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Exploring food and nutrition: Why is food important?

Food is something we’re all familiar with – but what exactly is its purpose, and why does it matter?

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What shall we have for dinner? It’s a question that will be familiar to just about all of us. It’s the famous Omnivore’s Dilemma, after which Michael Pollan named his seminal book. For most animals on the planet, the answer is straightforward: just eat the same thing you’ve eaten every day of your life. 

For human beings, who can eat a wide variety of foodstuffs and enjoy a range of health benefits, the question is so perplexing that we spend most of our lives asking it.

What makes food so crucial

So, why should we be so concerned about this question? Can’t we just eat whatever tastes good? As you might suspect, the answer is disappointingly simple. We have to eat a balance of nutrients if we want to enjoy a healthy day-to-day life. This means proteins, carbohydrates, fibre and fats, in appropriate quantities.

These are so-called ‘macronutrients’. Then we also need to think about minerals, vitamins, and other ‘micronutrients’. And don’t forget water – it’s critical too (though it’s not something we really need to go out of our way to fit into our diets). If you’d like to understand the subject in more detail, you can watch Professor Helen Truby from Monash University in Melbourne break it down here.

How do we know what to eat?

Like most reputable organisations of this kind, Monash University recommends an evidence-based approach to determining what’s nutritious and what’s not. In practice, gathering evidence might be difficult, since high-quality data on this subject is notoriously tricky to collect. Nevertheless, a scientific approach to these matters is essential if we’re to find meaningful answers. Our Food Science and Nutrition course might be a good place to start.

Nutrition isn’t something that only individuals need to concern themselves with. Businesses and governments might also look to promote and incentivise the right kinds of food. Workers who eat properly are known to be more productive. They can concentrate for longer and enjoy vastly reduced rates of absenteeism, thanks to nutrition’s role in preventing disease. Creating a work environment where everyone can eat well makes economic, as well as ethical, sense.

The importance of food to society stems from more than just its nutritional value. This point is emphasised by Maarten van der Kamp of EIT Food. According to Kamp, we should try to think about social norms, history and economics when we’re trying to positively shape food and our relationship with it.

Why is nutrition essential?

Beyond the many socio-economic factors relating to food, there can be no denying that its primary function is nutrition. But what does that really mean?

What is nutrition?

Nutrition is one of those words that can be tricky to pin down. It’s the process through which the body takes food, breaks it down and uses it to perform various functions. Through the right nutrition, we’re able to maintain our health, and grow and repair damaged tissue. We’re able to prevent diseases from developing, optimise our fertility and, in the case of pregnant women, help a developing foetus.

Nowadays, we can get nutrients from non-food sources like supplements. But the best and most important way of obtaining nutrition is through a proper diet.

How are food and nutrition linked?

In practice, nutrition can be broken down into several discrete stages. The body will digest food (that is, break it down to its useful components), transport those components to the parts of the body that need them, and then excrete the excess. If any of these stages fails, then nutrition hasn’t occurred.

What’s ‘nutritious’, therefore, depends on the organism doing the digesting, and the activities that the organism is performing. Suppose you’re about to go on a lengthy hike. In those circumstances, you’ll have different nutritional requirements to a sedentary person. Similarly, if you’re 80 years old, you’ll need to eat differently from a person who is eight years old.

The importance of eating healthy food

If we don’t eat the right foods, then our bodies might have difficulty performing essential functions well. In many cases, the body can create its own nutrients to make up for a shortfall in diet. For example, if you aren’t taking on board enough carbohydrates, your body will turn to fats instead as a fuel source.

There are, however, a few nutrients that the body isn’t able to synthesise itself. These include essential fatty acids like linoleic acid and alpha-linolenic acid, which help to regulate blood cholesterol and regulate the circulatory system. 

The benefits of healthy eating

A good diet will extend and improve your life. It will allow your body to properly care for your organs — from your heart to your brain to your skin. It will make you feel appreciably better, and it’ll help you to look better, too. If all of the benefits of a good diet were available in the form of a pill, then it would be the most valuable product ever developed.

Building good dietary habits should ideally start from childhood. A lack of the right nutrients can result in growth disorders, whose consequences can ripple into adulthood. Childhood nutrition can also have indirect consequences for your long-term health. Once you know which foods are important and for what reason, you’ll be able to carry that knowledge into adulthood and perhaps pass it on to your own potential children.

Of course, it’s easy to lapse into bad habits, with a superabundance of convenience foods available. But the benefits you’ll feel from healthy eating will make it worthwhile, even if it takes a little more preparation.

Food and mental health

Among the lesser-appreciated benefits of a balanced, nutritious diet are those that concern mental health. You might have had the experience of feeling stressed out, deflated or anxious when you haven’t had a substantial meal. Learn more about the relationship between Food and Mood in our course by Deakin University. 

However, sometimes, a nutritional issue can have more subtle effects. For example, if you’re eating tuna regularly, you might suffer problems associated with overconsumption of mercury – including erethism, or ‘mad hatter disease’, which can result in irritability and low self-confidence.

