are obvious—hair loss, fading eyesight and hearing, chronic aches and pains—while others aren’t. Nutritional needs, for example, change as people get older because bodies don’t absorb vitamins and minerals from food as well. Dr. Jacquelyn McClelland says this puts many older adults at risk for malnutrition unless they learn how to change their diets.

A nutritional biochemist by training, McClelland has studied metabolism and nutrition for years, initially examining the link between diet and heart disease in fowl and cattle. She later moved her research into the “lab of life” in the Department of 4-H Youth Development and Family & Consumer Sciences, where she now spends time as a professor and nutrition specialist educating the public—principally through Cooperative Extension agents—about healthy eating.

The top risk factors for malnutrition among older adults are eating alone, having a chronic disease, and taking several prescription drugs daily.

Through extensive surveys and focus groups, McClelland has determined the factors that put older North Carolinians at risk for malnutrition. The top ones are eating alone, having a chronic disease, and taking several prescription drugs daily. People who eat alone often wind up snacking instead of cooking a balanced meal, she says. Noting some drugs affect the way the body absorbs nutrients, she says that those with illnesses like diabetes or heart disease or who take multiple prescriptions need to pay more attention to their diets for proper nutrition.

“If we hold four meetings on the same topic, we can help build behavioral changes in participants.”

McClelland researched various approaches to teaching older adults about good nutritional habits and found success with an interactive program at community sites where seniors, most with low incomes, gather for a daily hot meal. Her research team developed 14 educational modules on topics such as balanced diet, proper portions, and eating on a budget. The modules include songs, games, weekly challenges on subjects like reading labels, and taste tests to get people to try new foods, eat lower-fat foods, or substitute herbs for salt in cooking. “We’ve found that if we hold four meetings on the same topic,” she says, “we can help build behavioral changes in participants.”

A study of the effectiveness of an educational module McClelland’s team developed to teach people about vitamins and dietary supplements found that older adults who received such information were much more likely to increase their vitamin and calcium intake, read supplement labels, and talk to physicians about their use of supplements. In addition to changing people’s behaviors, McClelland says, the nutrition programs boost enrollment at sites where they are offered and give people an opportunity to socialize. “People just have fun when they’re learning,” she says, “which is a pretty good side benefit.”


Dr. Jacquelyn McClelland, center, says seniors have fun taking quizzes and playing games to learn about proper nutrition.