At first glance it might seem that the question of what you eat affects your health is a simple one. You just eat healthier, right? Well, we sat down with two of Charles Sturt University’s academic experts in the field of health and nutrition to discuss it, and found that it’s a lot more complicated – and fascinating – than that.
A complex system of food factors
Ruth Crawford, lecturer in nutrition and dietetics, outlined just some of the interrelated influences on what you eat affects your health.
“For individuals, food involves a complex system of many different factors interacting. It’s more than just nutrition; for instance, food is important in families, in celebrations, in religious contexts and in traditions. Then there are the emotional and psychological aspects of food. Not to mention questions of production, education and policy. And none of that is about the fundamental need to meet your basic nutritional needs.”
Dr Marissa Samuelson, fellow lecturer in nutrition and dietetics, feels that understanding this complexity is key for professionals to be able to work effectively with a range of people and communities.
“We encourage students to reflect on their own thinking about food. To challenge received opinion and to reflect on what they think they know. One of the best ways to better understand other people, their circumstances and why they do what they do in relation to food is to develop a keen critical-thinking facility.”
The wider food context
The range of issues and circumstances relating to food and nutrition are also linked to other social and political factors, as Ruth points out.
“Social determinants of health play a part in food too. So, we see in disadvantaged individuals – those with lower levels of education, lower income and so on – a direct correlation with health over the long term, a great deal of which is about nutrition. We see from research that people with poorer social determinants are likely to eat less fruit and vegetables and more likely to eat high-energy, low-nutritional value, processed foods. And they are more likely to be overweight and obese. This is influenced also by factors such as availability, marketing, education policy and so on.
“Take for example the idea of imposing a sugar tax, which has got a lot of attention. This is not the simple solution it may first appear. The complicated set of factors and social determinants around high-calorie sugary food mean that a sugar tax could actually be detrimental to the people it is purportedly trying to help, relating to access to different foods and financial considerations.”
Focusing on long-term health
Marissa also drew attention to the wider contexts that affect our food choices.
“We exist in broader economic, environmental and food production contexts. This can impact on our ability to pursue the seemingly simple idea of eating healthier. We don’t just eat what we eat because of what we know. We don’t always behave based on knowledge.
“Major political parties sometimes put it down to individual choice, but we know food companies are very powerful lobbying organisations. Plus, we don’t have a really up-to-date food and nutrition policy for Australia. Health policy tends to focus on obvious, immediately visible benefits like building new hospitals, whereas an integrated approach to food, nutrition and health would have a greater longer term impact.
“So we hope our graduates will advocate for these important ideas and innovate in programs that help communities empower themselves to make nutritional decisions. For instance, the Strong Women, Strong Babies, Strong Culture program works with First Nations women in the Northern Territory to promote health and illness prevention in line with community and family practices, through focuses on better diet, education and antenatal care. This will have significant benefits for those communities over generations.”
Future food professionals
So helping people understand what they eat affects their health is incredibly important. That’s where professionals trained in food and nutrition come in. Ruth sees a lot of potential for these workers in the future, wherever they want to focus their efforts.
“There is work to be done on how we feed the growing world population. How we reduce food waste. How we treat the millions of malnourished people in the world as much as we help the obese. We need to get better at producing the food we eat. More innovative in how we process it to avoid waste, all being mindful of preserving foods’ nutritional value. So we need a multi-sector approach and people who understand and work across a range of sectors.
“Two areas that are increasingly important in terms of a long-term impact are nutritional and food literacy. Nutritional literacy is not just about knowledge. It’s also having the capacity to read and understand food labels and other information about food in the public realm. Food literacy includes things like cooking, sourcing ingredients, and teaching people about the links between food and where it comes from.”
Better health for all
The result is well-trained professionals using their skills and knowledge to help us all develop a healthier approach to food. And Marissa sees opportunities for those professionals to make a difference across a wide range of careers.
“There will be opportunities at all points of the food system – from paddock to plate. From growing, transportation and processing through to preparing and cooking, we’ll need professionals with skills and knowledge to innovate around food as the food system adapts to feed a growing population and become more sustainable.
“There’s a lot to explore. We give students in our undergraduate and postgraduate course the opportunity to choose areas they’re interested in and make connections between different areas in the field.”