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Auburn study: snacking can boost seniors’ health

By Desiree Hunter
Associated Press Writer

MONTGOMERY — Jo Spann used to be a steak-and-potatoes, three-squares-a-day type, but as the years have gone by, the 72-year-old from Daleville now finds herself snacking “all the time” while usually eating just one large meal each day.

Researchers say such snacking is OK — in fact, regularly nibbling between meals can be quite good for seniors.

An Auburn University study that compared the diets of 2,002 adults aged 65 years and older found that snacking provides significantly higher amounts of energy, protein, carbohydrate and total fat, potentially vital boosters during years when the daily intake of calories is often in decline.

So while snacking could lead to obesity in younger age groups, it could ensure that seniors are consuming enough calories, said Claire Zizza, an assistant professor of nutrition at Auburn and lead author of the study, which is published in this month’s Journal of the American Dietetic Association.

She said several factors, including health problems, medication and changes in taste could lead to diminished appetites and unintentional weight loss in seniors. When compared to 25-year-olds, 70-year-old men ate 1,000 to 1,200 fewer calories and the decline for women was between 600 to 800 calories per day, according to the study.

But it found that 84 percent of the adults averaged 2.5 daily snacks and that snackers consumed about 250 more calories than non-snackers — 1,717.9 calories to non-snackers’ 1,466 calories.

Jean Lloyd, national nutritionist for the U.S. Administration on Aging, said the study “does a couple of real important things” by indicating that healthy eating can be reached through various paths and providing guidance to health professionals.

“You’re not always sure in clinical practice how to handle a patient with decreased appetite who may have other health problems. You don’t know if you should tell them to eat something small after lunch because maybe then they won’t be hungry later and won’t eat dinner,” Lloyd said.

“The answer in this article says, ‘No, that’s good,’ ” she said. “If you’re a clinician or dietitian you can suggest with confidence that having a small snack mid-morning or mid-afternoon is a good behavior.”

Lloyd and Zizza both caution against using the findings to justify chips, cakes, cookies and other “empty snacks.” The snacks should be healthy to have the biggest benefit, Zizza said.

The study, which Zizza conducted along with Auburn graduate assistant Francis Tayie and Mark Lino of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, used data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey 1999-2002.

Their study found that snackers were more likely to be white and have a higher income, but more research should be done on any race and ethnic factors, the authors said. Alcohol intakes were not different between snackers and non-snackers.

Lynelle Bumgardner, who directs the Daleville Senior Center in Southeast Alabama, said a hot lunch is served there five days a week. She often sees patrons eating cookies, crackers and fruit before and after the noontime meal, which is provided using federal Meals on Wheels money and contains one-third of the agriculture department’s recommended dietary allowances.

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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