Food is my job. As an academic dietitian and public health nutritionist I spend my time questioning why people eat what they eat, and thinking about what we can do to change behaviours. As a mum, I also spend a lot of time at home wondering why a 4-year-old and a 17-month-old eat what they eat!
Its nutrition and hydration week, which aims to highlight, promote and celebrate improvements in the provision of nutrition and hydration locally, nationally and globally. So this is an excellent opportunity to explore the many roles of food in public health.
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Food is life. We need nutrition and hydration for life and to maintain health.
Food is a thread that moves through every aspect of our life from the everyday to the special occasion.
I read somewhere that the origin of culture was when raw ingredients were cooked. The importance of this event was not so much in how food was prepared but in the organisation of individuals around meals and meal times.
Food has shifted populations and started wars; think of the thirst for sugar, tea and coffee (also known as the ‘hot drinks revolution of the eighteenth century’) and the impact that had on various countries and their populations.
Food is our culture and identity; it is an intrinsic description of who we are and where we come from. For example, I am a complex mixture of Persian dishes, Indonesian dishes and some Northern Irish wheaten bread and Tayto crisps.
Food is our comfort. That dish your mother made, it’s a warm familiar blanket; it evokes memories, both good and bad. It is a way in which we show others that we care for them and are thinking of them.
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Our social media feeds provide us with ‘food porn’, hands that whizz up magical results in seconds. Additionally, social media and the press provide us with self-styled food and nutrition 'experts' presenting us with spiralised courgette and clean eating advice.
Food continues to dominate our life and the public health agenda on a global scale.
The World Health Organization’s global targets for 2025 to improve maternal, infant and young child nutrition tackle a range of issues from obesity to stunting and wasting.
In this country we are familiar with the concept of our obesogenic environment; an environment in which calories are easily accessible and available and with little opportunity to expend that energy. In an attempt to tackle the obesity problem in this country our government will follow Mexico and introduce a sugar levy.
Despite the issues of over-nutrition and the seemingly endless opportunity to buy food, food poverty is a term we have become more familiar with. Despite it sounding like it belongs to another era, it’s a very real issue for a significant proportion of our population. Oxfam estimates that 500,000 people in the UK are now reliant on food parcels. Foodbanks provide nutrition to those who struggle to feed themselves and their families and have sadly experienced rapid growth in recent years, especially in the UK.
How can research help to address these global and local problems?
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This is an important step, supported by research. On this nutrition and hydration week, I am sure you will agree that there is still much to be done on this important and vast topic across many disciplines and on a global scale.