Food and the Future Environment

Module 3: Diet and Nutrition


Module 3: Diet and Nutrition


Module 3 covers the nutritional needs to which human consumption patterns ideally respond within food systems and some of the nutritional challenges (related to both deficit and excess of diet components) that are currently faced by food systems. Module 3.1 covers some current basic knowledge on human nutritional requirements and features of diets that are health-promoting. Module 3.2 covers current issues within food systems of malnutrition, as well as the challenges and efforts aimed at making diets healthier, both in the United States and around the world. We encourage you as learners to think about how these nutritional principles, and efforts to promote food access and healthier diets, can fit with the analysis of the focal region you will be completing for your capstone region.

Diet, health, food systems, and sustainability

This module addresses issues surrounding diet and nutrition in food systems. This is an aspect that touches all of us very personally – we’ve likely read and absorbed some of the messages about healthy eating that are promoted by government agencies, advocacy groups, and other voices in our society, as well as a substantial dose of messages of all sorts promoting food choices - healthy and otherwise - from food companies within the modern food system. For many of us nutrition goals and principles motivate important decisions that we make on a daily, ongoing basis: can we include a vegetable with our dinner? What makes for a healthy breakfast? How to make snacks healthy rather than an excuse for junk food? Food choices are also wrapped around culture and religious observance for many of us, illustrating how our human systems of culture and ethnic origin feed into food systems, along with our beliefs and principles regarding the supernatural. This echoes the way that food systems and domestication of food-producing plants and livestock were wrapped together with culture and religion in earlier historical and prehistoric periods (see Module 2). Food choices are also wrapped up in social status, as well as linked to environmental sustainability. For example, once we appreciate the dramatically increased use of water to produce beef and the fact that water shortages may be one of the key stresses brought on by climate change (see module 1 food system examples, following modules on water and resilience), we may rethink meat consumption in our society and take a different view of the aspiration of growing wealthy social sectors around the world to consume more beef.

The impact of food choices on the environment is not the only reason to consider diet and nutrition. As a society, our food choices and our ability to access sufficient and healthy food have a dramatic influence on our own health and well-being. This is seen most clearly as two major issues facing societies around the world. The first is a crisis of chronic malnutrition and nutrient deficiencies: the lack of crucial elements of minerals, vitamins, proteins, and high-quality fats around the world have dramatic negative effects, while appropriate diets can prolong life and good health even among people who are materially poor in other ways. The second major issue facing modern and modernizing societies are nutrition-linked disorders such as heart disease and type II diabetes, linked to overconsumption of calories in relation to sedentary lifestyles that translates into increased rates of obesity within both wealthy and poor countries.

Diet and nutrition patterns thus show the potential to either support or harm both the health of the environment and the health of humans within the human systems that live in constant interaction with the environment as main components of food systems.