Making Nutrition Education Practical

Every recipe intended for presentation must be pretested.

Patricia B. Mutch is an assistant professor of home economics at Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan.


"THE WAY TO a man's heart is through his stomach," says the familiar proverb. 1977 finds the church applying this sage advice to the physical and spiritual health of its members and to evangelistic outreach to the community through various methods of nutrition education, including cooking schools. This emphasis on nutrition can provide us with unusual opportunities, because nutrition is a topic of universal interest. However, sometimes we find our efforts to improve the diet of others have dis appointing results. Many members and potential members have been "turned off" by nutrition advice and education. Ellen G. White in Testimonies, volume 2, pages 384-387, describes the unfortunate situation that may arise when unwise statements or efforts concerning health reform are made. What can be done to make nutrition education more effective and avoid alienating those we seek to reach?

First, we must recognize that nutrition is not a cut-and-dried topic. Much of what we know about nutrition is continually being updated by new research findings, so it is a subject that always represents the "state of the art" rather than absolutes. Furthermore, every person is an individual biochemically, just as their hair, eyes, and personality differ. Therefore, no one dietary pattern will be right for everyone. In The Ministry of Healing, pages 319 and 320, is described the need for broad principles to prevail: "It is impossible to make an unvarying rule to regulate everyone's habits, and no one should think himself a criterion for all. Not all can eat the same things. Foods that are palatable and wholesome to one person may be distasteful, and even harmful, to an other." In group education, we should take care to convey broad guidelines for better health and not give the impression that there is only one way to eat properly.

Related to this is the all-too-common idea that there is a dietary "checklist" necessary for salvation. Almost no area of doctrine is so susceptible to legalism as is nutrition. Disgust at the extremely legalistic practices and advice of some leads others to think that diet is of no importance whatever. Both are wrong, physically and spiritually. We need to teach that good health through good diet promotes spiritual growth because it allows us to have a clear mind with which to communicate with God, and a healthy body with which to serve Him. But what we eat or fail to eat doesn't save us. A fundamental part of all health education must be a component that directs our minds to the saving grace of Christ, inviting us to surrender our will and appetite to Him. When that relationship is achieved, changes in diet, though slow, will come willingly out of love for Him. But changes in diet without that relationship are of no spiritual value and may even serve to drive away those who are interested.

Second, for balanced and scientifically sound education, we must clarify the relationship of diet to health. Health has been penned to be "a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity" (World Health Organization, 1970). Therefore, nutrition education should direct the hearer to more "healthful" diets. Any dietary proposal that does not meet this test should not be used. This seems an obvious point, but upon reflection we recognize that often diets that purport to be "healthful" really are not. Furthermore, we observe, from the definition, that true health is more than not being sick. It is an optimal state of being. This is in harmony with God's plan for the restoration of man (John 10:10) and with inspired counsel: "In teaching health principles, keep before the mind the great object of reform—that its purpose is to secure the highest development of body and mind and soul." —Counsels on Diet and Foods, p. 457.

Two levels of nutritional requirements exist: minimal and optimal. As individuals, each of us has a unique "minimum" nutrition requirement. This minimum level is what is needed to prevent deficiency symptoms. Advice given for groups of individuals must allow for this variability, and requires a margin of safety in order to accommodate both high and low requirements. Also, advice needs to direct the hearer to optimal nutrition intakes that promote optimal health. Optimal nutrient in takes, well above minimal, provide for body stores and reserves for fighting off disease and meeting emergency needs. For these reasons, the Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDA) in the United States and similar standards in other countries are used for nutrition education and the feeding of groups, ensuring optimal health and providing the needed margin of safety. The RDA standard should be used to assess the value of any dietary plan used in group education.

Whether one uses a broad food guide, such as the Four Food Groups, or similar general pattern, the soundest rule of thumb remains to eat a wide variety of foods in the amount that maintains the correct body weight. The Four Food Groups ensures this by teaching choices from the major classes of foods; since it is easy to learn, it is a useful tool, though not the only way to learn good nutrition.

