European study into improvement of the diet of elderly people

Interview with Agnes Berendsen

With an ever growing older European population it is relevant to know which nutritional interventions are effective for people over 65. A study conducted by Wageningen University & Research shows that elderly people are very well able to improve their eating habits. Supervision by a dietitian was an essential part of the program. The FrieslandCampina Institute talks with Agnes Berendsen, researcher at Wageningen University & Research about the study.

NIEUW: Brochure goede voeding voor ouderen 1A varied and healthy diet contributes to a healthy body and can also have a effect on health at a more advanced age. In view of the ever growing older population in Europe it is relevant to consider which nutritional interventions are effective. A large European dietary intervention trial called the NU-AGE study, has been investigating how a healthful diet particularly focused on people aged over 65 can have a positive effect on the ageing process. The study has been following up over 1250 elderly people for a one year period and is still ongoing, however the interim report already shows interesting results.

Agnes Berendsen, researcher at Wageningen University & Research, tells us more about their findings: ‘In the study we follow healthy elderly people aged between 65 and 79 years in order to investigate the extent that elderly people can adjust their diets and what the health effects of this are. We compared two groups of people with each other for a year; a control group, which consisted of 625 elderly people who given a booklet providing information about a healthy diet. The intervention group consisted of 625 elderly people who were given dietary advice specifically developed for people aged over 65, which was supervised by a dietitian. They were also provided with foods as well as a vitamin supplement. During the monthly consultations food habits were improved in a step by step manner under supervision.’ This study included people from the Netherlands, France, Poland, the United Kingdom and Italy.


‘The food habits of elderly people under the supervision of a dietitian significantly improved in all countries. This group of elderly people ate significantly more vegetables, fruit, semi-skimmed dairy products, low fat cheese, nuts and seeds, eggs, grains and legumes than the elderly in the control group, who were not supervised by a dietitian. Fluid intake also increased, as did the intake of vitamin D supplements’, according to Berendsen.European study into improvement of the diet of elderly people

Berendsen: ‘We were surprised that we could still change very positively the diets of elderly people with the nutritional intervention.’

With respect to dairy it was shown that the elderly in the intervention group started to eat and drink more semi-skimmed or skimmed dairy products. This applied to all countries, with the exception of the United Kingdom. In particular in the Netherlands and Poland, the elderly in the intervention group started to eat more reduced fat cheese compared with the control group. In a follow-up study Berendsen will try to find out whether this ‘healthy’ change* in diet is also reflected in health outcomes, such as physical and cognitive functioning.

* shift towards the local nutritional recommendations

Never too old

‘The overall idea was that elderly people have fixed food habits which are difficult to change and so I was surprised to see that the food habits of elderly people can be changed very effectively’, Berendsen tells us enthusiastically. As the elderly people had voluntarily participated in this study it is reasonable to assume that this is a well-motivated group that is open to adjusting their diet. It is therefore unclear whether these positive results would also apply to the wider population. This is however, a very promising study and according to Berendsen there certainly is a realistic chance of achieving successful outcomes. Before and after the dietary intervention a number of measures were taken including, weight, BMI and various blood values of all the elderly people. As many wanted to improve these values this helped to motivate them to switch to a healthier diet. Of course, the motivating role of the dietitian was also helpful.

‘It is also striking that in the study group the intake of supplements is a lot higher than in “average elderly people”. This is probably because our study group is more health-conscious, as determined by knowledge level, BMI and the low percentage of people who had ever smoked’. According to Berendsen it is useful for dietitians to know that the intake of vitamin D only partially comes from regular food (42%). Supplements contribute 41% to the vitamin D intake and fortified foods 17%. Whilst fortified foods may be an easy way to increase vitamin D intake if necessary, intake from ‘normal’ food remains important as well.

* This study is part of a research project of ILSI (International Life Sciences Institute). ILSI is a global organisation facilitating research in which companies, universities and governments cooperate.

Additional reading

  • NU-Age study:
  • Berendsen et al (2014). Reprint of: A parallel randomized trial on the effect of a healthful diet on inflammageing and its consequences in European elderly people: Design of the NU-AGE dietary intervention study. Mechanisms of Ageing and Development, Volumes 136–137; 14-17.
  • Berendsen et al (2016). Conventional foods, followed by dietary supplements and fortified foods, are the key sources of vitamin D, vitamin B6, and selenium intake in Dutch participants of the NU-AGE study. Nutrition Research, 2016;