The importance of nutritional education
What constitutes ‘good’ nutrition can sometimes get a little confusing, particularly when the words ‘nutrition’ and ‘diet’ can be closely linked.
Nutrition education is the process of teaching the science of nutrition – what your body needs, why you need it, and where you can get it.1 A ‘good’ diet, for example, is going to be one that works for your goals. If your goal is weight loss, and you go on a very low-calorie diet (VLCD) of around 600-800 calories a day, you are likely to achieve your weight loss goal. This would make it good in the literal sense, but in reality, these diets are very likely to not have enough substance in them to deliver the required levels of daily nutrients that your body needs. This is why a good diet, is not necessarily the same thing as good nutrition.
What makes good nutrition?
Good nutrition is quite simply consuming the foods your body needs to deliver the optimal amount of vitamins, minerals, nutrients, carbohydrates, protein, fats and water. Essentially, it’s a balanced, healthy living diet.
Why is it important to educate yourself about nutrition?
The British Nutrition Foundation lists a number of key objectives, which all demonstrate the importance of education yourself regarding nutrition:2
1. To help individuals recognise that food is a basic requirement of life and should be enjoyed
We need food to live. It’s as simple as that. There are so many conflicting messages about food from the moment we enter childhood and what to eat to look good is at the heart of many of them. What’s really important though, is to educate yourself on what to eat to feel good, and to be healthy. It’s a nice side effect that these foods will often keep you looking good too.3
2. To help individuals develop an understanding of the underlying scientific principles for nutrition
It’s all well and good saying that certain foods are healthy and nutritious, but why is this? When you start to understand the science, you will be better informed and hopefully more willing to fill your body with nutritious foods rather than those that have no nutritional value. Science has shown that protein, for example, is needed for every cell in the body to function, grow and repair itself.3
3. To enable individuals to demonstrate and apply appropriate knowledge of concepts and principles when making food choices
No one can force you what to eat, or what to avoid, but proper education puts you in a position to make an informed decision. If you know studies have shown that vitamin C may help keep your immune system strong and better able to fight off certain illnesses,4, you’re more inclined to look for sources of vitamin C. If you’ve learnt that certain foods such as oranges contain high levels of Vitamin C, you’re in an informed position to choose to snack on an orange, rather than, say, a chocolate bar.
Listen to your body
We have an inbuilt immune system and our bodies will tell us when we are lacking something it needs. We just need to learn to listen. Sometimes this is obvious. If we are thirsty, we know we are probably dehydrated, for example. Food cravings do not always mean we are deficient in something though. Studies have shown, for example, that too little, or poor-quality sleep can disturb the hormones that regulate hunger, making you more likely to intensify your desire for high-energy, high-sugar foods, such as chocolate.5 Certain moods can also cause you to crave certain foods, with negative moods being shown to increase the desire for ‘comfort’ foods, for example.6
Discover what works for you
Although food cravings can indicate a deficiency, research has concluded that most of the time, they do not.7 This is no real surprise when you think about it, as you generally crave foods with little to no nutritional value. Far more people will crave cake and crisps than a lettuce. Good nutrition is not necessarily a one size, fits all approach. Of course, in an ideal world, we would only consume what our bodies need, but it would be a miserable existence if we avoid all the situations where this simply isn’t going to happen – birthday cakes, overindulging at Christmas, etc. These may not be the most nutritional virtuous activities, but the benefits something like meeting a friend for a drink can bring to our mental health can’t be overlooked either. As with most things in life, it’s all about balance, finding a way that suits you and if you ‘slip up’ then do it knowingly. Don’t beat yourself up about it and try to make a better choice for your nutrition next time.