Nutrition Education: FAQ’s

The FAQs section helps to provide answers and guidance on a range of subjects, including breastfeeding, organic foods and barriers in nutrition achievement.

Why is nutrition a critical component of food security?
Food security is not just about access to food; it is about access to the right kinds of food in the right amounts to be healthy and productive. Our corporate-dominated food system has enabled unhealthful, heavily processed foods to pervade the majority of our communities, institutions and homes. These foods, which lack essential nutrients and contain excessive amounts of saturated fat and refined sugar, might be sufficient to keep us fed, yet leave us poorly nourished and more prone to diet-related health problems. For this reason, when we advocate for access to food for all, we must advocate for access to nutritious food for all.

What barriers do low-income communities face to achieving good nutrition?
Achieving good nutrition can be a challenge for anyone, but is especially challenging in low-income communities. When forced to stretch limited resources to cover all basic needs, it is not always possible to afford adequate food for oneself and one’s family, let alone nutritious food. Food access can be another major hurdle. Low-income areas often have disproportionately fewer supermarkets than more affluent areas, sometimes resulting in “food deserts.” In supermarkets or food stores that do exist, patrons are often faced with limited selection and poor food quality. Furthermore, the unhealthiest food choices are often the cheapest and the most heavily marketed in low-income areas. Even when healthy foods are made accessible, lack of familiarity with certain foods and lack of food preparation skills can be additional barriers to achieving good nutrition.

What is malnutrition?
Malnutrition occurs when there is a failure to achieve nutrient requirements, impairing physical and/or mental health. It may result from consuming too little food or a shortage or imbalance of key nutrients (e.g., micronutrient deficiencies or excess consumption of refined sugar and fat). If one’s diet consists mainly of foods that are high in calories but low in nutrients, one may be malnourished despite being overweight or obese.

What are the links between poverty, food insecurity and obesity?
According to the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC), for many households, a lack of money can contribute to both hunger and obesity. There are a number of factors behind this apparent paradox, such as the economics of buying food. Households without adequate money to buy food may be forced to rely on cheaper, higher calorie foods in an attempt to stave off hunger by maximizing caloric intake for each dollar spent on food. This can lead to over consumption of calories and a less healthful diet. Another factor potentially contributing to obesity in low-income households is erratic eating patterns due to food shortages. Drastic restriction of calories when food is unavailable may be followed by excessive consumption of calories when food becomes available again. These eating patterns can contribute to obesity over time. Additional factors contributing to higher obesity rates among those living in poverty include stress, poor access to quality food, lack of nutrition education and the pervasive marketing of unhealthy foods.

How is food being marketed to children?
Each year, billions of dollars are poured into marketing food to children through television commercials, special packaging, sampling, coupons, sweepstakes and other promotions. According to the 2004 Issue Brief from the Kaiser Family Foundation, food advertising accounts for more than half of the 40,000 television commercials that children view each year on average. This means that children view an average of one food commercial for every five minutes of television viewing time, and may see as many as three hours of food commercials each week. Food marketing also reaches children in school through means such as vending machines; branded fast food served at lunch; exclusive ‘pouring rights’ contracts with soft drink manufacturers; corporate-supported fundraisers, sports events and educational events; advertising on billboards, books and school supplies; and incentive reward programs.

What impact is food marketing having on children’s eating habits?
The American Psychological Association (APA) acknowledged in their Association Task Force on Advertising and Children Report of 2004 [PDF] that children under the age of eight are unable to critically comprehend televised advertising messages and are prone to accept advertiser messages as truthful, accurate and unbiased. Unfortunately, most food marketing geared towards children is used to promote highly processed, expensive, nutrient-poor food. Messages about healthy eating, which tend to have much smaller advertising budgets, get lost in the clutter. This commercial targeting of children has lifelong implications and is likely to be a factor in today’s youth obesity epidemic. Children in low-income households and in poorly funded schools tend to be disproportionately targeted by pervasive marketing of unhealthy food products.

What can be done to improve childhood nutrition?
According to the National Institutes of Health, in the US, one out of every four children age 6-11 is overweight, and one out of every four children age 5-10 shows early warning signs for heart disease such as high cholesterol or high blood pressure. In order to turn around these negative trends, children must be exposed to healthy foods such as fresh fruit and vegetables, and they must have regular access to them. At home, parents can play an important role by exposing their children to good tasting, healthy foods and by modeling healthy eating habits. In schools, nutrition education should be incorporated into curricula, and healthy meals and snacks should be available to all students. Farm to cafeteria initiatives are a means of securing healthy food for children while providing ample educational opportunities. We also need to foster healthy environments in both schools and communities, where children can learn, play and eat free from commercial exploitation.

