Portion sizes and environmental signals such as music and fragrances can influence the amount of food aged care residents eat, according to a recent study.

The University of South Australia research monitored the lunchtime meals of 31 aged care residents aged 69 to 100 to investigate how portion size effect, which is where a person consumes more food when served a more significant portion, and environmental cues affected consumption.

It found that serving larger portions boosted residents’ consumption, and likewise but to a lesser extent with environmental cues, said Hei Tong Lau, a research associate and postgraduate student at the University of South Australia.

“The key finding of the portion size effect is the most important factor to increasing their food intake, and at the same time, music and fragrance can increase the food intake of the elderly, but as the secondary factor,” Ms Lau told Australian Ageing Agenda.

Hei Tong Lau

The study was actually aiming to assess the impact of environmental cues on residents’ food consumption but found the residents served larger portions ate more food, Ms Lau said.

Ms Lau said they did not intentionally increase the portion sizes but instead followed the actual variants of how much staff served.

“Past research has assumed that portion sizes for each resident are the same amount, but that cannot be achieved in reality because we cannot measure how much staff give every time,” Ms Lau said.

The research looked at how much was served and compared to how much was consumed by each of the residents.

It found that residents consumed 72 per cent of their meal when music was playing, 71 per cent when there was a fragrance and 80 per cent when they were served larger portions.

“These results suggest that the portions served could alter the effectiveness of the cues used within a dining room,” the study found.

It is well-known that malnutrition is prevalent among aged care residents and the primary reason is that they are not served large enough portions, Ms Lau said.

It is recommended that aged care residents consume a similar amount to other adults, which is about 8,400 kilojoules per day, she said.

“For elderly people, not only should they eat the same energy intake as normal adults, but they also need more lean meat like chicken or seafood. But those are [actually] eaten less by the elderly,” she said.

Often older people think back to their younger days, where eating less food was associated with better health and they don’t realise they need more food as they get older, Ms Lau said..

“We know that the very simple way to increase food intake is to increase the portion size.”

The study included a focus on environmental cues, which mimic a homelike environment, because past research has shown music and fragrances can reduce depression and anxiety among residents with dementia, Ms Lau said.

“But there is little research today that looks at how environmental cues will affect people’s eating consumption,” she said.

The research Effectiveness of food-related cues and portion size effect is published in the Australasian Marketing Journal. Access it here.

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