The adage, “you are what you eat” may actually be words to live by. There are many reasons why American eating habits have changed over the last century, but the fact remains that diets high in sugar and processed food are making Americans less healthy.
The number of diabetes diagnoses over the last two decades has more than doubled, leading the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to deem it a serious public health crisis. According to the CDC’s 2016 report on diabetes , 29 million Americans are currently living with the disease and an 86 million are living with prediabetes. That amounts to roughly 36 percent of the overall population being affected by diabetes. Type 2 diabetes accounts for between 90 to 95 percent of all diagnosed cases, and was the seventh-leading cause of death for Americans in 2013.
Type 2 diabetes, which often develops later in life and is connected to obesity, is also connected to major health complications. From heart disease and stroke, to kidney disease, to blindness and glaucoma, Type 2 diabetes can often create a devastating domino effect.
The good news is that there are defined preventative measures you can take to reduce your risk of a diabetes diagnosis, including increased exercise and dietary changes. Luckily, seniors in Orange County, California, are getting some extra help with the dietary part of the equation.
Accessible Nutrition for Seniors
Grace and Vernon Atwood, along with their daughter, Jacqueline, put together a program for Orange County seniors that focuses on health, wellness and nutrition. Each of the presentations include video footage from “Feel Grand,” the 13-part PBS series hosted by actress Jane Seymour, which examines various aspects of aging, including “Ancient Remedies for Modern Health,” “Understanding Diabetes,” and “Nutrition.”
Jacqueline Atwood, who is pursuing a dual degree in nutrition and dietetics and food science, has become an integral part of her parents’ Right at Home office in Cypress, California. The Atwoods pair the video series with practical, useful information for local seniors. The nutrition seminars also involve a Q&A session with the audience, for which Jacqueline helps Vernon and Grace prepare.
A recent program hosted by the Atwoods called “Fixing Your Nutrition: Making Moderate Food Changes,” showcased the “Feel Grand” episode featuring Dr. Pamela Peeke, Assistant Clinical Professor of Medicine at the University of Maryland and author of the New York Times bestsellers “The Hunger Fix” and “Fight Fat after Forty.” The Atwoods provided seniors with a worksheet that highlighted the benefits of detoxing from addictive foods, replacing carb cravings with protein and fiber-rich snacks, and making a concerted effort to eat less red meat.
“We were pleasantly surprised to learn that there is a huge interest in nutrition in the senior community,” says Vernon Atwood. “Not only have people been engaged in the programs we’ve been running, but they tell us they really love learning new things.”
Starting the Conversation
The Atwood family has always been passionate about food. Grace was an early admirer of Chef Jamie Oliver, who has spent his career teaching people about fresh, healthy food in order to combat the obesity epidemic. Oliver’s ultimate goal to start a “food revolution” was in part inspired by the work of Dan Buettner, author of the book “The Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer from the People Who’ve Lived the Longest.” Buettner identified “longevity hotspots” across the globe. He noticed lifestyle commonalities among these hotspots ranging from places like Okinawa, Japan, and Sardinia, Italy, to Icaria, Greece, and Loma Linda, California.
People living in these “Blue Zones” are nonsmokers, eat a majority plant-based diet, enjoy constant moderate physical activity and are engaged in both their family and social lives. This resonated with Grace, as she believes it to be important to eat whole foods and focus on both her family and surrounding community.
When Vernon and Grace Atwood decided they wanted to openRight at Home in Northwest Orange County, California, incorporating those principles into their business seemed like a no-brainer.
As fate would have it, Right at Home was a sponsor of the “Feel Grand” series that ran on PBS in the fall of 2014. After watching the series, the Atwoods had an epiphany: they would screen parts of the series as a conversation-starter about health and wellness for seniors in their community.
Bringing Nutrition Home
Many of the older adults who attend the programs the Atwoods host at senior centers in the area are still relatively active and able to implement dietary changes in their own lives. So the Atwoods decided to build a program for their Right at Home clients as well.
As a free amenity for all of their clients, the Atwoods provide in-home companion care that includes healthy food preparation. When caregivers meet with new clients for the first time, they discuss what their favorite foods are, decide on a recipe and go to the supermarket together to shop for fresh ingredients. When they return to the house, the caregiver and the client cook a meal together, completing the entire experience.
“It’s easy to get sedentary as you get older and retire and are not traveling,” says Vernon. “When you’re not moving much, it’s easy to get lazy and stop cooking, but that causes so much of your overall health to suffer.”
“Once our clients stop venturing out, they’re not usually doing their own grocery shopping,” adds Grace. “They’re at the mercy of whatever a loved one buys for them and many don’t eat as many fruits and vegetables as they should.”
Although the program for their clients is in the early stages, the Atwoods have received only positive feedback about providing home-cooked meals for their senior clients. One client with various health concerns has a Registered Nurse Geriatric Care Manager whom they work with. Before finding the Atwoods and Right at Home, that client had gone through several other in-home care agencies because none of them were able to cook a mostly plant-based diet for the client, which is part of their custom care plan.
Changing Lives, Engaging the Community
The Atwoods are planning to expand their nutrition program, both for their Right at Home clients and for the wider community.
“We believe the key to helping people feel energized again, feeling healthy again, is in eating fresh, nutritious food,” says Vernon. “No one wants to get older and sicker. Changing your eating habits is a proactive way to prevent your body from breaking down without having to take a pill.”
Educating people about nutritious food is the first step toward achieving health empowerment. The second step is actually making nutritious food available to them. Through their work with food, the Atwoods are potentially empowering an entire post-retirement community to take control of their health.
After all, you are what you eat.
Hilary Young is a writer dedicated to helping older Americans live healthier, more fulfilling lives. She currently blogs for Fifty Is The New Fiftyand Medical Guardian. You can find her on Twitter as @hyoungcreative.