How to improve your knowledge of human nutrition and be able to make value judgements on issues affecting your health, lifestyle and food habits

Dear New Reader,

From time immemorial, humankind had been almost continually preoccupied with how to obtain food. There had been, in that long period of time, adverse conditions which caused severe food shortages. But in spite of them, human populations, being guided by experience, instinct and resourcefulness, succeeded in procuring foods that satisfied their body needs. The choice of those foods, throughout human history, had varied considerably between communities within and between countries. Those variations reflected the feeding patterns built up over periods of time, and indicated that habit and tradition are the major determinants of food patterns.

Many of the original food patterns still linger in many present-day societies, even though the factors which initially determined them had since disappeared. For example, the potato is still a major item in the Irish diet, just as the heavy pasta is in the Italian diet, although the original situations of hardship and deprivation had since gone. This implies that established food patterns are extremely powerful, and have sociological as well as psychological influences far above physiological requirements.

Nearly, every person has an opinion about what is good or bad food. Way back in 1566 it was widely believed that “Eggs long and white be nutritious much better than round”. (Our opinion about eggs has moved a long way from that, though.) In infancy opinion on food is already being formed. The little infant uses food as a  primary means of communication; it cries when hungry, frowns when any thing bitter is placed on its tongue, brightens up when glucose is poured into its mouth and cries when excess presence of food in the stomach causes it belly ache.

Opinion about food is obtained from diverse sources. These include the types of food eaten as children, school meals, family meals, grannies’ anecdotes, advice from school teachers and suggestions from peer groups, information gleaned from cookery books, government publications, supermarket pamphlets, food packet labels, television programmes, articles from magazines and newspapers, and advertisements. It seems clear that the extent to which we can make a correct choice of food depends on the accuracy of the information we get and our ability to interpret and comprehend that information. This fact has a powerful implication on the relationship between health and diet.

A majority of these primary nutrition information sources provide accurate information, but how do you, as one of the consumers regard them? You may assume that the supermarket pamphlets, which more often than not contain factual nutrition information, are produced by a group with vested interest in promoting their own brand, and thereby dismiss them. In the same vein, you may view the information on television as a form of entertainment, since more often than not it is intermixed with popular issues of cooking and good food guides. How about the government pamphlets which are often excellently and accurately presented but fail to attract wide readership? Most of us human beings are often sceptical towards authoritarian pronouncements; and government pamphlets are arguably thought to be just those. So, the problem being as it is, where then do we turn to for credible nutrition information? We turn to scientists perhaps; but there are snags as we shall see below.

The knowledge of the amounts of each dietary nutrient a person needs daily has developed along side the scientific knowledge of food production, preparation, processing and storage. The advances in the knowledge have been attributed to agricultural scientists, agricultural economists, botanists, biochemists, physiologists, microbiologists, psychologists, some medical practitioners, nutritionists and dieticians. Results of the innumerable research studies conducted by these scientists on various aspects of nutrition and nutrition-related topics are usually hidden in the pages of obscure scientific journals which are tucked away in university and specialist libraries, almost inaccessible to the general public and, worse still, written in languages understood only by experts. There are available large tomes of texts on nutrition, but a majority of people find it boring or tedious to plough through a fat textbook from cover to cover. There is, obviously, the need to collect, collate and interpret this welter of nutrition information and bring it to the general public in a more mundane, readable and comprehensible form. The extent to which the general public can utilize this simplified information is dependent on its ability to understand the basic principles of nutrition. The broad assumption here is that a population endowed with an adequate back-ground knowledge in nutrition will be better equipped when it comes to making informed decisions on matters concerning the food they eat, in making alterations in their food habits and in understanding the relationship between diet, health and disease.

Having read so far, you are now beginning to see that there is a need for acquiring a fundamental knowledge of human nutrition.  This is particularly so at this present day and age when nutritional issues attract public attention and broad newspaper headlines. Some of you do remember the egg-and-salmonella issue which cost Edwina Currie her ministerial job during the Thatcher years and, of course, the present day carry-on about mad cow disease. Issues like these can be more broadly understood by persons with some basic understanding of nutrition.

Below are a few questions on human nutrition for you to think about.

1. Did you know that the body produces cholesterol to accomplish its normal functions? And yet we are told that cholesterol is bad for us.

2. Did you know why an extremely low fat diet could be harmful?

3. Did you know why an excessive intake of vitamin supplements can harm your health?

4. How about our psychological approach to certain foods?

5. Why is it that the issues of the “Mad Cow Disease” and GM foods are causing such a furore?

6. Can you make out much meaning from the nutritional information you find on supermarket food packets?

7. What do the following terms mean to you: calories, protein, amino acids, carbohydrates, vitamins, hormones and trace and major elements? What role do you think they perform in the body?

8. How does the body system process the food we eat?

9. Why is it necessary to pay attention to nutrition, particularly during pregnancy and early childhood?

10. What are the advantages and disadvantages of vegetarianism, and why do certain individuals suddenly abandon our omnivorous feeding habit and take to the herbivorous?

11. Did you know that nutrition influences the rate of at which we age?

If you already know the answers to the above questions, well, congratulations. If you don’t, never mind. Age and Nutrition provides articles which will help you improve your knowledge of human nutrition. By reading the articles you will be able, with time, to understand and discuss intelligently most aspects of human nutrition.
There are practical benefits you will derive by increasing your knowledge of human nutrition:

1. As a house keeper, you will be able to act as your family’s dietician, capable of selecting from the bewildering array of food product brands, those items which will satisfy the fundamental nutritional requirements of your family, and yet cut down on your weekly food bill.

2. As an adolescent, young man or young lady, you will be able to understand more fully the term “dieting” and its medical and psychological implications.

3. As a fully fledged adult, you will be able to appreciate more fully the dangers of indulging in excess consumption of good foods and beverages, including alcohol.

4. As a middle-aged or elderly person, you will know more about the insidious changes in body function in relation to ageing and the need for increased intake of certain dietary nutrients, including the mineral calcium.

5. For you as a nurse or a medical practitioner, a fire-side reading of down-loaded material on human nutrition may be a welcome pastime and a jolt to past memories. Besides, you may find some of the materials particularly interesting.

6. As a young person intending to take up cooking as a career, what will be better than getting more and better informed in human nutrition? The nutrition knowledge that you acquire will, surely, stand you in good stead when you embark on your chosen profession.

7. As a university student interested in the study of human nutrition, you will find some articles in Age and Nutrition useful during revision for your examinations. The structure of the articles will make it easy for you to absorb and digest the information therein; and this information will complement your lecture notes and, presumably, save you the trouble of ploughing through volumes of textbooks.

8. Finally, and this is very important, as an enterprising person, who has dreamt of some day becoming an author, how about writing a book entitled “The Nutritional Basis of Cooking” based on your newly acquired knowledge of nutrition? You will become famous, besides making a few thousand bucks. Knowledge generates power and wealth once it is converted into action. To bring nutrition knowledge to every home is a plausible idea; don’t you think so?

Yours sincerely, 
B. A. Ochia, BSc, MSc, PhD, Cert. Biol., MSB