7 Understanding Nutrition by Doing What Nutritionists Do

Diana Bedoya

BPK 110: Human Nutrition: Current Issues

Course overview and structure

Human Nutrition: Current Issues is a popular first-year course that runs in all three semesters on all three SFU campuses as well as online. The largest class runs in Burnaby with close to 300 students and three TAs. Students range from first to fourth year and are primarily non-science students who need to gain a science breadth credit. The course typically has a wait list, regardless of the semester in which it is offered.

Although students take the course to earn a science credit, they also sign up because they want to learn how to eat better. Students learn how nutrients are classified, how energy intake and expenditure affect fat mass, and how dietitians and nutrition professionals analyze diets. A “real-world” diet analysis project offers them a deeper understanding of the subject and motivates them to engage more fully since they see a personal benefit to the activities. The project is a more direct way to make students aware of their eating choices and how these choices affect their health: instead of just telling them what a good diet consists of, it prompts students to reflect on their own diets while also focusing on realistic areas for improvement. I have taught this course more than 10 times and I am still thrilled to see how students are so amazed by the results of this assignment.

As in many large first-year courses, much of the teaching and assessment is done through traditional lectures and exams. The diet analysis project, however, provides an experiential component that helps students to engage with the theoretical material in a real-world application. Students have the opportunity to apply theoretical knowledge from the readings and lectures by collecting and analyzing real data about their own nutritional habits.

Diet analysis assignment

The diet analysis assignment is worth 25% of the final mark, a large enough portion to motivate students to take it seriously. Also, to encourage students to put effort into the project, I inform them that they will be able to achieve a relatively high grade if they follow instructions properly. This typically motivates them to devote a decent amount of effort and time to the exercise.

Part 1 of diet analysis

In Part 1 of the diet analysis assignment, which is due in week four, students record their behaviours as a first step to help them become more aware of the nutrition decisions they are making. Specifically, they use a simple chart to record everything they eat or drink for a period of three consecutive days consisting of two weekdays and one weekend day. They also record the following details on the chart:

  • When they ate the food
  • How the food was prepared
  • What activity they were doing at the time they ate
  • Why they made the specific food choice

For the same time period, students record all of their activities while awake; for example, sitting, walking, sports, etc. These two exercises—recording food/drink and activity—are a learning experience in and of themselves.

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Students then enter their data into diet analysis software called iProfile. This software comes with the course textbook, or it can be purchased separately. I provide a detailed help guide for the software with instructions on how to set up and enter data. We do not want students to get bogged down in the technology component of this assignment, and the help guide also addresses some of the questions that can be time-consuming for the TAs and myself.

After the students have entered all of their data, they use the system to produce bar graphs that compare the nutrient breakdown of their diet with Canadian RDI (Reference Daily Intake) recommendations for their gender and age group.

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Students are asked to submit a variety of components for the first part of this assignment. To help them track these components, they are provided with a checklist. Students have reported that they find the checklist most useful.

We mark and give feedback on Part 1 before students start Part 2. In fact, each project part is marked before students complete the next part—primarily for practical reasons, to ensure that they complete the assignment in a timely manner, but also to ensure that students are on the right track early in the course. After receiving their feedback and grades for Part 1, students proceed to Parts 2 and 3, in which they start analyzing their diets.

Part 2 of diet analysis

Part 2 of this assignment is due in week nine, two weeks after the mid-term, to give the TAs enough time to mark and provide feedback on Part 1. In Part 2, students use the results from the diet analysis software to analyze their diets and record the results on the provided worksheet. They conduct a variety of analyses for each category of macronutrients (that is, carbohydrates, fats, protein and water).

Then, for each category, they are asked to suggest specific dietary changes that would improve the quantity/quality of their nutrient intake. This task forces them to review their diets, figure out which foods are high or low in specific nutrients, and then research other choices that could improve the nutrient balance of their specific diet. The analysis task consists of the following instructions:

  • Compare the specific amounts of each macronutrient consumed to the RDA recommendations. (iProfile does this for the majority of nutrients, but for a few, such as sugar, where recommendations have been updated, students need to calculate the recommended intake based on their energy expenditures.)
  • Decide whether the intake is adequate, inadequate or excessive, and justify the classification. For example, “My intake was adequate because it was above the RDA (Recommended Daily Allowance) and the Upper Limit.”
Sample of the answer key used by TAs use to mark the diet analysis

Sample of the answer key used by TAs use to mark the diet analysis

The TAs use a detailed answer key to guide them when they mark the worksheet. I also meet with them to discuss the variations in answers that could be given by students. Since diets as well as some nutrition recommendations can vary, we typically award marks as long as a student demonstrates an understanding of the key concepts.

Some thoughts about student engagement

By applying the dietary reference intakes to their own specific diets, students learn how dietitians and nutrition professionals analyze an individual’s diet. This “real-world” experience helps them to engage with the material in a much deeper way than they would by simply reading or listening to lectures alone.

A student’s reflection on improving diet

A student’s reflection on improving diet

Part 3 of diet analysis

Part 3 of the diet analysis is due in week 12 to allow enough time for students to receive and heed feedback from Part 2. It also leaves enough time for the TAs to grade it and return feedback before the final exam.

Part 3 is again a worksheet divided into two sections. The first section is largely the same as in Part 2, with the difference that students are required to analyze micronutrients (that is, vitamins and minerals). All the analyses required for each vitamin and mineral are the same as for the macronutrients in Part 2.

The second section of Part 3 requires the students to compare their energy intakes to their energy expenditures and reflect on their energy balance. Questions posed to the students include:

  • What percentage of your waking hours is spent sedentary?
  • Is your energy intake inadequate, adequate, or excessive? Justify your response.
    (Here they are instructed that they can justify their answer in several ways, depending on whether they are trying to maintain body weight or gain/lose fat. For instance, if a person consumes 15% fewer calories than their body expends on a particular day and is trying to lose fat, he or she could justify that energy intake is adequate.)
  • What will happen to your weight if your current energy intake and expenditure stay the same? Are there any health risks associated with this? Explain your answer in detail.
    (Many students/people don’t fully understand the basic energy balance principle and how energy intake/expenditure influences the amount of fat mass in the body. This section is meant to prompt them to reflect on how their personal energy balance affects their current weight, and how they can improve this balance.)
  • List specific changes you could make to your three-day diet AND your energy expenditure to improve the quality of your energy balance.

Conclusion

Though students are often initially motivated to take this course to gain a science breadth credit, they also want to learn how to eat better. A major outcome of the diet analysis assignment is that students get powerful feedback about their behaviours. Many people believe that they act in a more healthy way than they actually do. By engaging in a meaningful, personal application of nutritional analysis, students have the opportunity to understand, in a much deeper way, the actions they could take to improve their health. Simply as a result of writing down their behaviours, many students have commented that they realize how unhealthily they have been eating. To me, the biggest success of this assignment and this course is the many students who send emails or approach me afterwards to say how it has changed the way they eat for the better!

Instructor

DianaBedoyaDiana Bedoya, Instructor, Biomedical Physiology and Kinesiology, Simon Fraser University, dbedoya@sfu.ca

 

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