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Communicating nutrition: the keys to getting your message across

Nutrition and health messages are all around us, but outside well-informed health professionals, just how much of the message is actually reaching the public in an understandable way? Master of Human Nutrition student Nina Mills gives her informed views on the keys to effective nutrition health promotion messages.

I recently sat in on a webinar hosted by Nutrition Australia titled ‘Communicating the Australian Dietary Guidelines’. As well as talking about the main changes that have occurred since the 2003 Guidelines, the other take home message was that these Guidelines are not a resource for the general public, and that it is up to health professionals to take the information and present it to the public in such a way that it is clearly understood and influences change.

But it is not just the Australian Dietary Guidelines that require effective translation of nutrition recommendations. Whether counselling individuals on their diet, running a community program or presenting research, it is important that we communicate the information at a level that is appropriate for our audience.

In one study, a group of English-speaking mothers with young children were asked to read and comment on two child oral health leaflets prepared by New South Wales Health. While most found that the leaflets were easy enough to read, they did find the content confusing, especially where terminology like ‘fluoride’ or ‘fissure sealants’ were used. The mothers also reported that the content they were expecting to be included in the leaflet (like information about infant teething) was missing.

In a similar study, a group of Chinese-speaking mothers were also presented with child oral health leaflets, in both English and a Chinese translation. The mothers expressed a preference for receiving the information in their first language; however they found the English-to-Chinese translations to be too literal and that they failed to take into account Chinese family culture. They also felt that the information presented needed to be more specific in order for them to understand why they should change or adopt a behaviour.

Both of these studies reinforce the common weaknesses that have been found when educating patients with low literacy skills. These being:

  • they contained too much detail or non-essential information,
  • medical terminology was not defined,
  • they did not require the reader to interact with the material, and
  • the content was pitched above the average US adult literacy level

In Australia, it is the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) who collects information on our literacy levels. In their 2011-12 report, PIAAC found that approximately 7.3 million (44%) of Australians aged 15 to 74 years had literacy skills at Levels 1 or 2 (Level 1 being the lowest level on a five level scale).

Pitching nutrition communication at a level that will suit adults with low literacy is a good place to start as it will ultimately suit adults at all literacy levels. But it is important to remember that adults are not the only ‘audience’ that need to be accommodated when translating nutrition recommendations.  Children, teens, the elderly, people who use English as a second language and people with disabilities can all benefit from nutrition education. Therefore a one size fits all approach to communicating nutrition is not sufficient.

Strategies for communicating effectively

Things to consider before you embark on a communication strategy:

  • What are you trying to achieve with your communication? Is it to inform? Is it putting out a call to action?
  • Who is the primary audience?
  • What is the best format for presenting the information for greatest impact (e.g. a leaflet, DVD, game, cooking classes)?
  • Would it benefit from visual aids?
  • Use plain language and cut out any jargon
  • Explain any medical terminology
  • Talk about food and not nutrients
  • Break the content up into simple messages
  • Include images in any printed education materials

While it may seem like yet another thing we have to try and fit in to our busy work day; without carefully considering our audience first, our efforts to communicate nutrition may end up being, at best, ineffective well-meant words.


About Deakin Nutrition

Nutrition and dietetics has a long history at Deakin with a world-leading research profile, and degree programs in high demand taught by engaged teaching staff



  1. Pingback: Communicating nutrition: the keys to getting your message across | Anne Smiley - August 1, 2013

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