What is the importance of breastfeeding?
Breast milk is naturally formulated for optimum growth and health of an infant and offers immunities from the mother that cannot be obtained through formula. Reductions in rates of asthma and obesity and a number of other health benefits have been noted in breastfed infants. Breastfeeding also offers maternal, psychological and environmental benefits. Another important benefit of breastfeeding is that it is free.

What are the national Dietary Guidelines?
Dietary Guidelines for Americans is published jointly every five years by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the Department of Agriculture (USDA). The most recent version was released in January of 2005. The Dietary Guidelines provide advice on dietary habits that can promote health and reduce risk for major chronic diseases. Highlights of the guidelines include information on achieving a well-balanced diet consisting of a variety of healthy foods, finding a balance between food intake and physical activity, and deriving maximum nutrition from the calories one consumes. A tool developed by the USDA to help individuals apply the Dietary Guidelines is the choose My Plate program, which was debuted in 2011.

Why is there an emphasis on fresh produce when promoting good nutrition?
Fresh fruits and vegetables provide a wide range of vitamins, minerals, fiber and phytochemicals (natural plant compounds) that that the body needs to maintain good health and energy levels; protect the immune system; and reduce the risk of cancer, heart disease and other chronic diseases. Incorporating more fresh produce into one’s diet is a simple and effective way to improve one’s nutrition, yet 70% of children and adults in the US do not consume the amount that they need for good health.

How do local food initiatives promote good nutrition?
Local food initiatives such as those featured in the Community Food Security section promote good nutrition in a variety of ways. In many instances, these projects are providing sources of healthy food in under-served areas or “food deserts” where healthy food is otherwise inaccessible. Local food initiatives also provide excellent educational opportunities by heightening people’s awareness of where their food comes from and leading them to ask other questions about the food they are eating. Local food initiatives often introduce people to new types of foods and new skills in food selection and preparation. Additionally, fresh foods straight from the farm tend to taste better. If people find that they enjoy the taste of fresh fruits and vegetables and other healthy foods made accessible through local food initiatives, then they are more likely to increase their consumption of them.

How can emergency food programs promote good nutrition?
Most emergency food providers are at the mercy of whatever food donations they are able to secure as they struggle to meet rising demand for emergency food. This means that the food they have to offer often does not reflect the nutritional needs of emergency food recipients. A growing number of food bankers and direct service providers are tackling these challenges in a variety of innovative ways, as described in the publications Building The Bridge: Linking Food Banking and Community Food Security (PDF) and Going Beyond Emergency Food: A Guide for Providers (PDF). Many are incorporating nutrition education into their services to help participants make the healthiest choices possible and to prepare nutritious meals on a low budget.
Some are connecting with local farmers and gardeners to incorporate fresh fruits and vegetables into their food supplies. Others are starting their own food production systems, or helping community members in under-served areas to start community gardens.

How can the federal nutrition assistance programs promote good nutrition?
While the federal nutrition assistance programs have successfully assisted millions of people a year in accessing supplemental food, some advocates feel that more of an emphasis could be placed on promoting good nutrition. For example, a person receiving benefits through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP (formerly the Food Stamp Program) might not have a means of using SNAP to access healthy food; or a child receiving a free school meal might not be getting the nutritional benefits they need if the quality of the food is poor or if the food is not palatable. Fortunately, there are several federal programs that place a particular emphasis on promoting good nutrition. The Farmers Market Nutrition Programs (for WIC recipients and senior citizens) are examples of federal nutrition assistance programs expressly designed to help individuals incorporate more healthy foods into their diets while supporting local food systems. Farm to School legislation, was funded, serves a similar role. For further information on federal nutrition assistance programs, see the U.S. Hunger section.

What is organic food?
Organic food is produced by farmers who emphasize the use of renewable resources and the conservation of soil and water to enhance environmental quality for future generations. Organic meat, poultry, eggs and dairy products come from animals that are given no antibiotics or growth hormones. Organic food is produced without using most conventional pesticides; fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge; genetic engineering; or ionizing radiation. Before a product can be labeled “organic,” a Government-approved certifier inspects the farm where the food is grown to make sure the farmer is following all the rules necessary to meet USDA organic standards. Companies that handle or process organic food before it gets to your local supermarket or restaurant must be certified, too.

Is organic food better for you?
While some studies have found organically produced foods to have health benefits over conventional foods such as higher levels of cancer-fighting antioxidants and higher content of certain nutrients, much research remains to be done in this area, and the USDA makes no claims that organically produced food is safer or more nutritious than conventionally produced food. What we do know, however, is that eating organic food means eating food in a more wholesome form than conventional food and with less undesirable additives. It also means eating food that has been grown with less environmental pollutants, which also has implications for human health.