Nutrition Education: An Introduction

This introduction gives a brief overview on the topic of nutrition.

“There’s something wrong in our society when we differentiate between grocery stores and health food stores.” — Former Maine State Senator Marge Kilkelly

The National Institute of Health defines nutrition in a way that most people think about it: “The process of the body using food to sustain life; the study of food and diet.” But nutrition also connects to the whole food system. The wide variation in seed and animal varieties, the way those plants and animals are raised, the harvesting, processing and marketing — including the people, natural resources and political and economic forces that impact it — all these are part of the food system, and so all these impact nutrition. Nutrition, therefore, needs to be thought of as a very broad and inclusive topic. At the same time, it begins with your most basic, everyday action: what you eat.

Do you know what you are eating? Or where your food comes from? Or who grows the food, and how? Do you know where you can find nutritious food? Or what foods are nutritious? Don´t be surprised if you can´t answer these questions, because, as Eric Schlosser writes in Fast Food Nation, our food has changed more in the last forty years than in the last forty thousand. We are in the midst of a crisis in our food system that is challenging our understanding of nutrition and food itself. An overabundance of food is available year-round, but fresh, nutritious food is often only available to those who can afford it. Inexpensive, nutritionally-poor food is contributing to the highest rates of obesity the United States has ever seen. The incidences of type 2 diabetes, heart disease and high blood pressure (hypertension) are skyrocketing, particularly in poor populations who can least afford it. At the same time, growing numbers of hungry people are turning up at soup kitchens and food pantries.

You Are What You Eat

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, nearly two-thirds of Americans are overweight or obese. The percentage of young people who are overweight has tripled since 1980. A recent study by the Institute of Agriculture and Trade Policy found that the obesity epidemic of the last 30 years mirrors the rise of processed, less nutritious foods (and farm policy that supports their production). Artificially cheap production costs and pervasive marketing have helped to make fast food and other high-fat, high-sugar processed foods staples of Americans diets. For most Americans, these non-nutritious foods are significantly cheaper and easier to find than nutritious whole grains, fruits and vegetables. Obesity and poverty researcher Adam Drewnowski observes that, “Obesity in America is, to a large extent, an economic issue.”

The “obesogenic environment” — the food system which makes us fat through inexpensive empty calories — gets worse every year. A look through annual promotional literature from food retailers shows that most new foods introduced are high in fat, sugar and salt.

The U.S. is also exporting our unhealthy food system, impacting diet, health, and culture around the world. Rates of obesity are on the rise internationally, as U.S.-based fast food chains and food companies find markets abroad. The international market economy has forced the rural poor in the developing world to grow cash crops for export, rather than subsistence crops to feed their families. Health suffers as these populations cannot afford to stay on their land and move to cities in search of any job they can find to survive.

Poor communities around the world are disproportionately impacted by poor food access and diet-related health problems. We must, therefore, examine issues of food justice along with nutrition. How can a system that ensures healthful, nutritious food for all replace the current industrial food system?

The Effects of Nutritious Food

We are what we eat, and food has a unique power to restore the health of individuals and communities. The book Real Food for a Change describes “real food” as fresh, local food grown without toxic chemicals and processed without harmful additives. The authors see health as stemming from quality food that is low in cholesterol and high in complex carbohydrates. Food is medicine, and, along with exercise and a healthy body weight, guards against “diseases of civilization” such as cancer, heart disease and diabetes. The supermarket industry, by contrast, “works both sides of the ill-health aisle: on one side are foods with fiber and key nutrients removed so that the food can stay on the shelf longer; on the other side are laxatives and antacids.”

Nutritious food can turn a simple meal into a feast, as people reclaim the social dimension of food. Nutritious food is an integral part of every culture and can bring people together across race, class, creed, and country.

Several schools have documented major behavioral improvements in their students after the cafeteria replaced high-sugar, high-fat foods with fresh, nutritious offerings.

Growing and eating nutritious food also has environmental implications. Food that is grown close to its place of consumption without synthetic chemicals and unnecessary processing is not only beneficial for our health, but for the environment as well.

How Can We Access Nutritious Food?

Fortunately, a new path to good food is emerging, linking nutrition to community health and sustainable agriculture to sustainable diets. The “food systems” approach to building community food security focuses on nutrition as well as food affordability, accessibility and quality. Both obesity and hunger are symptoms of a broken food system, and the community food security approach addresses the root causes of each. The obesogenic environment can be addressed by creating an environment where fresh whole foods are readily available. High prices for nutritious foods can be addressed by linking farmers and consumers more directly. Economic disempowerment can be addressed through development of a strong local economy. All of these issues and many more can be addressed by working for changes in food policy and corporate behavior, which together create the current food environment.

The community food security movement is a way that many communities are responding to the demand for healthier, more nutritious food — whole rather than processed foods, sustainably grown and humanely raised foods. This demand is making fresh, healthier foods more readily available in communities around the country, not only at the growing number of farmers’ markets, but in schools, hospitals, restaurants and soup kitchens. Many local food advocates are working to make these foods accessible to low-income and minority populations — those who are the hardest hit by the dominant unhealthy food system.

It is a powerful, political decision to eat local, nutritious food, and even more so to demand that everyone has access to good, healthy food at all times. The community food security movement opens doors to food which is nutritious, ecologically-sound, fair and humane. It shows the power of citizens to change the dominant food system and build alternatives that are just, democratic, sustainable and healthy.