Understanding how what you eat affects your health

How what you eat affects your health

It’s World Health Day, so let’s take a look at one of the fundamental factors in our health and wellbeing: food.

At first glance it might seem that the equation between what we eat and how healthy we are is a simple one. You just eat healthier, right?

Well, we sat down with two of Charles Sturt University’s (CSU’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 in CSU’s School of Exercise Science, Sport and Health, outlined just some of the interrelated influences on the food we eat.

“For individuals, food involves a complex system of many different factors interacting. It is 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 at CSU, 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 (people students may well work with after they graduate), 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 Mrs Crawford 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 your 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, say, 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. And 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 recently. 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.”

 Dr Samuelson also drew attention to the wider contexts that affect our food choices.

“We exist in broader economic, environmental and food production contexts, which can impact upon 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 in general would have a greater impact over the longer term.

“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 Indigenous 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 hopefully have significant benefits for those communities over generations.”

Future food professionals

So helping people understand more about the impact of diet on their health and wellbeing is incredibly important. That’s where professionals trained in food and nutrition come in. Mrs Crawford 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 can 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, but also having the capacity to, say, read and understand food labels and other information about food in the public realm. While food literacy includes things like cooking, sourcing ingredients and so on, as well as teaching people – in schools, in families and across the health professions – about the links between the food on the plate and where it comes from.

“There’s a lot to explore, and we give students in our undergraduate degree and postgraduate course the opportunity to choose areas they are interested in to study during their studies, and make the connections between different areas in the field.”

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 Dr Samuelson 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, if you like. From growing, transportation and processing through to preparing and cooking, we will need people with the skills and knowledge to innovate around food as the food system adapts to both feed a growing population and become more sustainable.”