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Nutrition, health and the complexity of the food system

Nutrition, health and the complexity of the food system

Posted by —
eatnewzealand

Published —
30.10.2020

As a dietitian, I am the first to acknowledge that the decisions we make around food and what we eat every day are some of the most important decisions we can make in our life for long-term health. Good nutrition is a key foundation of good health and it all starts with the actual food that we put into our mouth every day.

It is important we acknowledge that these decisions around what to eat are also some of the hardest. There is nothing else we do in our life that we have to think about and decide on at least 5-6 times a day, 7-days a week, 365 days a year, every year for the rest of our life.

Our decisions around food are influenced by a multitude of things. Where we live, where we grew up, the type and level of education we have, what food we can afford, what food we can access, our family environment, our home environment, our practical food and cooking skills, our access to cooking and food prep equipment and also our health knowledge.

In addition to all of these influences, there is the mass of misinformation and confusion through mainstream media, influencers and the diet industry, all shouting different messages. I see so much confusion around food through my work. A lot of it comes down to people having lost a connection to food, where it comes from and the importance of it for the health of our body and mind.

We also have to remember that food is not just about good nutrition. It gives us so much more in life than that. It brings people together, it provides comfort, it underpins cultural traditions, it is central to celebrating both life and death.

A fractured food system

There is no denying our food system needs to change. Not just because of the cracks exposed by COVID-19, but for all the reasons we knew about prior to the pandemic.

We have a stark contrast in New Zealand, from some of the most under-fed and malnourished to the most overfed individuals. We waste 157,389 tonnes of food a year, which is equivalent to 271 jumbo jets. That food has to go somewhere. Wasted, instead of being eaten by many who need it. In addition, for a country where produce is relied on for our economy, it is hard to comprehend that this wasted food is worth around $1.17 billion each year.

We know what we are wasting. But one could argue we don’t truly know what we, as a nation are eating. Could the problem be far worse than it seems?

Despite there being some commercial information on what we are buying, the last National Nutrition Survey for adults was completed in 2007/2008. 12 years ago. The landscape of food in New Zealand has changed significantly in this time. The diversity of cuisines you can see in both restaurants and cafes has changed.

The way we live our lives has also changed over the past 12 years. Busier yet more sedentary. There has been a huge growth of packaged food options, convenience foods and other options to fit into a busy life. There are more options than ever for meal delivery, meaning to feed yourself and your family, you don’t even have to leave the couch.

We all wear multiple hats

Whether we are a health professional, a dairy farmer, a vegetable grower, or work at the supermarket, we all play multiple roles within the food system. Our profession, our work, is not where our impact stops.

Healthcare doesn’t sit within the food system as one entity. We are all individuals that wear multiple hats. Many of these hats influence both our physical and mental health.

We are all an individual that has health, or health needs. We are all an individual that is a consumer, that creates or reduces food waste. We are all an individual that is part of a family/whānau or a community. We are all an individual that uses money to live, contribute to society and to support those we love.


The bigger picture is complex.

Describing a blanket way of eating for all within New Zealand is not going to solve both human and environmental health. We need to be aware of this sort of polarising talk that already exists. The argument that we should all follow one way of eating over-simplifies the issues within the food system. It removes any acknowledgement of the diversity of individuals and cultures that live in New Zealand. It removes any acknowledgement of the barriers for many when it comes to food.

As Angela Clifford, CE of Eat New Zealand says, “It’s only when we silo and departmentalise our role as farmers, scientists, health providers, storytellers and eaters that we miss the bigger picture”

There is no denying that the bigger picture of a changing food system is extremely complex.

It requires all parts of the system to step up and learn about areas they are not familiar with. It requires dietitians, doctors and nurses talking with farmers, growers and chefs. It requires operations managers of hospitals talking with those in the supply chain of the food industry.

We all come from different backgrounds but we need to come together to be telling the same narrative. A narrative that empowers all of Aotearoa to look to their backyard, their balcony, or their community garden for the foundation of their daily meals. A narrative that is so consistent and strong that it overpowers the misinformation from the diet industry, wellness influencers and mass marketing.

We need just as many health professionals from a range of professions, sitting at the table alongside the farmers, growers and chefs to support a changing food system for both people and planet.

Words by Kaitaki Collective Member Nickie Hursthouse - Registered Dietitian & National Nutrition Advisor at the Heart Foundation NZ.


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