Opinion: Nutrition Literacy for the Health Literate

Stefania Velardo wrote . . . . .

A recent discussion with a family member brought to light a new diet plan that had endorsed by her personal trainer. As we engaged in discussion, she excitedly recounted the list of food inclusions within the new diet; for example, she could eat white table sugar and saturated fat aplenty, amidst other appealing food choices. Yes to baked potatoes with lavish lashings of butter. Yes to coffee with sugar and cream.

As the conversation progressed I became more intrigued as she out-lined an extensive list of food exclusions, including whole grains and green leafy vegetables.

This provided a great contrast to her previous diet plan, which emphasized lean protein, limited fat and dairy, and an abundance of raw vegetables.

When I questioned her about this apparent contradiction, and the fact that this plan undermined well established government dietary guidelines that promote a wide variety of foods, she assured me that this diet was based on concrete scientific evidence and further legitimized through a worldwide movement of online posts, blogs, and forums. This is not the first occasion on which I have engaged in conversations that elicit differing views of scientific nutrition recommendations.

One woman recently testified, “I read that I should be eating rice malt syrup instead of honey.” whereas another person pondered, “Should I be eating a Paleo Diet?” Such conversations reflect a healthism discourse that emphasizes the need to know about our food and take responsibility for making the right choices. But what happens when the right choices are confusing?

A key tenet of nutrition literacy is one’s ability to access, understand, and use nutrition information in ways that promote health. Whereas low nutrition literacy presents a barrier to healthy eating, less is known about the challenges faced by supposedly health-literate individuals who are health conscious and possess a basic level of nutrition knowledge.

In revisiting the opening example, it is important to note that the family member in question is an enthusiastic, fit woman in her thirties who boasts high levels of literacy and numerous university degrees. On paper she demonstrates a strong ability to access, understand, and use nutrition information and resources in a health-promoting way. She cares about nutrition; yet her ideas clearly contradict government advice. She is arguably health literate, but to what extent?

This is not a new problem by any means. Health and dieting are profitable markets that continue to expand globally. Over the years we have witnessed countless pervasive weight-control myths and fads along with various products and lifestyles promoted within a health discourse. Yet the proliferation of the Internet and a surge of short courses, inflated credentials, and pseudo-expert blogs arguably make it more difficult to educate consumers about what constitutes professional nutrition advice. The existence of multiple stakeholders with competing interests means that consumers are confronted with increasing amounts of contradictory nutrition information through the media. It is not surprising, then, that nutrition messages are often a key source of confusion and uncertainty for individuals.

Nutrition practitioner and health educators have a clear role in promoting and disseminating credible, reliable nutrition information and resources to the public. More than ever, our roles must extend to challenging art increasing wave of pseudo-science while advocating for sound nutritional guidance so that people can develop positive relationships with a wide range of foods. High levels of critical nutrition literacy are clearly required to discern credible information based on rigorous scientific evidence from personal testimonials endorsed by so-called professionals. Developing these skills among different population groups, including the supposedly health literate, is essential at a time when many consumers feel confused, skeptical, and helpless.

Source: Journal of Nutrition Education and Behaviour