The brain and the gut are closely interrelated, with the health and condition of the latter almost always affecting the former. If you’d like a closer understanding of this relationship and its effect on our mental health, you might take a look at our Food for Thought: The Relationship Between Food, Gut and Brain course, funded in part by the European Union.

What is food safety and why does it matter?

Just as the right foods are essential, the wrong foods can be disastrous. It’s critical that we don’t unwittingly ingest something that’s going to poison us. Most of the time, we can reduce the risk substantially by sticking to the right food safety practices and procedures.

Effective rules can be expressed in ways that everyone can understand most of the time. “Never wash raw poultry” is a good example. We can follow that instruction, even if we don’t understand why. It’s useful and often interesting to know the microbiology at work. But often, it’s the messaging and the consistent enforcement of basic standards that make a more significant difference to whether or not people become ill.

The way we store food can be just as important as the way we cook it. Clear labelling of everything in a freezer or fridge can help restaurant staff to know which items should be used first. This will not only help to minimise waste but also minimises the threat of food-borne pathogens. You can improve your understanding of these matters in our Food Safety and Nutrition: A Global Approach to Public Health course. 

How we produce our food

While the types of food we eat are of huge importance, the methods via which we produce those foods have considerable environmental, social and economic impacts. In an ideal world, we’d have enough of the right foods for everyone, and produce them in such a way that the natural world is completely unscathed. Realising this ambition is the focus of our course on Nutrition for Health and Sustainability.

The history of agriculture

Agriculture is the process through which food is cultivated. You might also class the process of shipping the food part of the agricultural industry, too. 

The vast majority of our food has been shaped by human influence. Unless you’re foraging in the forest for wild strawberries and mushrooms, and you obtain your meat by hunting wild animals, you’re benefiting from agriculture.

The development of widespread agriculture had profound effects on human civilization. Freed from the burdens of hunting and gathering, our ancestors found that they could instead devote their time tending to specialised plants. These plants could be shaped to the forms that those early farmers desired and used to feed everyone in a fixed location through selective breeding.

This meant no more wandering around in search of food. It also freed up time for specialised workers to devote to other practices, like developing superior tools, building superior shelter and developing art, writing and music. It also made it possible for large towns and cities to come about. 

In other words, agriculture is a prerequisite of just about every other field of study. Discover even more about the impact of food production in our Agriculture, Economics and Nature course.

Modern-day agricultural practices

Today, food production is based on similar principles — except that it’s been changed beyond recognition by industrialisation. Rather than tending to a few animals and a small allotment, modern farming tends to feature massive, industrialised swathes of cropland and warehouse-sized sheds that are full to bursting with livestock.

Much of the processed food we eat is derived from a very limited number of staple crops, with corn arguably being the most successful. After its domestication in Mexico, modern corn spread up to the United States, where it found its way into just about everything from ketchup, sweetener, livestock, biofuel and glue. 

Our course on Improving Food Production with Agricultural Technology and Plant Biotechnology explores modern production practices in more depth.

Sustainable food production 

The consumption of meat and animal-derived products poses ethical issues that are only recently being confronted seriously. Is it wrong to kill an animal so that you can enjoy a tasty burger? Why is it okay to slaughter a chicken every few days, and morally reprehensible for a footballer to kick his cat across the kitchen? These are questions that, not so long ago, were being asked only by a select minority.

There are also environmental problems associated with meat production. Livestock produce greenhouse gas directly. Cattle, for instance, emit huge quantities of methane. There’s also the opportunity cost of livestock: land used to raise cattle cannot be used for other purposes.

The plants fed to livestock are often grown on land that was previously forested. Huge swathes of the Amazon rainforest are being cleared each year to make way for soy, which is fed to cattle. It’s actually more land-efficient for the food grown on a patch of land to be fed directly to human beings, rather than for it to be fed to animals who are in turn fed to human beings. You can read more about our previous article about the environmental impact of eating meat.

Adopting a vegan lifestyle

So what’s the alternative? The simple one is to abandon animal products. To persuade people to do this en masse, a palatable alternative must be developed. At present, meat-substitute products are made by combining together a raft of ingredients to create something that looks and tastes similar to meat.

These products are enjoying a protracted boom, thanks to spiralling demand from vegans and flexitarians. The true game-changer will come when animal proteins can be created in a laboratory more widely. Read more about plant-based meat alternatives and lab-grown meat in our blog post on the subject.

If you’d like to learn about how we might build the sustainable food systems of the future, why not look into our course from the University of Exeter? If you’re concerned about your personal eating habits, on the other hand, you might check out our sustainable diet guide, which we’ve put together with the help of EIT Food.

Final thoughts 

As you might have gathered, the question of what we should be eating is a pretty complicated one. What’s more, you might find the debate coloured by factors that don’t even pretend to be scientific. However unassailable the arguments against eating a particular kind of food might be, persuading people to break their culturally (or even religiously) ingrained habits is difficult.

Of course, nutrition and food is something that’s enormously consequential. Our diets really do matter, not only to us but to the world around us. Devoting time and study to the question of what we should be eating is therefore well worthwhile!

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