A New Philosophy for Nutrition Education

It is time for a new philosophy of nutrition education that informs our children about their personal health and the future of our planet.

A New Philosophy for Nutrition Education

I have just returned from the last of a series of meetings with health educators to establish the first mandated health education standards for California's public school system.

This group was brought together as a result of a state law, enacted in 2005, mandating content standards in the curriculum area of health education. The task at hand was to create standards defining "what a student should know and be able to do" as result of a quality health education program. The group set a goal to develop a cutting-edge document that addresses the needs of schools in the twenty-first century. There was certain agreement among this group of health experts that nutrition was a critical content area to be included in health education standards. However, the group process of establishing performance indicators reinforced my belief that the content area of "nutrition" needs some careful thought and redefinition.

Current California State Education Code specifies that nutrition education content in the health curriculum should be designed to help students learn the following:

  • Nutritional knowledge, including but not limited to, the benefits of healthy eating, essential nutrients, nutritional deficiencies, principles of healthy weight management, the use and misuse of dietary supplements, and safe food preparation, handling, and storage.
  • Nutrition-related skills, including, but not limited to, planning a healthy meal, understanding and using food labels, and critically evaluating nutrition information, misinformation, and commercial food advertising.
  • How to assess their own personal eating habits, set goals for improvement, and achieve those goals by using the Food Guide Pyramid, Dietary Guidelines for Americans, Nutrition Fact Labels, and the Physical Activity Pyramid.

I believe it is time to articulate a new philosophy of nutrition education, one that reflects the urgency and critical need to inform our children about the impact of their food choices on their personal health, the health of our society, and the future of our planet. An argument in favor of a new era for nutrition education is also supported by a diverse international group of scholars and experts in food and nutrition working on a project entitled "New Nutrition Science." This group unanimously agreed that now is the time to add social and environmental dimensions to the definition and practice of nutrition science, while preserving all that is basic and vital in the biological dimension of the classic nutritional sciences.

Nutrition as a biological science was developed by Justus von Liebig at the University of Giessen, Germany in the mid-nineteenth century. In 2001, a series of international meetings began to re-explore the philosophy of nutrition. These scholarly gatherings led to the adoption in 2005 of the Giessen Declaration. It recommends a redefinition of nutrition that moves beyond nineteenth-century priorities such as industrial expansion to the priorities and principles of the twenty-first century, including conservation and preservation.

The Giessen Declaration supports the work of many in embracing a new and more holistic view of the interdependent, complex, processes involved in human dietary patterns. Such a view of nutrition takes an integrative systems approach to connecting individual understanding, motivation, and skills with ecological factors such as culture and physical environment, as compounded by additional impacts from related public policies that shape food systems and supplies.

The Giessen Declaration (1) includes the following principles:

Nutrition science needs to incorporate a comprehensive understanding of food systems. These shape and are shaped by biological, social, and environmental relationships and interactions. How food is grown, processed, distributed, sold, prepared, cooked, and consumed is crucial to its quality and nature, and to its effect on well-being and health, society, and the environment.

In the twentieth century, food production was transformed by heavy farm machinery and industrial chemistry, and now perhaps also will be by biotechnology. Food processing, including refrigeration, has enabled the supply of a wide range of foods across seasons and continents. Food manufacturing, retailing, and distribution are now increasingly concentrated in fewer hands. Traditional cuisines are being replaced by new eating patterns framed by new technologies, ways of living, and economic structures.

Nutrition science can and should engage with the development of technologies and with their impact on food systems. These profoundly affect the relationship between food and the health of people, populations, and the planet, and will continue to do so. These are additional reasons why it is time to reformulate nutrition science to include social and environmental as well as biological dimensions....

The overall principles that should guide nutrition science are ethical in nature. Its principles should also be guided by the philosophies of co-responsibility and sustainability, by the life-course and human rights approaches, and by understanding of evolution, history, and ecology.

During the development of this project, Mark Wahlqvist, the president of the International Union of Nutritional Sciences, stated that "the new nutrition science has a context of a new world for all of the sciences, which themselves are on the threshold of momentous change….Science will be required to acknowledge its social responsibility and its duty to work and act in the best interests of all people and of the planet as a whole."

As a member of the California Health Education Standards Advisory Panel, I submitted the following definition of nutrition science, as stated in the Giessen Declaration, and requested that it be incorporated into the list of definitions that will be included in the Health Education Standards document:

Nutrition science is defined as the study of food systems, foods and drinks and their nutrients, and other constituents; and of their interactions within and between all relevant biological, social, and environmental systems.

The purpose of nutrition science is to contribute to a world in which present and future generations fulfill their human potential, live in the best of health, and develop, sustain, and enjoy an increasingly diverse human, living, and physical environment.

Nutrition science should be the basis for food and nutrition policies. These should be designed to identify, create, conserve, and protect rational, sustainable, and equitable communal, national, and global food systems in order to sustain the health, well-being, and integrity of humankind, and of the living and physical worlds.

The Center for Ecoliteracy’s Rethinking School Lunch program and curricula are leading the way in actualizing the new nutrition science vision and lofty ideals. It is time to join together, with a sense of urgency, to shape the legislation, policies, and actions that will infuse this message into the mainstream educational system.


  1. The Giessen Declaration. Public Health Nutrition. September 2005; 8(6A):