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Food activities play an important role in identity maintenance during later life

Plastow N, Atwal A, Gilhooly M. Food activities and identity maintenance in old age: A systematic review and meta-synthesis Aging & Mental health. 2015; 19(8): 667-678.

Review question

      What is the relationship between food activities and identity maintenance and change later in life?


      It is widely agreed that participating in meaningful and satisfying activities contributes to quality of life. This is particularly true for older people, who rely on meaningful activities to maintain autonomy and a sense of personal identity.

      Many meaningful and satisfying activities involve food, but for older people, the process of aging can put undesired restrictions on their ability to participate in situations involving food.

      Although both food activities contribute to active aging and improved quality of life, little is known about how food activities may contribute to either maintenance or change in identities in later life.

      The aim of this review is to synthesize the available research on the relationship between food activities and identity maintenance and change later in life.

How the review was done

      Review authors conducted a detailed search of four research databases for eligible English-language studies published before March of 2014.

      The key words, self, identity, grocery, cook, meal preparation, eat, nutrition, and food, were used in the search.

      A total of 8016 articles were retrieved from the initial search, of which 22 were included in this review.

      This work was supported by the British Geriatrics Society/Dunhill Medical Trust Research Fellowship.

What the researchers found

      The main focus of the studies identified in the review was the maintenance of women's identities. Multiple studies found that, across cultures, many female identities are maintained by cooking traditional meals, giving and receiving love, eating traditional foods, and by shopping.

      Studies focusing on other activity domains also demonstrated a relationship between meaningful activities and identity maintenance. Visual arts were found to be important in the maintenance of participants’ individual and social identities. Other studies highlighted the importance of driving in the maintenance of identities in later life. This suggests that older adults use a variety of daily activities to maintain their identities.

      It was interesting to find that changes in health threatened the social context of food activities, both in the way participants shared meals with others, and shared roles and responsibilities in the household for food activities. Many studies found that meals eaten with others were deemed pleasurable while meals taken alone were perceived as a necessity.


      Review authors found a lack of understanding across the literature of the specific challenges faced by older adults in the maintenance of their food identities.

      There is thus a need to address these gaps in knowledge, so that the role of food activities in the maintenance of psychological well-being and active aging is better understood.

      Improving research in this area would enable healthcare professionals to better meet the psychological needs of older adults during nutritional interventions.

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