Nutrition education is more important than ever because there is a great need for it now. The rates of Americans with chronic illnesses like heart disease, cancer and obesity are steadily rising, yet all of these conditions can be reversed with proper nutrition practices. Combined with adequate exercise and stress management, the ultimate goal of optimal health and wellbeing can be achieved. However, many people still face the risks of debilitating diseases and poor mental health such as depression and anxiety (Seaward, 2016).
The role of the nutrition educator is to successfully change the behaviors of people, from making unwise decisions to wise ones. Our food choices not only affect us, they affect our future generations as well as the health of the planet. Big Ag and food corporations are profiting enormously off the population’s misinformed food choices at the cost of our planet and all its inhabitants. Chemicals that are known to be toxic to the environment, animals and people are still being used as pesticides and fertilizers today. Plastic packaging and to-go food containers and utensils go straight to the landfill after one-time use. Processed foods in non-biodegradable packaging make shipping and distribution easy, which causes immense carbon emissions year after year.
The result is that we are left with tough choices. Ad campaigns and marketing fill the media channels, bombarding us with mixed messages on a daily basis. We are working harder and longer hours than previous generations from a few decades ago. We carry more varied responsibilities and are constantly plugged into our technology devices. Eating out is very hard to avoid as it is strongly tied to convenience, our modern culture and social rituals, derailing us from being motivated and having enough time to prepare food at home.
The answer to these problems lies in our own hands. By empowering people to choose organic foods and making their own meals at home, they decrease the likelihood of type II diabetes and being overweight. We can reduce our carbon footprint, save money and keep an optimal weight, which leads us to a sense of accomplishment and therefore, more happiness.
Theories are invaluable to nutrition education as it helps understand why people do what they do (Contento, 2015). The human mind is complex with many factors dynamically affecting one another in shaping their understanding of the world and of themselves. In order to yield successful results in behavior change, the educator should know all the determinants of the audience’s health behavior in question. Theories are used to learn how to work with the audience’s determinants and how to shape their behavior change. Theories of motivation like the health belief model, theory of planned behavior and social cognitive theory have been used successfully to achieve desired behavior change amongst various groups and settings.
The DESIGN procedure is used to create a strategic plan to effectively propel behavior change. Each step of the method is intentional in laying down the foundation of the plan. Upon deciding on the desired behavior change, all determinants of the health behavior should be known, then an appropriate theory must be chosen to use for the structure of the plan so that it is clear what determinants will be measured and how they can be measured. Next is to choose the activities in which the behavior change can take place, such as cooking classes or distributing educational posters. These plans are for generating action in making the behavior change. Finally, the last step is to evaluate the entire procedure to determine if the behavior change was made.
There are key factors that can predict whether an audience is going to be willing to make lifestyle changes or not, such as if they view the benefits of the behavior change to be more valuable than not making the change and staying the same as they are. Their perceived level of support should also be high enough, and their level of self-efficacy has to be high enough to even begin the process of changing. There are endless other factors that could potentially halt the process of behavior change, and so the nutrition educator has to be prepared to meet those barriers with effective educational activities. However, with the right plan, the participants can triumph and accomplish the desired behavior change.
For example, take the audience as a group of adults from the baby boomer generation who are at risk of getting type II diabetes. The behavior change that is sought after is to reduce their intake of sugar. Just the idea of taking something away that the participants highly value can be met with resistance, yet implementing effective educational activities can increase the awareness and motivation of the participants. After assessing the audience’s determinants and whether they are ready and willing, a series of activities can be introduced to the group.
The activities should target the determinants of the audience’s personal beliefs and attitudes. Although the audience may already have some awareness that sugar is “bad” for them, they may need more clear indicators of why it is so detrimental to their health. Motivation can be boosted by showing how diabetes can affect their interpersonal and intrapersonal values, such as playing with their grandchildren or preserving their dignity as independent adults. With the motivation in place, specific educational goals can then be met.
In this case, group cooking classes would provide new practical skills they could use and learn new sugar-free snack recipes to practice at home. They can also partake in nutrition classes where they learn about the benefits of alternative sweeteners, as well as examining real-life examples of the reality of life with type II diabetes, like a debilitated physical condition and reliance on expensive medication.
On the flipside, a healthy lifestyle habit like regular exercise can be promoted by having the participants start a weekly walking group which provides grounds for new friendships formed over shared health goals. As exercise also triggers feelings of wellbeing, it could reduce the cravings for sweet foods. Another activity that can facilitate the behavior change is hosting regular potluck dinners to give the participants a chance to put their new cooking skills to the test and to inspire each other to cook and enjoy foods that are sugar-free and nutrient-dense. The communal aspect of group learning is another important cause for behavior change.
In conclusion, the DESIGN procedure is an effective tool for behavior change that is backed by scientific evidence and therefore should be utilized for health education.
Contento, I. R. (2015). Nutrition education: linking research, theory, and practice. Burlington, MA: Jones & Bartlett Learning
Plamondon, C., & Sinha, J. (2014). The Plastic Problem. Retrieved April 13, 2017, from https://www.lifewithoutplastic.com/store/the_plastic_problem#.WPA_CVPys_N
Seaward, B. L. (2016). Essentials of managing stress. (4th ed.). Jones and Bartlett Learning.