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Traditional nutrition education is facing opportunities and challenges as never before. Today's consumers who are interested in improving or protecting their health through diet are faced with a multitude of often conflicting nutrition messages. To help consumers discriminate among these messages, nutrition educators must use strategies that enable them to be heard above competing information.
Because nutrition education falls within the realm of practice of all dietetics practitioners, The American Dietetic Association (ADA) recognizes the imperative to help educate consumers. The 1996-99 Strategic Framework of The American Dietetic Association identifies the public initiative as one of the three major initiatives for the Association and the profession. This initiative builds on ADA's long and rich history of involvement in nutrition education for the public and reinforces ADA's commitment to influencing the public's access to sound science-based food and nutrition information. It acknowledges the need for resource development and creative new programs to reach and influence consumers.
A focus on influencing the consumer is the key to effective nutrition education. In setting new directions for nutrition education, the Association realizes that nutrition education programs must go beyond merely providing information. To be truly effective, programs must incorporate methods for actually creating behavior change, in order to bridge the widening gap between consumers' awareness of nutrition and their actual practices. In designing programs, it is critical to realize that this gap may be narrowed by granting greater attention to delivering nutrition information in a form that consumers can actually use to improve their diets.
It is the position of The American Dietetic Association that nutrition education is essential for the public to achieve and maintain optimal nutritional health. Nutrition education should be an integral component of all health promotion, disease prevention, and health maintenance programs, through incorporation into all appropriate nutrition communication, promotion, and education systems.
CHALLENGES AND OPPORTUNITIES IN DEVELOPING EFFECTIVE NUTRITION EDUCATION
Nutrition education may be defined as any set of learning experiences designed to facilitate the voluntary adoption of eating and other nutrition-related behaviors conducive to health and well-being (1). Behaviors are identified according to the needs, perceptions, motivations, and desires of the target audience, as well as from national nutrition and health goals and science-based research.
Although it is ideally supplemented with other approaches to improving the diet, nutrition education should be seen as a foundation for important public health advances in nutrition (2). Because persons control their own nutrition and food-related behaviors, nutrition education to support individual behavior change must occur before success can be achieved with broader nutrition efforts (3).
When starting nutrition education efforts, it is also essential to recognize the need for food security, which may be defined as access at all times by all people to adequate food for an active and healthful life (4). Nutrition professionals should support efforts to combat hunger, allow for self-sufficiency, and support environmental and economic sustainability (4). When food insecurity is a factor, nutrition messages may be limited and the affect on nutrition status controlled more by the situation than by the design and delivery of the nutrition message (5).
Just as providing adequate food underlies the concept of providing adequate nutrition, education about food and food choices must be an integral component of nutrition education. The Association has several key education philosophies that focus on food choices to foster proper nutrition (6), including:
* The focus should be on total diet rather than on individual foods;
* There are no good or bad foods;
* The keys to a good diet are balance, variety, and moderation; and
* A positive approach to foods should be emphasized.
Opportunities for nutrition education may be viewed on a continuum that ranges from the mere provision of information to actual intervention to create behavior change). At one end is general nutrition information that exists with the primary purpose of meeting consumer interests. Much of the nutrition information that consumers are exposed to via the media fits into this category. Nutrition communication may be viewed as any communication designed to facilitate the objective of nutrition education (ie, informing consumers of the role of a specific food in a healthful diet) (3). Nutrition promotion, a term increasingly used in regard to nutrition education efforts sponsored by the federal government, can be defined as the translation of science-based dietary guidance into consumer-oriented messages that facilitate the appropriate eating behaviors (7). At the right end of the continuum is nutrition intervention, which has been described as planned change to empower individuals, groups, and populations to make healthful food choices (personal communication, Rebecca Mullis, PhD, RD, 1996). Integrating consistent messages and …