Incorporating Nutrition into your Curriculum
Assistant Clinical Professor of Nutrition Katie Ferraro, MPH, RD, CDE, discusses the lack of formal nutrition education for K-12 students and how you can incorporate nutrition into your curriculum.
Interest in food, nutrition and wellness is at an all time high. According to a recent Fortune Magazine survey, 77% of Americans say they are trying to eat healthier. And how are they doing so? By spending money! Marketdata Enterprises estimates that the US weight loss industry topped $64 billion in 2014. With all of this interest in eating right and feeling better, how can your educational institution capitalize on these healthy trends? There’s no easier way than to incorporate a nutrition course into your current curriculum.
Where is Nutrition Taught?
Although approximately one-third of America’s youth are overweight or obese, it may be surprising to learn that there is no K-12 nutrition curriculum benchmarks, guides or standards that are required across the country. While you may have learned about the four food groups or the food guide pyramid as part of your K-12 education, the reality is that many US students today exit primary and middle school with very limited knowledge of how to eat properly. This lack of formal nutrition education coupled with decreasing resources dedicated to physical education in schools leads to high school students who are poorly equipped to make food and activity decisions. High schools also have no requirements for nutrition and as such, the first time students are often exposed to nutrition as a field of study comes at the college or university level.
For success in a college-level introductory nutrition course, students should have a basic understanding of high school level chemistry, biology and math.
Many community colleges and four-year undergraduate institutions offer a standard “Introduction to Nutrition Science” course. These are usually 2 or 3 unit courses taught by a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN) or other nutrition professional with an advanced degree. Although a school may not have a full-fledged nutrition and/or dietetics program, degree, or major, the inclusion of an introductory nutrition course can augment other science-based offerings or provide valuable elective opportunities for areas of study such as kinesiology, pre-health, nursing or child development programs.
What is Essential for Introductory Nutrition?
Although students often wander into a nutrition course initially wondering about supplements or looking for a way to lose weight, great care should be taken by educators to establish solid foundations in nutrition science over fads and trends. For success in a college-level introductory nutrition course, students should have a basic understanding of high school level chemistry, biology and math. Being able to comprehend nutrient structure, physical anatomy and how to calculate percentages and compute food label math are essential for mastery of the earlier foundations of nutrition science.
Most introductory courses start out by linking the importance of good diet with optimal health. This leads into an introduction to nutrients, or the most basic components of foods. Once students have mastered the nutrients – carbohydrate, fats, proteins, vitamins and minerals – they have the toolset necessary to begin applying these to human life. Most courses progress by explaining the intricacies of food digestion, absorption and nutrient transport, followed by the important considerations of various nutrient needs throughout the lifecycle (from pregnancy to breastfeeding, infancy, childhood, adolescence and older adulthood). Depending upon the length of your teaching period and the learning objectives of your course, other areas of study include sports nutrition, hydration, diet and disease, food safety and food technology and global hunger and nutrition.
Laying Out Your Course
The Connect For Education Nutrition webtext (Understanding Nutrition and Well-Being) covers all of the major concepts required by an introductory level course for high school and two year or four year introductory nutrition students. The unique approach of this webtext is that it incorporates an applied method by teaching students how to apply the concepts of nutrition science to their own individual lives. Students learn not just about nutrients, but also about which foods to choose to maximize nutrients and the basics of healthy cooking to help them achieve personal health and food preparation goals. Although instructors are free to adapt the webtext as desired, the most comprehensive approach to utilizing this resource involves the following outline:
- Chapter 1 – The Science of Nutrition
- Chapter 2 – Planning a Healthy Diet
- Chapter 3 – Cooking Healthy Foo
- Chapter 4 – Nutrients
- Chapter 5 – The Physiology of Nutrition
- Chapter 6 – Nutrients in Food
- Chapter 7 – Metabolism
- Chapter 8 – Energy Balance and Weight Management
- Chapter 9 – Nutrition Throughout the Lifecycle
- Chapter 10 – Diet and Disease
- Chapter 11 – Sports Nutrition
- Chapter 12 – Nutrition and Behavioral Health
- Chapter 13 – Food Controversy and Trends
- Chapter 14 – Food Insecurity and Global Hunger
- Chapter 15 – Food Safety
Putting it All Together
Regardless of your type of educational institution, there is likely a place for nutrition curriculum. Everybody has to eat, and as such, you’re sure to come up with a rationale and an audience for such material. For more information on nutrition education curricula and lesson plans, check out Connect4Education’s “Understanding Nutrition and Well-Being” webtext at http://mywebtext.com/nutrition-textbook and the US Department of Agriculture’s list of additional resources available at https://fnic.nal.usda.gov/professional-and-career-resources/nutrition-education/curricula-and-lesson-plans.
 Kell, John. Lean times for the diet industry. Fortune Magazine http://fortune.com/2015/05/22/lean-times-for-the-diet-industry/