Community nutrition is the process of helping individuals and groups develop healthy eating habits in order to promote wellness and prevent disease.
Americans increasingly eat a diet that is high in saturated fat and refined sugars and lacking in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Poor dietary habits are linked to health conditions such as obesity , diabetes, heart disease , strokes, and some forms of cancer . With more than half of Americans classified as overweight or obese, organizations including the American Dietetic Association strive to increase awareness about the importance of a healthy diet and exercise .
The goal of community nutrition is to educate individuals and groups so that they adopt healthy eating habits. Dieticians and nutritionists work with many other health care professionals in promoting improved community nutrition. Their efforts emphasize a preventive approach in educating individuals in how a change in dietary habits will reduce the risk of illness. Community nutrition focuses on all age groups. The groups targeted range from babies to pregnant women to older adults. For example, a young pregnant woman may not realize how poor eating habits affect her developing fetus or she may be unaware of the importance of breastfeeding. Older adults may lose interest in eating due to loneliness, inability to prepare meals, or a physical condition such as difficulty chewing. Individuals with diabetes may not understand the need to control their blood glucose levels through diet as well as medication.
Obesity is an issue for many age groups. Causes include lack of physical education programs in schools and an overly busy lifestyle for adults. The availability of fast food and “supersized” items are regarded positively because of their cost and convenience. Their accessibility and convenience often prompts people to make unhealthy food choices. In a school cafeteria, for example, a child may bypass a salad in favor of fries and a soda. A moviegoer may choose to buy a tub of buttered popcorn because the purchase price includes a free refill.
Community nutrition programs attempt to change attitudes so that a diet rich in fruit, vegetables, and whole grains is more appealing than diet high in fats and sugars. While sweet, high fat foods may be an occasional treat, community nutrition emphasizes a lifetime of routine healthy eating.
Since the objective of community nutrition is for people to adopt healthy eating habits, there are usually no reasons that a person would be prevented from participating in a community nutrition program. Some individuals such as those with diabetes who participate in community nutrition programs may have special dietary needs.
Community nutrition programs are administered by organizations such as public health agencies, public schools, residential facilities for the elderly, hospitals, social service organizations, and health-care systems. Programs range from lunch programs for school children and senior citizens to health fairs and “5-A-Day” public awareness promotions that urge the public to eat least five fruits and vegetables every day.
Health care professionals may develop a community nutrition project aimed at groups such as new immigrants or the elderly. They may implement an existing project such as a food distribution program. Nutritionists and dietitians may work as part of a team with representatives from other groups such as businesses, schools, or churches. Sometimes nutrition programs are linked with exercise programs.
Participants may need to meet eligibility requirements for some programs. These projects may be limited to people of a certain age or income level. Some community nutrition programs, such as lunch programs, are ongoing. Others such as a diabetic cooking class have an established duration. Costs for programs vary. There is often no cost for public agency programs; however, classes offered by a health maintenance organization may not be covered by insurance. Community nutrition projects may also be operated by groups such as social service agencies and churches.
Community nutrition addresses health conditions such as obesity and economic conditions such as poverty, which limit access to healthy food, lack of nutritional information, and cultural traditions that promote unhealthy eating. Community nutrition programs strive to improve eating habits through food banks that distribute food as needed. Some cities have monthly food distribution programs. Distributors provide discounted packages that contain healthy foods such as meat, eggs, vegetables, fruit, bread and rice.
Shasta County community nutrition
The California County Public Health Department's community nutrition projects provide an example of the scope of available nutrition services. In 2005, Shasta County projects included obesity prevention for children, a food security coalition, breastfeeding education, and promotion of 5-A-Day Week and National Nutrition Month.
Obesity prevention efforts include working with schools to develop healthier choices to be offered in their cafeterias and to aid them offering healthier alternatives in their fundraising efforts. Food security pertains to a person's access to healthy food. The public health department also works with other agencies to reduce hunger in the county. Another county goal is to help mothers overcome barriers to breastfeeding.
The promotional campaigns bring together registered dietitians, health professionals, and community organizations. They work with the county to plan activities such as Get Healthy Shasta. The event, held in a park, features entertainment and activities to promote healthy eating, physical activity, and wellness.
Shasta County's projects are tied to Healthy Eating 2010, a county strategic plan with goals that include increasing the number of residents who eat five servings of fruit and vegetables. The objective is to raise that number from 26% in 2002 to 40% by December of 2010.
Preparation for participating in a community nutrition program varies from program to program. An individual with a medical condition may need to consult a physician before entering a program. Registration is required for some community nutrition projects, and an assessment interview is often required to determine eligibility to participate in some programs.
Some programs require follow-up classes or meetings. A nutritionist may do an assessment interview to determine whether or not a program is effective. Surveying is one method of determining whether participants understood concepts and helps determine if they have adopted healthier eating habits.
In addition, some weight-loss programs offer maintenance classes. Health care providers may offer ongoing support groups or cooking classes that feature healthy recipes.
Complications in community nutrition programs may be demonstrated by a lack of change in the eating habits and food choices made by participants.
The anticipated outcome of community nutrition programs is that participants will eat healthy food on a regular basis. Improved health is another anticipated result. Some positive outcomes are related to educational efforts. Others are due to a change in behavior. For example, a young mother may recognize the benefits of breastfeeding. A diabetic individual may enjoy ethnic cooking classes and seek additional healthy ethnic recipes. An older adult may find companionship and healthy meals at a senior lunch program. Sometimes positive outcomes are the result of changes beyond an individual's control. When schools change cafeteria offerings and increase physical education requirements, improvements in diet and exercise may occur.
Community nutrition programs may fail because of inadequate funding, program cancellation, poor participation, cultural barriers between program personnel and clients, lack of consistent access to healthy food, and lack of desire on the part of individuals to change.
Community nutrition programs are often coordinated by registered dietitians and nutritionists. These health care professionals have bachelor degrees, and registered dietitians have been certified by the American Dietetic Association. In some states, licensing is required for these professions. Furthermore, some professionals have graduate degrees in specialty areas such as food safety, nutrition science, sports nutrition, or public health.
Hampl, Jeffrey S., Judith V. Anderson, and Rebecca Mullis. “The Role of Dietetics Professionals in Health Promotion and Disease Prevention.” Journal of the American Dietetic Association 102, no. 11 (November 2002): 1680.
“Value of School Nutrition Programs Touted at Hearing.” The Food Institute Report 11 (March 21, 2005): 11.
American Dietetic Association. 120 South Riverside Plaza, Suite 2000, Chicago, IL 60606-6995. (800) 877–1600. http://www.eatright.org.
Shasta County Public Health Department. 2650 Breslauer Way, Redding, CA 96001. (530) 225–5591. http://www.co.shasta.ca.us/Departments/PublicHealth/CommunityNutrition.
Society for Nutrition Education. 7150 Winton Drive, Suite 300, Indianapolis, IN 46268, (800) 235–6690. http://www.sne.org.