Ideas about nutrition vary widely throughout the world and even within each culture. Whereas many Eastern views about food are based on philosophies that go back thousands of years, Western nutrition is a comparatively young science; and because new studies are constantly bringing new information to the fore, we often seem to receive contradictory advice, opinions and claims. There are, however, a few basic and simple facts and these are backed up by substantial research: that diet plays a vital role in the growth and healthful functioning of the body; that food affects the way people look and feel; that nutrients have the power to prevent and treat disease; and that good nutrition not only helps people to live longer – it can help them to live better.
Nutrients may be defined as ingredients in food that can be used by the body for growth and maintenance of health. Carbohydrates and fibre, protein, fats, vitamins and minerals are all nutrients required in varying amounts by the body. Many myths and misconceptions exist about nutrients and their role in the body. ‘All fat is bad for you’; ‘eating starchy foods causes weight gain’; ‘a vegetarian diet does not contain enough protein for health’ are just a few of the beliefs that can prevent people from adopting healthy eating patterns. There is also confusion about the role of nutrient supplements in the diet. Does a healthy diet provide the correct amount of nutrients for health or is modern food so processed and refined that nutritional supplements are necessary?
By understanding the nature of food -and the effect that nutrients have on the body-a person can make informed decisions about the kind of diet that will suit her individual needs and lifestyle. She can identify the nutrients that she receives in abundance (usually fats and proteins) and the ones that she may need more of (usually vitamins, minerals and fibre). Once a person understands the basics of nutrition, she can take responsibility for her health by making small and gradual dietary changes – in time these will add up to long-term good nutrition.