At One Hospital, Older Adults Meet Nutritional Needs With Ice Cream

female dietitians holding a tray of ice cream

Naama Frank Azriel

Key Takeaways

  • Nutritional supplements can help people who are at risk for malnutrition meet their dietary needs.
  • One hospital devised a unique solution to help malnourished patients using an ice cream machine to turn nutritional drinks into tasty treats.
  • Making high-quality nutrition palatable is vital to the physical and mental health of patients of all ages, but especially for those at risk for malnutrition because they are older or in the hospital.

You've probably heard of turning lemons into lemonade, but what about making ice cream out of a nutritional drink? One hospital did just that to help patients get the nourishment they need.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, dietitians at Sheba Medical Center in Israel noticed a disturbing trend: Many of their patients—particularly older adults—were malnourished.

The reasons for the trend were varied. Some patients found that hospital food was not to their liking or that it did not meet their nutritional needs. Other patients felt isolated or depressed as a result of visitor restrictions and did not feel like eating. The restrictions also prevented families from being able to provide emotional support or bring food that might be more palatable to their loved ones.

To meet their dietary needs, many patients needed to start drinking nutritional supplement drinks, such as Boost, Ensure, or Glucerna, while others required feeding tubes to address malnutrition.

Older Adult Nutrition

Patients who are ill or in the hospital can face challenges getting the nutrition that they need. For older adults, there are added difficulties.

Michelle Rauch, MS RDN, a registered dietitian at The Actors Fund Home in Englewood, New Jersey, told Verywell that one reason many older adults experience malnutrition is because of age-related changes.

“Taste and smell are important when it comes to eating," Rauch said. "As we age, our senses change. The elderly often experience decreased sense of taste and smell, leading to a lack of interest in food. A decrease in the number of taste buds and certain medications make foods less palatable."

Dana Weiner, RD, MSc

The nutritional status of our patients is critical to their recovery.

— Dana Weiner, RD, MSc

Rauch added that “missing teeth or ill-fitting dentures can also make it difficult to chew, causing meal fatigue and leading to weight loss" in older adults. Taken together, these factors can "lead to decreased appetite and subsequently decreased meal intake."

If these factors are not addressed, Rauch said that older adults can experience weight loss and malnutrition.

 An Innovative Solution

Dana Weiner, RD, MSc, Director of Nutrition at Sheba Medical Center in Israel, had a clever idea to help patients get nourishment. She suggested using an ice cream maker to turn the nutritional supplements into a tasty treat that would feel more like an indulgence rather than a medically-prescribed treatment.

The Sheba Medical Center ice cream recipe is straightforward: 4 bottles of nutritional drink, placed in an ice cream machine for 1 hour, will yield about 2 liters of ice cream.

At first, Weiner focused on older patients at Sheba Medical Center as well as those who had been hospitalized for a prolonged period.

“We know that around 50% of patients who go into hospital suffer from one degree of malnutrition or are at risk," Weiner told Verywell. "Patients at risk for malnutrition will stay longer in the hospital and are more prone to infections, morbidity, and mortality. The nutritional status of our patients is critical to their recovery."

In geriatrics, Weiner said that "there are many patients who suffer from loss of muscle mass, and the only way they can improve is with physical therapy. But if they don’t have the protein [in their diet] to build muscle, they won’t get better. It’s important not to let them deteriorate to a point where we can’t help them anymore.”

Transforming Nutritional Supplements

While Weiner said that eating real ice cream is fine in moderation, nutritional supplement drinks provide more protein, vitamins, and minerals than other frozen desserts. They're also more suitable for patients who might have dietary restrictions. For example, patients with diabetes can also use supplements that are designed for blood sugar control to make a frosty treat that will not increase their blood sugar as regular ice cream would.

For caregivers interested in this idea, Weiner said that turning the supplements into ice cream does not cost much beyond the cost of renting or purchasing an ice cream machine. Nothing has to be added to the drinks to make the ice cream, though some patients may request an added flavoring, like fruit or mint.

More than the taste of the final result, Weiner said there's also a personal healing touch to the process.

“I realized how much comfort food could bring,” said Weiner. "The fact that somebody is preparing something for them makes patients feel like we are invested in them and we care about them.”

By Cyra-Lea Drummond, BSN, RN
 Cyra-Lea, BSN, RN, is a writer and nurse specializing in heart health and cardiac care.