Often the acid test of how healthful a diet really is will be the personal appearance of those who follow it. Attractive nutrition education is that done by vibrantly healthy individuals; the witness of pale, sickly, undernourished or overnourished instructors is counter productive.

A third factor that will influence nutrition-education success is the choice of material and recipes for presentation. Broad principles of nutrition are the best choice, because they do not rely on isolated facts or ideas. Not all research data is validated sufficiently to present to the public. Some information applies only to medical situations, and is not relevant to well individuals. In educating groups, there is always the danger that some will misinterpret what they hear, to their detriment. The same care exercised in presenting controversial theological issues to an audience should be used in presenting controversial nutrition issues. Sometimes, one is not sure whether an idea is correct. Even nutritionists with years of experience must sometimes reserve judgment on a nutrition theory until more facts are available. Probably the safest course is to remain with those broad principles in teaching nutrition that have received general consensus of opinion.

In this respect, we are counseled by Ellen White to educate in a progressive, step-by-step approach. Often in public-nutrition efforts, we go too quickly for our listeners. If we have grown up with health reform, a healthful diet may seem simple and obvious to us. But our hearers have grown up differently. Food habits are deeply ingrained in family custom and culture, and change will come slowly. "If you err, let it not be in getting as far from the people as possible, for then you cut the thread of your influence and can do them no good." —Ibid., p. 211. We must always bear in mind how difficult change is, both for the individual with established taste preferences, and for the family accustomed to their usual meal patterns.

The selection of practical ideas is crucial. Specific food directions useful in the nineteenth century may no longer be appropriate with today's technology. The Pure Food and Drug Law of 1906 vastly improved the safety and sanitation of our food supply. Pasteurization of dairy products was not mandatory until the 1930's. Today we are also blessed with a year-round array of fruits and vegetables that was unknown to our forefathers.

Also, time-consuming recipes do not find wide acceptance in the United States, particularly with the working homemaker. We are accustomed to preparing food in minutes rather than hours. Some techniques, such as learn ing to make bread or prepare homemade meat substitutes, though useful under certain situations and enjoyable for many, are not essential to adequate diet. The availability of whole-grain breads is widespread, and the commercial meat analogs offer a ready bridge to the homemaker accustomed to meat recipes. We may raise a barrier to acceptance by the busy mother if we imply these methods are needed for good nutrition. The income level of the audience should be considered. Gourmet recipes or exotic dishes are not possible for low-income families. Sometimes we give the impression in cooking schools that one must have a blender to be well-nourished, though in actuality a family can do very well in food preparation without this convenient device.

Perhaps most important is the selection of palatable and easy-to-follow recipes and menus. This is the most frequently overlooked factor in a successful cooking school or public dinner. What may taste good to our tastes, adapted to a meatless diet, may taste terrible to our hearers. Many en tree mixtures, for instance, represent a totally new and strange food, and some times they are heavy, or poorly seasoned. One way to avoid this pitfall is to have every recipe intended for public presentation pretested and approved by a recipe committee. Have nonvegetarians try out the dish. This is also an ideal time to evaluate the nutritional value of recipes and to eliminate those that are exclusively high in total fat, cholesterol, or refined sugar. In this connection, nutritional inaccuracies often creep in when we substitute for white sugar large quantities of dates, raisins, brown sugar, or honey. Al though most of these are "natural" sugars, it is sugar to the body all the same. Fructose, or fruit sugar, is metabolized slightly differently than glucose, but both are present in white sugar and "natural" sugars, and calorically they are the same. All sweeteners should be used in moderation, and many recipes can be reduced substantially in sugar with little effect on flavor. Carob, often freely used instead of chocolate, is an other food high in sugar.

Calculating Nutrient Content

A useful guide to nutritional values of recipes or menus is the USDA Hand book No. 456, Nutrient Values of American Foods, which gives data for more than 2,400 food items in household measures. It can help determine whether a "health" recipe is really any more healthful than what it replaces. Nutrition labels on meat analogs and many other packages are also valuable in assessing its nutrient content. The food companies will supply data on their products upon request, as well. The ability to calculate nutrient content and compare to other recipes or the Recommended Dietary Allowances is a fundamental and useful skill for the nutrition teacher. For example, many "entree" recipes are too low in protein content to qualify for the term. A recipe intended to replace meat in the diet should contain at least eight to ten grams of protein per serving (meat usually contains eighteen to twenty-two grams/serving). If it does not, then it should be referred to as a starch dish, for that is what it probably is. Once a recipe has been analyzed for nutrient content, passes the approval committee, and appears to be a practical one, it is suitable for public-nutrition education and probably will be well-received. Placing some nutrient in formation with the recipe is helpful also in educating.

Involvement of Learner Mandatory in Cooking Schools

A frequently ignored learning principle in cooking schools is that of involvement of the learner. Without involvement, a cooking school becomes primarily entertainment, in which much hard work is done by the teachers, with little learning achieved by the hearers. Nutrition education may well be entertaining, but more will be accomplished if the audience learns and applies the principles to their personal eating habits. Making at-home practice assignments of recipes seen in the school, with share-and-compare opportunities at the next meeting, is one way to get class members involved and to help new ideas seem feasible.

Another workable method is to teach church members how to prepare several basic meals, then organize them into teams who will invite the new or potential members into their homes to help prepare, a vegetarian meal, and then share the meal in a warm, social atmosphere. This has the dual advantage of getting church members involved and also of establishing friendships between them and the learners, forming the basis for witnessing and Bible-study efforts in the future. Nutrition education in the informal atmosphere of the home, where the actual preparation can be experienced, can be highly effective.

As plans for all these endeavors are laid, who can assist and lead out? Many churches lack leadership for health education, and the time demands on the pastor and his wife may prevent their taking this role. Also, greater involvement by the lay members would be desirable. Two sources of leadership may be tapped. The most knowledgeable leader would be a professional Seventh-day Adventist dietitian, but in many churches such a person is unavailable. In every union in the North American Division, however, there is a union re source dietitian, who is a volunteer consultant for nutrition education. This person is known to the union health secretary, and can often put the church in touch with a nearby professional die titian, who may be able to serve at least as an adviser. Also, physicians, nurses, health educators, and other health professionals whose education includes some nutrition or who have educated themselves in nutrition may be avail able and willing to lead out.

The second source of leadership is the home nutrition instructor. This is an individual who has completed a thirty-clockhour course in nutrition and demonstration techniques, and is certified by the General Conference Department of Health to be qualified to give cooking schools. The course includes basic nutrition concepts, and techniques of food demonstration and organizing cooking schools. Many churches have sent teams of two or three competent and interested lay members, men or women, to take this course when it is offered at a college or hospital nearby. The General Conference Department of Health some times can offer the course for conference workers' meetings and camp meetings. If no course has been offered recently, the union resource dietitian may be able to plan or arrange for one.

In turn, the certified home nutrition instructor can train other members of the church to be assistants for the cooking school and follow-up programs. Well-organized follow-up to maintain interest and to continue to teach is needed to implement the idea of "progressive" diet reform. Potluck church meals, for instance, are an excellent teaching tool if they are organized to be representative of good nutrition. Holding advanced classes in the home or using a buddy system, particularly with the new members or one trying to achieve dietary change, are effective ideas. All follow-up should be tied to the invitation to have a growth relationship with Christ, whether through evangelistic efforts or personal study.

The fascinating topic of nutrition can be used with great effectiveness to reach and help people spiritually, if the concepts discussed above are used. Patience and time must be given to its study and to the changes that will be made. As a major segment of the health-reform message, improving nutrition should continue to be emphasized both within the church and in outreach efforts. We may always appropriately claim the promise in James 1:5, "If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not."

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Patricia B. Mutch is an assistant professor of home economics at Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan.

October 1977

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